For more than a year, a group of Kenyon student workers desiring recognition as a labor union have been in constant conflict with the administration and Board of Trustees, which have refused to grant such recognition. The negotiations and tensions between the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) and the College have received much attention both within and beyond Kenyon. Until recently, I observed the situation from an outsider’s perspective. As neither a student worker nor an administrator nor a Trustee, the K-SWOC controversy was to me more of a spectacle than anything else. But then, I became a student worker. I was forced to take a stance and to make a decision. And I opted not to sign a union card.
Before elaborating on my choice not to join K-SWOC, I would first like to say that I respect the decision of my friends and peers to support the organization. Furthermore, I am sympathetic to the plight of low-income students on this campus and student workers that feel they have been mistreated in their on-campus jobs. Finally, I am not stating that I will never join K-SWOC. Rather, it is not something that I am comfortable doing right now.
From my perspective, labor unions are not inherently good. This position is somewhat at odds with the marketing of K-SWOC, such as posters around campus that read: “Gambier is a union town.” I am more interested in asking if Gambier should be a union town. I am from California, a state in which labor unions have outsized political power, which does not always lead to positive outcomes for the general public. For example, the California Teachers Association lobbies aggressively for tenure laws that make it exceedingly difficult and costly to fire incompetent teachers in the public school system. In order for me to sign a union card, I would have to be convinced that said union has safeguards to prevent misuse, corruption and dysfunction. K-SWOC might be able to persuade reluctant individuals to join if they were to more directly address these concerns.
Another reason I have not joined K-SWOC is because I am not entirely sure what I am signing up for. Almost every time I walk into the dining hall, I am asked to sign a union card. Yet, some very basic questions about what union membership would entail remain unanswered. If K-SWOC were granted recognition, would membership be compulsory for student workers? Would union dues be expected of members? We also must consider how a labor union might impact future on-campus employment opportunities, including whether a union will reduce the number of jobs available to students, or whether student workers will be asked to forgo wages to partake in strikes.
K-SWOC union cards disseminated across campus state: “I hereby request and accept membership in the above named union…” Yet, in an explanation of the union cards on the K-SWOC Instagram account, an infographic reads: “Signing a card allows you and your coworkers to decide democratically whether or not [K-SWOC] is recognized.” I am unsure that these two contradictory explanations can be reconciled. It appears that by signing a card, you are in effect expressing your support for K-SWOC, not just agreeing to vote on union recognition.
If only those who sign a card are able to vote on recognition, I imagine the recognition of K-SWOC would be passed overwhelmingly. Only as of Sept. 27 have a majority of student workers signed a union card. Even if the College refused to allow a formal election, why not informally poll all student workers on whether K-SWOC should be recognized, to determine if an actual, rather than an apparent, consensus for recognition exists?
The fervor surrounding K-SWOC is real, and I admire my classmates’ dedication to making Kenyon a better place. But at present, I am unconvinced that a labor union is an effective means to this end. K-SWOC could be more transparent and nuanced in their appeals to students, as opposed to muddled and ideological. This may add to, rather than reduce, their support amongst students and student workers.
I take signing my name to an organization very seriously. It would benefit students to think critically about this decision and to force K-SWOC to answer the tough questions.
Milo Levine ’23 is a columnist at the Collegian. He is an economics major from Mill Valley, Calif. He can be reached at email@example.com.