Dartmouth College, like Kenyon, is a small liberal arts institution. Like Kenyon, the Dartmouth community witnessed intense debate over austerity policies after the onset of the pandemic that affected faculty, staff and student workers. Like Kenyon, Dartmouth has remained financially stable and its endowment has increased during the pandemic. Like Kenyon, it is now home to a student worker unionization drive fighting against top-down decision making, fighting for an equal say over working conditions and a brighter future on their campuses.
Unlike Kenyon, the Dartmouth administration chose to sit down with its student workers to negotiate a stipulated election agreement with the intent to proceed to a free and fair National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election. Unlike Kenyon — which, through its grossly expensive, union-busting lawyers from the right-wing law firm Jones Day, continues to argue against the possibility of student worker unionization — Dartmouth stated that it “has enjoyed a positive relationship with unionized employees on campus for decades,” and that “if [Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth] achieves majority status as the representative of the dining service student workers after a full and fair election, we would look forward to working and partnering with [SWCD] in a similar fashion.”
We, the Dartmouth College student dining workers unionizing under the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth (SWCD), went public with our unionization drive on January 5, 2022. We had been organizing for over two months, had finally achieved supermajority support and decided it was time to take our campaign to the next stage. We asked for two things: voluntary union recognition through a card-check agreement, and sick pay for hours missed due to COVID. Within two weeks, we won a temporary 50% raise, jumping our base pay to $21 per hour. And within three weeks, we won sick pay, not just for dining workers, but for every single student worker on campus. By January 28, we had received a reply to our recognition request: Dartmouth would not agree to a card-check agreement, but it would sit down with us to negotiate election stipulations and “streamline the process” to avoid “unnecessary delay.”
Dartmouth and its surrounding region, Upper Valley, had been suffering a labor shortage ever since the beginning of the pandemic. It was not until the fall of this academic year that the pandemic began to take its toll on student workers. Lines at student-worker-operated cafes started growing longer and longer as the main dining hall operations slowed down. Shifts intensified. COVID-19 started running rampant, and student patrons did not make our work any easier. Despite harsher working conditions, labor scarcity and a rapidly spreading virus, student workers continued to be paid the same base wage rate as they were four years ago. The chain was to break where it was the weakest, and so it did.
In light of these events, we turned to fellow student workers around the country for guidance as we sought to improve our immediate working conditions. Some of us had been following K-SWOC’s campaign very closely. We had attended several events where K-SWOC organizers patiently laid out the steps to student worker unionization. After failed meetings with our supervisors — in which we petitioned for better wages and working conditions — we knew what we had to do. We started organizing for a union.
The rest is (recent) history. Within two months, we organized 150 student workers across seven work locations. By mid-January, after we went public, we had reached an 80% card signature rate. We followed many of K-SWOC’s strategies and tactics, and were helped greatly by them along the way. We built community support amongst faculty, alumni and students, as well as a nationwide network of solidarity. We focused our message: The union was here to stay. The Dartmouth administration could either decide to fight its student workers and drag its campus into a divisive and fruitless battle — like Kenyon is doing — or it could sit down and find a way out that worked for everyone.
Dartmouth chose to do the latter. And in doing so, in one fell swoop, it disproved the entirety of Kenyon’s justifications for union-busting. By saying that it would recognize us if we won a majority in an NLRB election, it accepted the legitimacy of student labor as actual labor. Furthermore, it made a joke out of the (quasi-)legal performance put on by the Jones Day lawyers.
This is not to say that SWCD is out of the woods yet. On the contrary: We are keeping up our pressure in a multitude of ways to ensure that Dartmouth acknowledges the permanence of our union. After we win our election, we will still have a contract to fight for. What we might say, however, is that Dartmouth is no fool. It knows that at the end of this process, the union will prevail. It knows that no amount of legal paroxysm will prevent this. It knows that student worker unions are a legitimate force in the labor movement.
We stand in unwavering solidarity with our fellow student workers at K-SWOC. Our victories are their victories, and their victories are our victories. They, too, will win their union, one way or the other. It is our wish that everyone in the Kenyon community recognizes, if they haven’t already, Kenyon’s actions for what they are: shabby attempts to prevent the coming of the spring by cutting down a couple roses.
Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth