The State of Our Union is Strong

A recent article by Charlotte Richardson-Deppe makes the case against a labor union for students who work in the dining hall. She argues that “forming a labor union just for student workers is exclusionary, ineffective, and potentially dangerous to the freedoms of current dining hall labor as we know it.” While the article is well-researched and very detailed, I want to address some of the points the author makes.

Richardson-Deppe agrees that a higher wage for workers in the Dining Hall would help alleviate problems of under staffing and high turnover. She points out that there are many other jobs on campus that pay a substantially similar wage but allow students to do homework or build experience in a field that may interest them more. The problem with the union, according to the author, is not its demand for higher wages but its method of achieving them. Richardson-Deppe prefers the approach of another student, Alex Claycomb ’18, who is “part of a group that is currently strategizing ways to raise wages for all dining hall student employees, through meetings and negotiations with dining hall authorities.” At its core, however, the union is doing the exact same thing: it’s a group of students that meets with the College and Dining Services to cooperatively work towards better wages and working conditions. The union is not inherently antagonistic—its goal from the start has been to work with the College, not against it. We reached out to the College before we even filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and they, like us, committed to staying positive and cooperative.

Furthermore, a democratic union is more representative of employees’ wishes than a select and secret group of dining hall workers who don’t actively involve other students or publicize their mission. The union is also different in that it is legally recognized, and so the College can’t just ignore its demands.

A significant portion of the article deals with the union’s supposed goal of “building bargaining power to ask for better working hours and flexibility.” That was not an accurate portrayal of our position. In the interview, I said that the union was exploring the issue of scheduling, and specifically the difficulty of working lunch shifts if students have an 11 a.m. or a 1 p.m. class. After talking to student workers and discussing the issue internally, we concluded that there was no problem with the current system of shift scheduling.

Our goal has never been to absolve students of accountability. If anything, higher wages would lead to more committed workers and less turnover—something Richardson-Deppe admits. What was surprising was that she portrayed this outcome as negative, arguing that it could endanger the freedom that workers currently experience. This position is one of many such contradictions that underlie the author’s argument. When students don’t show up to work, it creates stress for all staff and causes them to have to work much harder. How can the author both complain about career staff having to “bend over backwards to accommodate student labor” and defend the status quo of under staffing and a lack of accountability?

The article also voices the concerns of several students about the possibility of a “privatization” of Dining Services—outsourcing its work to a dedicated food service company. I consider this to be a highly unlikely outcome, given the cost, difficulty, and time required to effect a transition, and the opinions of the student body. It is also illegal for the College to shut down Dining Services to avoid dealing with the union. But I understand that others may disagree with me and believe that this course of action is a possible path the College could take.

Workers in the dining hall shouldn’t feel forced to keep quiet about issues in their workplace out of fear of retaliation. It’s not the responsibility of the union or other workers to ensure that the Marketplace is financially sustainable. If we let ourselves fall into this sort of thinking, we allow the College to set the terms of the discussion. There’s no reason that the College, which prides itself on social justice, should become “aggravated” instead of working with the union to create a better workplace for all employees. We should not remain silent.

The final part of Richardson-Deppe’s case against the union is her assertion that the union is “exclusionary” for being composed of mostly students. She believes that students are primarily here for an education, and “need” a union less, while for career staff, employment in the Dining Hall is much more important. The author recognizes the legal and logistical hurdles to including career staff in the union. Yet her conclusion is that if there can’t be one big union, there shouldn’t be a union at all.

This makes no sense. The simplest, best approach is to have a union for students, and a union for career staff. On shared issues, the two unions could work together, but being separate would allow them to independently work on issues that affect only one group. The formation of a union of student workers hasn’t prevented career staff from forming their own union. And if they feel strongly that there should be one union, it’s also possible for them to join the students’ union later. The whole process isn’t zero-sum, and the idea that one group’s “need” of a union should prevent another group from unionizing is also illogical.

When other students and I began the process of forming a union, the easiest thing to do was to start with a smaller bargaining unit and build from there. That’s why catering workers and staff at the Spencer Grill aren’t currently included. It’s like crossing a river—why try and jump over the entire thing at once when you can hop from rock to rock?

The union remains committed to improving working conditions for all employees on campus, and welcomes any unionizing effort by other student groups or by career staff. But at the end of the day, we agree with the author herself: “the decision to unionize should be left up to the career staff to decide.”

The facts are these: student workers make substantially less, as a percentage of tuition, than they did eight years ago when the minimum wage was last raised. Many students struggle to pay the costs of attending Grinnell. Tuition and fees increase every year. And the union, which was approved by a 91% margin, is now the legal representative of student workers in the dining hall.

We can decide to reject the union for not going far enough. We can decide to focus on the problems, not the solutions. We can decide to stay silent for fear of what may come.

Or, we can decide to accept positive change, no matter how small. We can decide to speak out when there are problems. And we can decide to work together for better wages for all employees, students and non-students alike.

What will you decide to do?

5 Comments

  1. Michael Kolanowski

    May 19, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    Instead of citing a 91% approval, why don’t you mention the fact that there was a low turn out for voters. If I recall correctly less than 30 people went to vote, which is significantly less than the amount of students workers at the dining hall.

    Also, saying that you will continue to “improve working conditions” as if they were bad to begin with. The only real issue that you are pursuing is increasing wages however you keep using vague phrasing in order to make the goals seem bigger than they are.

    • Turnout was lower than expected, but part of that was a result of minimum-hour requirements imposed by the stipulated election agreement. Of the approximately 300 dining workers, only 91 were actually eligible to vote. And for all of the negative reactions to the union, only one person felt strongly enough to take five minutes and vote ‘no,’ whereas many more were excited about the union and showed up to vote in favor.

      Thank you for your comment, and we encourage you to contact us with any other questions you may have at ugsdw.org@gmail.com.

  2. Omg this is a very resilient response. Good good very good I’m voting for you

  3. I’m not sure of the legality of it, but is there any way that the student union could help the career staff to unionize? Or, to spread information about how to unionize and what benefits that would bring to them and try to help them see if there is an interest in doing so?

    I’m a low-income student and my parents both work minimum-wage jobs with little educational status, and they don’t have time/resources to do their own research while working long hours & raising children as well as working long hours for low wages. I don’t know the exact situation of career staff, but I’m anticipating similar situations for them (as with, as revealed in the last article, the situation of the cheery checkers). My parents were also raised in a kind of conservative environment where “unions = bad,” and explaining why that mentality isn’t true as well as explaining the process of unionizing might be very beneficial to the career staff.

    TL;DR: The career staff are kind people that probably deserve far better wages than what they get and if we’re going to unionize it would be a lot better for all of us to incorporate them in some fashion.

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