For weeks, campus has been covered with flyers from the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), highlighting their demands and upcoming events. In September, President Sean Decatur announced that the administration will conduct a review of student employment policies via the Campus Senate. Although the review is largely the result of student organizing, Decatur failed to mention, and officially recognize, K-SWOC in his announcement of the review. Acknowledging and embracing student organizing would be a more responsible choice; President Decatur and Board of Trustees should formally recognize K-SWOC.
K-SWOC emerged during a period of severe uncertainty for student workers. COVID-19 not only destabilized campus staples like employment and work-study, but also brought to light pre-existing flaws in the student employment system. K-SWOC is working to address these urgent issues, which include but are not limited to work-study accessibility, fair wages, job security for international students and improved mental health support for student workers.
The pandemic has exacerbated these student employment problems, but, even without it, a union is necessary to defend student workers’ interests and safety. In terms of union organizing, K-SWOC is one, small part of a very big story. Unions have long been the deciding factor in workplace safety, and often the only path to reform. They are necessary institutions, because workers in any industry need a support system and organized negotiating body to represent them in times of crisis. COVID-19 is a crisis of unprecedented proportions, and union organizing critical to recovery.
Unions generate negotiating power, and act as a first line of defense for their members. In this case, K-SWOC represents students in conversations with their employers, including Kenyon administrators, faculty and staff. But like all forms of community organizing, unions have another, equally important purpose: to act as a support system for their members.
The College must formally recognize K-SWOC for it to become a local chapter of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Connecting to a larger network would legitimize and empower student workers. Kenyon’s chapter itself has the potential to provide social connections for student workers which make difficult times easier to handle, and COVID-19 pressures less exacting. Refusing to recognize K-SWOC undermines the College’s ongoing efforts to provide a community in an incredibly stressful and uncertain time.
College students are entitled to the same dignity as our professional counterparts, and a union can deliver that. K-SWOC is potentially the nation’s first comprehensive undergraduate union, making it a unique organization. This is another reason for the administration to take a more accepting stance. The union is not just providing a service for Kenyon students, but is also a historic accomplishment on our behalf. It’s in the best interest of the College to embrace what its students have built, instead of forcing it into permanent limbo by denying student organizers the recognition they’ve worked hard for.
Grace Goldstein ’24 is a columnist for the Collegian. She is an undeclared major from New York, N.Y. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.