When workers face adversity, they have a choice. They can surrender to their bosses the right to define who they are as workers and what they can accomplish on the job. Alternatively, they can band together and insist on having a voice in those decisions that affect them. At Kenyon, two very different groups of workers, members of Kenyon’s Maintenance Department and student workers organizing through K-SWOC, took that second path. It is far easier to surrender, far harder to fight for your rights.
I am heartened to see student workers organizing through Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) to have their voices heard in Kenyon’s halls of power. What excites me about these efforts is K-SWOC’s commitment to working together for the common good. Faced with problems in their workplaces — including, but not limited to, job stability and access to work-study jobs — students initially sought remedies by talking directly with their supervisors. When that did not yield solutions, they came together to form a union in order to help each other achieve fair treatment.
This takes courage. It also takes creativity. There are no precedents in the United States for union organizing on this scale at an undergraduate institution. Many simply believe it cannot be done. Yet these students are doing it, and doing it well.
Employees needing to organize to be treated fairly is not new to Kenyon. During the 2012-2013 academic year, Kenyon’s senior administration and Board of Trustees pushed hard to outsource our colleagues in the Maintenance Department to Sodexo, a service provider company dogged by numerous charges of human rights abuses and anti-union activity. The College’s decision to outsource came without warning or consultation of the Maintenance staff, being sprung on them with three weeks left in their contract. When Maintenance workers challenged the decision, then-College President S. Georgia Nugent would often reply, “Just let managers manage.” In other words, her administration knew what was best for Kenyon’s students, staff and faculty, and no one else was in a position to question them.
What stopped the administration’s rush to outsource the maintenance department to Sodexo was unified action in the form of the Kenyon Community Alliance. This association of students, alumni, Maintenance, faculty and other staff banded together to force a conversation about the mistreatment of our Maintenance colleagues. In the process we in the Alliance got to know each other as people who, although all holding different jobs at the College, were deeply committed to the institution and vital to its success. We also learned what we can accomplish together.
As an alternative to outsourcing, UE Local 712 President Bob Smith and his colleagues in the Maintenance department proposed a plan, the Middle Path Partnership (MPP), in which workers and managers would make decisions affecting their department together, as equals. It was a new way of thinking and acting, operating on the premise that workers and managers want what is best for the College, and that the best choices are made when all parties have a say in defining goals and deciding how to achieve them.
The parallels between the Sodexo incident and the current organizing efforts of Kenyon’s student workers are instructive. In both cases, the people most affected by administrative decisions had no say in those choices. Rather than accept the new reality, Maintenance and student workers took action to protect themselves and their colleagues to make sure that they were a part of the conversations that impacted them. The outcomes in both cases are also truly innovative.
Forming a union of student workers is another creative way of ensuring that students are included in the meetings and debates about their jobs that matter so much to them. The MPP is unique among colleges and universities, as would be a student workers’ union. Both are ways of thinking and acting that embody the highest ideals of collaborative learning and collective action.
These fights for workers’ rights at Kenyon are motivated by an ethos of mutual respect and a commitment to ensuring that those who learn and work here have the right to be heard and taken seriously. The MPP provides mechanisms for guaranteeing cooperation that endure no matter who is president. Student workers need those same assurances enshrined in similar institutional arrangements that cannot be unilaterally rescinded. It is only in this way that when future managers manage, they do so with input from and the consent of the managed.