A majority of Bookstore student employees joined other student workers striking with the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) — including the Community Advisors (CAs), Teaching Assistants (TAs), Library and Information Services (LBIS) workers, farmers and Writing Center Consultants — on Wednesday in an indefinite strike over unfair labor practices.
Their decision to join the strike follows last Thursday’s picket outside of the Wright Center during the Board of Trustees’ meeting, and also comes one week after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced a hearing date to consider important legal questions raised by K-SWOC’s October 2021 election petition.
In addition to student workers in other shops, Bookstore student employees are seeking better workplace conditions, such as higher pay and more flexible hours. “We are being paid starvation wages, and we deserve better,” said Brookie Wilkens ’23. Wilkens also noted that while permanent, non-student Bookstore employees are given a 30% employee discount, student workers are not.
According to Wilkens, the strike has continued to cause confusion on campus. Students who sign the strike authorization form have their names sent to the senior staff and the Board of Trustees, who are supposed to notify workplace managers. “The administration hasn’t been great about telling managers, for this strike, that students are going on strike,” Wilkens said, noting that supervisors have been asking their employees if they are on strike.
In light of the strike and the NLRB’s announcement, K-SWOC raised questions regarding the involvement of the administration and the Board of Trustees in the ongoing tensions. “We’ve been trying to have these conversations with them for a long time. And they have refused to sit down and talk with us,” Wilkens said. Although the Trustees visited campus last week, they did not have a conversation with K-SWOC.
Aside from this, faculty members have addressed potential issues of misunderstanding in regards to relations between the College and K-SWOC, as well as the implications of the NLRB’s notice. Other faculty members are hesitant to discuss K-SWOC publicly because they are unsure of legal concerns. According to Section 8(a) of the National Labor Relations Act, which established the NLRB and addressed relations between unions and employers in the private sector, it would be an unfair labor practice if the College were to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.”
Sally Smith ’23, a Special Collections and Archives assistant, explained that members of K-SWOC will attend a status conference with the NLRB and the Kenyon administration on May 5 in order to determine the details of a future hearing. “We will be preparing witnesses and looking at what kind of testimony is required of student workers,” she said. “That being said, I think the option for a stipulated election agreement remains the best option for both student workers and the administration, really just the broader community, so that we can avoid having any kind of unnecessarily contentious legal process.”
According to the NLRB, the purpose of a pre-election hearing is to determine the legitimacy of a group of organized workers as a bargaining unit, the specific cohort of workers represented by a single labor union. If K-SWOC is deemed an appropriate unit for the purpose of collective bargaining, the NLRB will then determine the details of an election and the bargaining unit. “As stated from the beginning, we will do everything that we can to advocate for the largest bargaining unit possible, so that we have the most inclusive union and most representative union of Kenyon student workers as possible,” Smith said.
In an all-student email, Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies and Religious Studies Joseph Adler called into question the likelihood of K-SWOC being granted representation in the NLRB hearing, particularly the strength of K-SWOC’s arguments that the 2016 Columbia University decision demonstrated their right to union recognition. The decision defined a bargaining unit as all graduate and undergraduate student employees who provide instructional services, including teaching assistants, graduate research assistants and departmental research assistants. According to Adler, based on this definition, the only Kenyon student workers who would likely be eligible to be a part of the bargaining unit would be language TAs.
Despite this skepticism, however, Smith remains confident that the results of the hearing will work in K-SWOC’s favor. “It’s the right of undergraduate student workers as statutory employees to have that vote. I also think it’s notable that in the order released by the National Labor Relations Board Regional Director it included that Kenyon, in filing its motions, denied the rights of its student workers to a free and fair election,” she said.