State of the Union: The Case Against a Dining Hall Student Worker’s Labor Union

Author’s note: Special thanks to Rosie O’Brien, Alice Herman, Cory McCartan, and Alex Claycomb

Editor’s note: Updated on May 17th at 4pm to revise factual errors.

The College treats students as students first; it mandates that students cannot work more than 20 hours per week, an official change in policy for 2015-2016 and beyond. Even if you work 20 hours per week in the dining hall (officially called the Marketplace), it is not your primary occupation. Your homework and your classes are your main focus. Even if you are struggling to pay for your education and life here at Grinnell, while you are enrolled at Grinnell, your needs are likely provided for on a day to day basis, particularly if you live on campus. You have a place to sleep, students who live on campus are required to have at least a partial meal plan, and you are required to have health care, provided by the College or not. In contrast, for the career staff in Dining Services, working in the Marketplace, Grill and Catering is usually their primary occupation. They depend on the College for the wages and benefits that they need to pay rent or housing, to buy groceries, and the security of health care and benefits. The Marketplace is not a lucrative venture. It loses money every year because of many factors, including rising food costs. In order to tighten the budget and defray costs, the stability of some career staff jobs is sacrificed– for example, the “cheery checkers” who greet us and check our P-cards are purposefully scheduled just below the full-time threshold, and some are not provided full-time benefits.

In the past semester, several first year students initiated the process of forming a union for dining hall student workers. As a student worker myself, I believe 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. Don’t get me wrong– I’m all for organized labor. But I believe that it is not our place, as temporary student workers, to do this.

When I first heard about the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, I had a negative gut reaction, but I didn’t quite know why. I thought the idea was a little silly and a whole lot “typical Grinnellian.” Later, after they asked me to sign a card to commit to the union (an invitation I refused), I realized it was because, to me, a student dining hall worker’s union that didn’t include career employees, full-time and part-time dining hall workers felt plain wrong. In this past year of working at the dining hall, I’ve befriended many of the career staff who work in the Marketplace, and it feels terrible that they would not benefit from unionization, while students who attend this elite institution would. My feeling of frustration at the idea of a union grew, and I started to get very angry. After all, while there are many of us students who need more financial aid or higher pay, working at the dining hall is not our entire life. We all are students, first and foremost, not dining hall employees. Career staff and non-student workers already bend over backwards to accommodate student labor. And yet someone was forming a union, demanding more money just for students? About two weeks ago, I reached out to several community members, dining hall workers, and student workers, determined to publish something on the matter.

For this article, I interviewed several key figures involved in the dining hall and in the labor union. First, I interviewed Cory McCartan ’19, a current student worker, and one of the primary organizers for the student union movement. I had informal discussions with several other student dining hall employees, and I interviewed Marketplace Student Leader Alex Claycomb ’18 in depth. Finally, I spoke to and heard from several current full-time career staff in the dining hall, who I will keep anonymous to protect their privacy and their job safety.

I want to make one thing clear: I do not mean to attack the organizers of the union or anyone else involved with it. I, and most of those whom I interviewed, disagreed with their opinions and their strategies for this union. I think that unionization is an important issue to critique and understand, given that its influence could affect labor relations on this campus, and the structure of working at the dining hall as we know it. However, I am very grateful to Cory for his honest and in-depth interview, and I believe that he and the other organizers are well intentioned. They have some great ideas, and they definitely have great organizing skills, since they were able to pull this whole union thing off. Please do not use this article as an excuse to shame, belittle, or be rude to those involved; rather, I hope this article will provoke productive conversation around this issue.

First, some facts, and a summary of the events that have occurred thus far, and a summary of the current state of unions on this campus:

Currently, there are no unions for dining hall workers or food service workers (catering, the Spencer Grill, etc.) on this campus. To my knowledge, FM (Facilities Management) has the only existing union on this campus.

Several Grinnell College first year students came together a month or two ago and decided to create a union of student dining hall employees, with the primary goal of increasing the wages of student workers, and secondary goals of building bargaining power to ask for better working hours and flexibility. The union would encompass all the student staff who work in the Marketplace, as well as several supported adult staff, and the small number of high school workers who are employed for a few shifts per week. It cannot encompass career staff due to structural differences between how their jobs operate, such as how our shifts are scheduled and what policies affect us in terms of wages and time off. The baseline wage for student workers in the dining hall is currently $8.50 per hour, with pay increasing to $9.10 per hour if you become a Student Leader (the workers with the red hats). The policies for working hours and flexibility are as follows: you may pick up as many shifts each week as you would like, whenever you would like, to fit into your schedule. Generally, shifts will be available at whatever time you want to work because the Marketplace is chronically understaffed. If you have a conflict, you can drop your shift, hopefully for someone to pick up on the online trade board; however, I know many people who repeatedly miss shifts without informing dining hall and receive no lasting punishment. The policies for lateness or missed work for student workers are incredibly lenient; I have never known another job that allows its employees to miss work or be late as much as student workers here do. I cannot foresee any policies regarding attendance that would be any more lenient than they already are. Thus, I am not sure which policies regarding working hours or absences the union would want to change. If anything, a union might force student workers to commit to higher standards of timeliness and absences, which may prevent them from working in the first place.

