Kenyan student strike continues to gain supporters
Nick Becker joined the student worker strike at Kenyon College not only to support his classmates but also to register his own discontent with the administration.
Becker, a senior, is a “helpliner,” someone who helps solve technical problems within Kenyon’s library and information services. He and the other 14 telephone assistants on campus are striking in solidarity with Community Counselors – Kenyon’s term for residential counselors – who went on strike April 11 to protest what they claim are labor practices. unfair.
“I would say that one of the main reasons why helplines are unanimously on strike – which is not the case for all workplaces – is that we have really seen the lack of will of the college of s engage with us as a union, and it has produced a lot of disrespect for student labor in general,” he said.
The strike that began with community counselors in Kenyon has widened to include student workers not only from library and information services, but also from the campus bookstore, career development office, school writing, the Kenyon farm and the language learning program. The main objective of the strikers is to get the college to recognize the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee (K-SWOC/EU) as a union.
A total of 135 K-SWOC/EU members, who represent around 60% of Kenyon’s student workers, are on strike, including 18 of the 34 community councillors. So far, 300 student workers have signed union cards meaning they are union members even though Kenyon has not acknowledged it, according to K-SWOC/EU spokesperson Sally Smith, a college junior.
“Student workers are striking against unfair labor practices against community counsellors,” Smith said. “There are always a variety of reasons why individual workers have come to a point where they are ready to act. In all circumstances, I think there has been a culture of disrespect.
Becker expressed resentment over the administration’s response to K-SWOC/EU’s efforts to unionize.
“Through Kenyon’s legal arguments, they said student workers are not essential – it’s really like a hobby for students,” Becker said. “I think the helplines have taken real offense to this – it’s really like a slap in the face in terms of a completely distorted portrayal of the work we do and how essential we are to faculty, staff and students.”
Kenyon said he would not voluntarily recognize an undergraduate union. Kenyon President Sean Decatur issued a statement in 2020 explaining the college’s stance against unions.
“Our position has not changed,” Kenyon College spokeswoman Janet Marsden wrote in an email about the ongoing student strike. “Our decision was principled, rooted in our belief that the fundamental relationship we have with students is educational, and that campus work exists to advance that education and make it financially accessible to students of all incomes. “
At the same time, Marsden acknowledged that students had the right to express their discontent by going on strike.
“At Kenyon, we respect the rights of students and all members of the community to peacefully protest and express their opinions on any subject,” she wrote. “During the one-day strike in March [by student workers at Kenyon Farm] and the current strike, our goal has been to ensure that all students, including striking students, continue to receive an excellent education and benefit from the many resources provided by Kenyon, without retaliation or discrimination.
She noted that 80 percent of student workers at the college, including those who are not K-SWOC/EU members, have opted out of the current strike.
Marsden wrote that the college has been successful in maintaining services compromised by missing workers by relying on the college’s professional staff. Among other things, staff replaced striking students by accompanying residence counselors on tours, designing special study sessions and handling tech support requests, which she said the college was grateful for. .
Context of the strike
The latest labor unrest at Kenyon began in March, when Kenyon Farm students staged a one-day strike after the college announced it was canceling the Farm’s residential program, which allowed four to six students to live on a farm and do agricultural work. work near campus.
Then, last month, community counselors went on strike to protest the college’s announcement that it would change the position’s pay from a salary system to a $10,000-a-year stipend starting in the year university 2022-2023. The student workers argued that the move would declassify them from their status as statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, rendering them ineligible for minimum wage regulations and overtime and unable to unionize. Community counselor Ilan Magnani said the change has upset many community counsellors, who often work overtime beyond their mandatory 18 hours each week.
“The fact that this happened in the middle of our union organization and the fact that CAs are the place of work with the most hours per week, we understood this change to an allocation model as an attack against our ability to identify ourselves as workers and to organize alongside student workers in various campus workplaces,” Magnani said.
Kenyon directors said they changed the payment model to a stipend because they believe it “better reflects the leadership opportunity that the CA role represents,” according to a spokesperson. “The relationship between CAs and the Order does not change, only the mode of payment.
Most of the striking students are in positions that end around the same time as the academic year, May 13, Smith said. She expects the strike to end then and doubts it will resume next fall.
However, the National Labor Relations Board has scheduled a status conference on May 9 to discuss details of a union election between K-SWOC/EU and Kenyon College, which will determine who is included in the bargaining unit. .
When asked if Kenyon plans to hold any discussion with K-SWOC/EU over their demands, Marsden said the college is always ready to listen to student concerns. In fact, the administration has had numerous conversations with K-SWOC/EU members over the past year and a half, including after K-SWOC/EU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. for a union election last October. However, since Kenyon will not recognize K-SWOC/EU, the college will not negotiate with the organizing committee or others, Marsden said.
To compensate for lost funds from student workers, K-SWOC/EU raised over $17,000 to distribute to strikers.
Smith, Becker and Magnani have all said they would rather work, but feel they have no choice but to strike due to Kenyon’s intractable position.
“Nobody wants to be on strike,” Smith said. “I don’t want to be on strike right now. I like my job. I worked on a project that I want to come back to, and I think that’s true for a lot of colleagues. The unwillingness of the administration to work with student workers is really frustrating for a lot of people, myself included.
Student unions are a growing trend
Kenyon College is not the only institution to have a student union. Others include Grinnell College, Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University, where students have all successfully voted to unionize under the National Labor Relations Board.
It’s part of a growing trend, said Tarini Hardikar, a graduate student in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley and a member of the Student Researchers United bargaining team, an affiliate of the United Auto Workers.
“Issues such as low pay, housing insecurity, harassment and discrimination are commonplace in academic workplaces,” Hardikar said. “Unions give workers the tools to create change on these issues. Through our unions, university workers can democratically decide what changes to demand, and then demonstrate our collective power to get the improvements we need at the bargaining table.
Currently, UAW 2865 represents more than 19,000 college students employed throughout the University of California system, including teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, tutors and more. Additionally, the UAW represents more than 100,000 workers at academic institutions across the United States, Hardikar said.
Having a student worker union puts institutions in a better position to conduct quality research and give students the education they deserve, Hardikar said.
“At our last union rally, there was a sign that said, ‘We want to do searches, not house searches!’ and that’s exactly the point – we can’t do our jobs well when we’re struggling to earn enough money to find affordable housing,” Hardikar said. “Unions improve universities by making academic careers sustainable and accessible to people from diverse backgrounds and by making the workplace more democratic.”