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Grinnell Files Federal Appeal Over Vote To Expand Students' Union

Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers
Administrators at Grinnell College have filed a formal appeal with federal regulators, asking them to void a vote by student workers to expand their union.

An Iowa liberal arts college is challenging a vote by student workers to expand their union. The appeal puts Grinnell College and its student dining workers’ union in the thick of a national labor law debate.

Grinnell College is asking national regulators to void an expansion vote by the campus’ Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers. Administrators had indicated they’d appeal to the National Labor Relations Board after union members voted overwhelmingly to add all student workers to their rolls.

The school argues expanding the union to all student workers on campus “threatens to undermine Grinnell’s core educational mission” and they’re taking that complaint to the NLRB, arguing the students shouldn’t be legally defined as employees. Administrators are in part asking the board to modify or overrule a decision that expanded union rights to students at private colleges and universities across the country.

“The relationship is strictly academic, with on campus employment opportunities offered as learning experiences for the benefit of the students, not the College,” administrators argued in their legal appeal. “That students receive funding to support their academic pursuits does not convert these learning experiences to 'jobs.'”

Meanwhile union members argue the work they do is necessary for the college's operations.

"Workers deserve a voice. Without student workers, there would be no food, no library, no mentor sessions, no mail delivery. We do vital work for the college. Some students work 20 hours a week. We should have a say in how we work," reads a statement on the group's website.

Labor lawyer Jeffrey Hirsch at the University of North Carolina Law School says the case could have broad ramifications.

“The problem is, right, the labor employment laws on this issue are binary. It’s either, you’re an employee or you’re not, there’s no in between,” Hirsch said. “So the significance of it is really quite big.”

Now led by Republican Trump appointees, NLRB members have signaled they want to reconsider what’s known as the Columbia decision, which came down in 2016 when the board was made up of Obama appointees.

But Hirsch says the board may pass on the case if they don’t find it appropriate. While many of the legal challenges in this area have to do with graduate student workers, Grinnell’s students are all undergrads.

Grad students working in Masters and PhD programs are commonly asked to teach classes, conduct research, hold office hours and issue grades in a manner that resembles the work of professors.

Meanwhile, undergrads at Grinnell may take short-term or individualized jobs that the College frames as primarily educational. The positions often are part of a larger student aid package and may be created to meet a specific student’s academic or financial need. But in their appeal, administrators argue the funding given for work in such positions as tutor, research assistant, laboratory assistant, archivist and librarian, and media relations assistant “is not compensation for services rendered."

Hirsch says the board  may choose another challenge as its Columbia test case, since Grinnell has no graduate students.

“One reason why the board might not use this Grinnell case to flip Columbia is because they’re undergrads,” Hirsch said. “They certainly could if they wanted to, because they could write a decision fairly broadly. But most of the action is with graduate students.”

The answer to whether students are employees could affect the rights of student workers at private colleges nationwide. It’s not clear how long the NLRB will take before it makes a decision.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter