I will address two concerns about K-SWOC-UE in this letter: the importance of the upcoming union election and the significance of the union for student workers. Though I appreciate the chance to express my views, I do not speak for Kenyon’s student workers. They are more than capable of doing so themselves. Please talk with them to hear their perspectives.
Student workers at Kenyon have the right to vote on whether they need or want a union. Some people I have talked with claim that student worker jobs are not hard or dangerous enough to warrant the protections unions provide. This is a decision only Kenyon’s student workers can make. There are no universal criteria by which to measure who has the right or need to organize. The election K-SWOC-UE is organizing gives those who are experts in what they do as workers the chance to decide, without interference, whether a union is right for them. This is a far more democratic way of answering the question than having that choice dictated to them by others.
What is the value of a student workers’ union? The most obvious answer is that employers, well-meaning as they might be, are poorly positioned to know what’s best for their employees. Even if they do, they are not necessarily motivated to act on that knowledge. That is only part of the answer. The other part concerns the roles unions can play in strengthening institutions. Administrators and trustees often take on the mantle of “the College” when speaking for all participants in the institution, frequently without meaningful input from those participants. This stance equates the decisions and actions of a few with the interests and aspirations of many while leaving the definition of what constitutes the common good up to the unelected, who claim to speak for the entire Kenyon community.
The quality of the choices made this way is less important than the fact that when administrators speak for the institution as a whole, the voices of those who comprise that totality are lost. Unions are one means by which those who were not appointed to positions of power can have their say, and a say which cannot be ignored, in determining the common good that defines an institution’s culture and purpose. A student workers’ union, rather than being an outside force, helps ensure its members’ full participation in the college they love.
How does this work? Done well, unions offer their members the chance to participate as equals in the negotiations that determine how the institution of which they are a part operates, what goals it seeks, what its priorities are and how it achieves them. That experience is especially invaluable for student workers. It is invaluable because it heightens their sense of self as they play significant roles in conversations that matter. It is invaluable because they learn the responsibilities that come with sharing power and the things that can be achieved by working with management as equals to solve problems. It is invaluable because such interactions prepare them to act with others to address difficulties they will face in future workplaces and public venues. Unions may not be the answer to every situation our students will face after graduation, but learning how to stand with and for peers in pursuing shared objectives is a skill that pays dividends no matter what they do. The future of the U.S. and the world depends on undergraduates here and elsewhere honing just these capacities.
Does this sound too idealistic? What is idealism but the capacity to imagine that which does not currently exist and then act together to bring that vision to pass? Without idealism in this sense, nothing changes. Without solidarity, nothing gets done. A quick look around the world indicates that preserving the status quo in Gambier or anywhere is not a viable plan.
Are our students up to that challenge? They better be. The moment they step off the stage at graduation, we and others expect them to fulfill their promise as adults on whom the world’s future depends. They will be better able to meet those demands before they leave the Hill if they develop their skills as leaders now, if they come to appreciate the power of cooperative action here and if they learn at Kenyon to insist on having meaningful roles in shaping policies that affect them and their communities. For all these reasons, I hope to see a student workers’ union at Kenyon before the end of the academic year. This form of power sharing is, in my mind, very Kenyon.
Professor of Anthropology