For the next stage in the unionization process, the organizers got dining hall student workers to sign labor union cards that committed them to allowing the union to negotiate their terms of benefits and wages with the dining hall. The next step in the official process was the vote that took place on Thursday, May 5th. A total of 25 people voted on that day, with 21 voting in favor, 1 voting against, and 3 challenged ballots that were not open. The majority of “yes” votes means that the College will now officially recognize the union as legitimate, and will have to go through the union for all future labor disputes and bargaining for dining hall student workers, under the rules of the National Labor Relations Board. This unionization process was made possible by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which McCartan ‘19 researched as a possible avenue to improve conditions and raise wages for student workers, inspired by his own experiences as a worker in the Marketplace. McCartan did not previously have any experience with official union organizing before initiating this process.

I will now present some arguments and opinions as to why I believe that this union could be ineffective and downright detrimental to dining hall labor standards, career staff-student staff relations, and our rights as student workers.

Personally, I do not see the need for any reforms that would improve the current system in regards work hours or absences; the system is already incredibly lenient, allowing us to be students first and workers second, and frankly, it allows us way more flexibility than we probably deserve. Due to chronic under staffing, the Marketplace cannot afford to enforce any strict rules, and they rarely fire any students. A union would likely hold us far more accountable for arriving at work regularly and on time far more than the current system. A current dining hall staff member echoed this opinion—they saw the union as a double-edged sword: on one hand, unionization might be able to secure higher wages for us, but it would also force us to be much more accountable to our work. I believe that increasing student accountability would be difficult from the student end of things; tons of students work in the dining hall, whether one shift per week or many, and we are not at all a unified force. I think that many student workers would be resistant to the increased accountability that the union could bring, and I also believe that it is simply not necessary for us to try to bargain for more rights. The system is lenient and supervisors are incredibly accommodating if you miss a shift.


Of course, these problems might be reduced if the Marketplace paid students higher wages. As McCartan pointed out, “College tuition goes up every year, whereas wages haven’t gone up in several years.” Additionally, McCartan argues that a higher wage would increase student interest and investment in working in the dining hall consistently. For many students, other campus jobs are much more appealing than the dining hall–at many other jobs like those offered in Burling and Kistle libraries, the Bear athletic center, the mail room, or as a Tech Consultant, students can do homework while on the job, or they can do something more closely related to their academic interests and professional goals, while getting paid the same starting wage of $8.50 per hour. This is part of the reason why the dining hall is chronically understaffed; for many, food service is not a desirable job. According to Alex Claycomb ’18, a Student Leader and employee of the dining hall since his first year, the dining hall is constantly working to retain students. He agrees that a higher wage could lead to an increased retention of student workers in general. He has been 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, rather than attempting to achieve a pay raise through union bargaining. While both Claycomb and McCartan agree that higher wages would be good for students and for retaining dining hall employees, they clearly disagree on which method is most likely to make a change.

A higher wage for students would probably benefit everyone involved: the dining hall would have a more committed staff with less turnover, and students would be able to more easily pay off work-study or increase their spending money income. While there have been efforts to raise the wage in the dining hall in the past, the basic starting wage has not risen in several years. So what are the drawbacks of bargaining through a union?

It turns out there might be some more severe implications of unionizing dining hall student workers. Claycomb voiced these fears, remarking that, if pressed, the College might finally be fed up enough with the current state of dining services and actually privatize food service on campus as a whole. A current Grinnell professor echoed this worry as well, though according to labor law, it is illegal to privatize an entire system due to unwillingness to negotiate with a union. Currently, Grinnell operates on an independent (self-operated) food service system, which is relatively rare among colleges. Only about 30% of colleges and universities have independent food service systems such as ours, compared to the 70% of schools that outsource the work of sourcing, preparing, and serving food to corporations such as Sodexo, Aramark, and Bon Appetit. If the College gets fed up with the current system, or with anyone protesting the current system, they might be pressed to switch over the control of the dining hall to one of the corporate giants mentioned above. This would likely mean far less jobs and lower wages for all workers (and almost zero student workers at all), and far less chances for flexibility in labor conditions. It would probably also mean worse food and fewer opportunities for change for any dining hall workers– student staff and career staff alike. To me, keeping the dining hall independently run is one of the most important things we can possibly do as a small liberal arts college that promotes social justice practices, and I do not want to risk privatization. I think that we must pursue the goal of higher wages through Claycomb’s strategy of collaboration with the internal forces that run the dining hall.

