Section: Opinion

The Community Advisors were able to demand better working conditions through collective action. With an election, other shops can do the same.

During the summer of 2020, I came together with a group of fellow Community Advisors (CAs) to demand dignity and respect in our workplace. During the most uncertain moment of the pandemic, our supervisors ordered the entire CA team to return to Kenyon, expecting us to work under unsafe COVID-19 conditions without any additional protections or hazard pay. Having no other choice but to protect our health, we held numerous meetings with our supervisors, where we attempted to remind them of our value as people — a tactic that those of us from vulnerable and marginalized communities were unfortunately already familiar with. Collectively, CAs appealed for humane treatment, in the form of protections against COVID-19, a wage raise and a room at no cost. 

However, our supervisors disregarded our safety and our dignity, arguing that CAs did not deserve improvements in the workplace. The College dismissed our plea for fairer wages on the grounds that our work was not valuable enough. It was humiliating for us, but we did not back down. We kept pushing: for another meeting, for another opportunity to advocate for our dignity, until, finally, our managers conceded to a portion of our most important demands. Our victory took the form of a raise to Tier 3 pay and a $1,000 room rate reduction.

While these changes may seem abstract and insignificant, the life-changing impact they had on my life cannot be overstated. The raise meant that I could finally afford a ticket to visit my family and my friends back home in Costa Rica after graduation, something I would have never been able to dream of under Tier 2 pay. Saving for this ticket would take time, but a Tier 3 wage made it a possibility. 

More immediate aspects of my experience at Kenyon were transformed as well: After spending most of my Kenyon career wearing passed-down, damaged clothes, including shoes with open holes during the winter, I was able to finally buy my own clothing. For the first time in my life here, I was able to walk around Middle Path without having to worry about frostbite from the extremely low temperatures of an Ohio winter. Not only that, but at last I was able to present myself in a way that felt dignified and true to my identity, which drastically improved my emotional and mental health. I felt like a new person and now am finally able to feel like myself, and it was all because I took collective action with my coworkers.

But this was only the beginning. On Oct. 14 of this year, 137 student workers voted to file for an official NLRB election to be held as soon as possible. This election will be open to every student worker on campus, regardless of affiliation with K-SWOC, in order to decide whether or not they want a union to represent them in their jobs at Kenyon. If K-SWOC wins, every single student worker at Kenyon will have the opportunity to sit at the bargaining table as equals with the College’s administration, and demand justice in their workplace. A living wage, back pay for chronic wage theft, protection from abusive management and any other change student workers dream of is anything but abstract. Improvements in the workplace take many different forms each day, such as being able to afford your own medication or that of a family member, helping your family pay for food and rent and paying your student loans. It also means being able to purchase art supplies to continue working on your passion projects, visit your loved ones after years of being on the other side of the world and staying warm through the winter.

Kenyon’s administration is doing everything in its power to prevent you and your coworkers from living a dignified life. Immediately after K-SWOC filed to hold a community election, Kenyon turned to Jones Day, a highly expensive and notoriously anti-union law firm. In an attempt to undermine Kenyon’s democracy, Jones Day has filed a motion to prevent or delay student workers from voting in a democratic community election. Due to the absurdity of Kenyon’s legal arguments, the administration will succeed only in delaying the election, not preventing its eventual fruition. Everything the College is doing to prevent this election is rooted in fear. They are deathly afraid that you and I will continue to stand with each other in the same way that my fellow CAs and I did back in the summer of 2020. 

The administration’s hope is that you will believe that a union is too abstract to ever be worth fighting for. But a union is only abstract until it changes your life. Before my raise last summer, I too found it hard to believe that a union could improve my life. But now that I have experienced firsthand the joy and dignity of collective labor action, no law firm will sap me of my will to see myself and my coworkers live dignified lives at this College. If you are privileged enough to not need these changes, think of how it could change the lives of people at Kenyon that you love. Above everything else, voting yes in this upcoming election is voting for justice. Voting yes is not just about changing one’s life — it’s about changing the entire living experience of every single student worker at Kenyon. Of low-income students. Of students that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Of international students.

As long as we continue to organize with each other to challenge this anti-democratic administration, we will win our right to a union election. When that hard-won election day comes, I urge you to believe in your right to a dignified life. Vote for union recognition, and win for yourself the life you deserve.

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