Undergrad Workers Organize Wall-to-Wall at Kenyon College

Compilation of two Zoom screenshots shows 50 people on a call. Most are smiling faces, some show text only

Today student workers are issuing a union recognition demand to the president. Because of the pandemic, they have conducted the bulk of their organizing remotely. Image: two screenshots from KSWOC

Undergraduate student workers—ranging from residence hall advisors, lifeguards, and library workers to art gallery assistants and student farmers—are organizing to form a union at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in rural central Ohio.

These days 4 out of 5 college students in the U.S. are working part-time, an average of 19 hours a week, often on campus. But few have unions. Although undergrad workers have organized in a handful of individual shops, such as the Grinnell College dining workers and UMass Amherst resident assistants, this is a landmark effort to unionize campus-wide.

Backed by the United Electrical Workers (UE), workers formed the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) in late spring after the COVID-19 pandemic revealed deep issues in our workplaces.

After months of reaching out to co-workers, organizing shop-level fights, and building community support—with critical guidance from college maintenance workers in UE Local 712—K-SWOC is now aiming for voluntary recognition of our union through a card-check agreement with the administration.

We have conducted the bulk of our organizing remotely, and as of August 27 about 150 workers had signed union cards, which had been available for about two weeks. Today, kicking off our Week of Action, eight student workers and community allies are issuing a recognition demand to the college president.

COVID-19 SPURS ORGANIZING

When Kenyon closed its campus in March and transitioned to remote operations, the administration left student workers in the dark about our jobs. A few workplaces transitioned to remote work, but most of the student workforce was told to wait for future remote work opportunities.

Several student groups, 250 student workers, and community allies organized a petition to pressure the administration to pay all student workers for the duration of the semester, which was to end the second week of May. Within days, the administration announced that all student workers would be paid.

The successful petition granted temporary relief, but it became clear that COVID-19 would continue to cause problems for the health, safety, and financial well-being of student workers. In fact, as we learned from conversations in dozens of shop meetings, the pandemic merely magnified preexisting issues. These problems include toxic work environments, the lack of a formal grievance procedure, little support in the job application and resume-writing process for work-study students encouraged to apply for jobs during freshmen orientation week, and low wages that do not match the responsibilities of student workers even by the college’s own standards.

Student workers decided that a union would be the way to address our concerns as equals with the college. “It is the only mechanism that I’ve seen deliver to workers the dignity to which their work entitles them,”said Nathan Geesing, a Writing Center consultant.

COLLECTIVE ACTION GETS THE GOODS

Both the pandemic and Kenyon’s changing plans for the fall semester accelerated K-SWOC’s organizing. In June, the administration said it intended to bring all students back for in-person instruction in the fall. One month later, administrators abruptly reversed course and announced that only first-year and sophomore students would return to campus, while upperclassmen would study remotely. This reversal threw student employment into chaos and student workers questioned whether they would have jobs for the fall.

The college put residence hall advisors, called community advisors (CAs), in a particularly tough position. The Office of Residential Life asked CAs to indicate whether they would come back to campus within days of the new plan being announced, without a job description or a plan to make the job safe.

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Because of their low wages ($9.90 an hour) and the expense of room and board, many CAs—including many work-study students who rely on the income to attend Kenyon—would lose money if they returned to Kenyon to do their jobs; the cost of room and board outweighed their take-home pay per semester. The CAs united to demand that the deadline be pushed back, and then demanded fully subsidized room and board plus hazard pay. After 35 CAs together confronted the Vice President of Student Affairs over a Google Meet video call, they won an additional $1,000 housing subsidy and a $1.25/hour wage increase.

LOOKING TO THE (NEAR) FUTURE

Although the CAs did not win everything they needed, their collective action set a precedent for other workplaces organizing with K-SWOC. Student workers in eight other shops demanded safer and more equitable workplaces by submitting lists of demands and grievances to their bosses; some of these demands resulted in negotiations over video call. This is how workers won guarantees of remote employment at Kenyon Farm, the college library, and the Horn Gallery, where jobs were initially uncertain.

Thankfully, we are not alone. There is already a strong labor presence at Kenyon; UE Local 712 and Machinists Local 2794 represent the maintenance and custodial staff. In 2012, our community saw the power of a student-labor alliance when students, alumni, faculty, and staff united against an attempt to outsource maintenance workers to Sodexo. This summer, students and UE 712 successfully campaigned together to protect faculty and staff retirement benefits from cuts. K-SWOC will use those same alliances as we fight for our own union.

Already by organizing together in our workplaces we have accomplished more than any petition, committee, or task force could achieve, and we are forming a genuine community of workers. “I am standing with the union because my friends are suffering,” said Jonathan Hernandez, a senior CA, “and they need me to help guarantee job security, to get more transparency with administration, to fight the constant micro-aggressions from our managers, and so much more. I am standing with the union because I don’t let my friends down.”

If you wish to support K-SWOC, please fill out our contingency dues form, send this letter of support to our college, follow us @KenyonSWOC (Twitter) or @KSWOC (Instagram), or email kswoc.students[at]gmail[dot]com.

Sigal Felber, a research and reference intern, and Nick Becker, a helpliner, are members of K-SWOC.

Correction: An earlier version of this story significantly overstated the number of student workers in the potential bargaining unit. The estimate referred to the number of positions, not workers, pre-pandemic. Some students were working multiple jobs, and many positions have since been eliminated.

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