I would like to take into account some thoughts and opinions from current dining hall staff members. Most of those we talked to felt frustrated, left out, and confused about the union. They expressed the sentiment that they absolutely love their student workers, and that they feel very hurt by this split in unity. They see unity between the students and the permanent staff as the ultimate goal of dining hall employment, and they hated the fact that students were so unhappy with our jobs and our situation that someone felt we needed to unionize so exclusively. They also expressed that this union was promoting animosity, and not goodwill, between the career staff and the student workers as it stands. Additionally, many expressed interest in being unionized, and frustration at not being included. Many of these workers come from union families, and it seems very wrong to prioritize a union for a student body that will change every year, over career staff who rely on the college’s generosity, whims, and wages, for their survival.

McCartan discussed with me how it is not possible to have one union that would include both student and career staff within the dining hall, due to the fact that the two positions (student temporary workers and permanent career staff) are disparate, and could not be officially lumped within the same union organization. Additionally, supervisors (defined as people with the power to hire and fire other workers), would not and could not be allowed in a union at all, ever, according to law. McCartan expressed that he wants to use the student worker’s union as a jumping-off point for student labor on campus. He hopes to expand organized labor to the catering department, the Grill, and other student jobs, and he hopes that this union would be supportive if career staff choose to unionize. However, while I understand these sentiments, I believe that if it is not possible to include the career staff in the process of fighting for labor and wage rights from the beginning, we as students should not unionize at all. I think that career staff are far more important than we are in this situation, and I think that if anything, we should be bridge the gap and collaborate with them, and prioritize the fight for their (much more vital) rights in whatever way they might need or want us to.

Throughout the process of my investigation into this issue, I learned to trust my gut reaction. I do not agree with the creation of a dining hall student workers labor union. This union is exclusionary because it was made without knowledge or collaboration with the career staff in the dining hall, and because it does not offer an inclusive opportunity to collaborate with them. The College’s wage and benefits policies harm them too, and potentially far more than they harm us. I believe that a union it is ineffective and unnecessary because we do not need better hours or working conditions, as the system completely caters to students, and we rarely face harsh discipline for missing a shift or frequent tardiness. And I believe that this union is potentially dangerous, because it could aggravate administrators of the College and lead them down the path of privatizing the dining hall, which would be disastrous for everyone in this community. Most importantly, I think that students should not make themselves the center of the issue by keeping this now-existing union in place. I think that the decision to unionize should be left up to the career staff to decide, and left for students to support if non-student workers should want our support. We do not matter as much as they do at these jobs; they depend upon the conditions of their jobs, while we can pick up and drop our shifts on a whim. We enter into the dining hall, their space and their livelihood, for several hours because we need to earn a supplementary, not a primary, income. We swipe out, and we leave. We return to our lives as students. Working at the dining hall is only a small portion of our rich and intense lives here as academics at Grinnell College. And to me, students forming a union in a space that belongs to those who have a career there is abhorrent.


  1. Solidarity Forever

    May 17, 2016 at 11:44 AM

    Fucking Pinkerton

    • Authorial Intent

      May 17, 2016 at 10:12 PM

      Thanks for your concise and informative opinion, Solidarity Forever!
      Just FYI– I totally support unions in general, I just don’t like this one because I think it’s important to prioritize career staff over students who attend an elite college. I would 100% back any union that supports career staff first.

  2. In what way are you concerned about accountability? Are you afraid that if one doesn’t show up for their shifts without telling supervisors then they could be fired? I personally don’t see a problem with that. The union is not trying to make us workers first and students second. In fact, a higher wage would mean that less hours in the d-hall needed to meet the full work study amount.

    As for this ‘group’ that Alex referenced, this is the forest I have heard of it. I would like to know more about it. Why is it that they have not consulted the workers about this. If the students represented are all Student Leaders, why is it that the representatives of all student workers are the ones that the college chose? A union is democratic and the union has made contact with all student workers asking for their input.

    Finally to your point that unionization could lead to privatization. I think that all students can agree that we do not want this to happen. But I disagree that the only way to avoid it is to acquiesce to the college’s demands. If the student body truly believes that we should retain an independent dining services institution, then we should demand it. We should not back down from having our voice heard. We must not let the administration bully us into submission.

    • Authorial Intent

      May 17, 2016 at 10:57 PM

      Hey Union VP!

      Accountability– Currently, accountability standards in dhall are incredibly lenient for student workers, so one of my points is just that I don’t think there are any reasons for bargaining in terms of working conditions. Then, I think if dining hall student workers were to make gains in wages, etc., with a union, this could lead to the dining hall increasing their expectations for student workers to be timely and show up consistently and such. I don’t think there’s any student workers who specifically want this to happen– I think that many student workers enjoy the freedom of being able to get out of work pretty easily when they need to. The “students and workers” bit comes into play in that this leniency is given to us because we are student workers, and students first.

      Alex didn’t give me a ton of details on the group, I don’t think it’s actually an organized group/organization or something, but rather that he’s given some supervisors input maybe? Or maybe he’s working to organize something himself? I would inquire with him about further details. I agree that unions are democratic in general, but I believe that unions that only include student workers should not at all be the authority on dining hall decisions/action plans. Thus if a union cannot legally encompass career staff, I believe a union should not exist.

      On privatization– I didn’t mean to say that students should just always acquiesce to college demands. I totally agree that students are powerful and should not and hopefully would not let the college get its way in case it decided to privatize dhall. However, my point is that to me, a student union is not even worth aggravating the college over, because I believe it is elitist and offensive to the career staff. To me, it’s not a good reason to aggravate the college over. And if it’s not for a good reason, then I believe we should aggravate the college as little as possible, to avoid privatization for no reason.

  3. When you say that the student union is exclusionary, do you not realize that the dining hall staff are, in fact, already in a union of their own? Perhaps it is odd that the students chose to form their own instead of joining that union in some way (although there are certainly challenges that might make that unfeasible), but the implications that the permanent staff members are not getting the chance to unionize is just plain wrong.
    Also, what’s wrong with a system that might actually hold students accountable for their work? They certainly don’t take showing up on time seriously now, so in that sense the accountability would be good–kind of like the real world that you all will be thrust into soon. Are you complaining that you might actually have to do your work? I just don’t get these elements of your argument.

    • Authorial Intent

      May 18, 2016 at 1:22 PM

      Hey GC alumna!

      According to current career staff at the Marketplace, they are not unionized at all. Perhaps there was a previous union for dining hall career staff, but currently there is not one, which is why, to me, it is exclusionary that the students have a union and the career staff don’t.

      On accountability– I agree with you, definitely. I think that current dhall student workers get off way to easily and they are not held accountable as perhaps they should be. I personally find it frustrating when workers are extremely late or miss their shifts for weeks on end. It’s really shitty to the career staff too, who depend on student workers to show up.
      The point of accountability in my argument is that I believe that the union will hold students to higher accountability, yet I also think that students will fight against higher accountability, especially because they evidentially want a union partly for negotiating terms and conditions of absences, lateness, etc. I think that it doesn’t make sense to want both the current low accountability system and a union, because I think that these two things are disparate and contradict one another.

      • It should be noted that a student union DOES NOT IN ANY WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM PREVENT THE CAREER STAFF FROM FORMING OR JOINING A UNION. It would not make sense for career and student staff to be part of the same bargaining unit. The career staff have much bigger issues to worry about, like providing for themselves and their families, not to mention health and other benefits. A career union could call for an association with a larger union (like an AFL-CIO or Teamsters) as they might need more resources behind them in form of lawyers, etc. to strengthen their position. The student union is not affiliated with any larger labor organization in order to keep any dues to a minimum.

        You might argue that because we are students there is no need for a union because we aren’t supporting ourselves or a family. While the need might be greater for the career staff, the problems with student employment are not going to get fixed by paying them more, or giving them better benefits. That is where the student union comes in. Our primary goal is to make the D-hall operate on a higher level by securing better training for workers and by, hopefully, fixing the labor shortage with an increase in wages.

        Finally I want to get back to your use of the term exclusionary. Like I said above a student union does not exclude career staff because we think they are below us or because they don’t deserve representation. It simply does not make sense for us to be one giant union. The student union would be all for a career staff union and we would be more than happy to assist them in the process of forming a union. Saying the student union is exclusionary is like saying that a checkers club is exclusionary to chess players. Chess and checkers are different games—just as student staff and career staff have different issues—and it simply makes sense for them to have two different clubs—just as it simply makes sense for student and career staff to have different unions.

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