Organizers of a student union at an Iowa college say they’re still open to negotiating with the school’s administrators. But national regulators may decide the future of student workers at Grinnell College.
Last month the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers voted overwhelmingly to add teaching assistants, tutors and other on campus student workers to its ranks. Union members hope to win a $9 minimum wage (higher than the state-mandated $7.25 an hour) and more job security.
Student aid packages, which can include federally-funded work study agreements, can be a deciding factor for students in choosing a college. Union president Quinn Ercolani says for some students, pay is not keeping pace with tuition increases.
“The economic aspect of attending an extremely expensive liberal art institution is paramount in people’s minds,” Ercolani said. “An integral part of that ability to attend is work-study.”
But college administrators argue expanding the union to workers across campus could chip away at the “core mission and culture” of the school, which prides itself on a legacy of “championing education, access, and social justice." On-campus employment is seen as an outside-the-classroom learning opportunity at Grinnell, and can include individualized, project-based or short-term employment, depending on student and faculty needs. Administrators worry the flexibility and scale of the program could be threatened by expanded unionization.
“We are dedicated to creating meaningful, flexible and educational work experiences for every student who requests one. These positions – often working in close collaboration with faculty and staff – are a distinctive part of the educational experience at Grinnell [and an important component of the College’s commitment to meet 100% of the financial needs of its students.],” reads a written statement from the college.
The Trustees of Grinnell objected to the decision to allow the vote to a regional division of the National Labor Relations Board, arguing in part that students aren’t technically employees. Administrators say the school is planning to officially appeal the decision to allow the vote, once the ballot count has been certified.
“Consistent with our progressive values, our concerns with the expansion of the student union do not at all mean we are “anti-union.” They are driven only by the potential harm we believe that this particular change could have on the Grinnell College community […] a campus-wide expansion of the student union and imposition of union rules could limit educational opportunities on our campus and could fundamentally alter the vital relationship between students and faculty,” reads a statement from the college.
A ruling by the National Labor Relations Board on whether students can legally be considered employees could set a precedent for private schools across the country, argues union President Quinn Ercolani.
“Every single undergraduate student worker, grad student worker, postdoc, masters student worker in the United States at a private institution would lose their right to unionize,” Ercolani said. “Grinnell is so proud of what it is as an institution and the values that it has, and yet they’re on a mission to…destroy the foundation of student unionization across the country.”
Administrators say the possibility of setting a national precedent is not part of their decision-making process. Meanwhile, some Grinnell alumni are criticizing the school’s challenge against student workers, which they see as at odds with the school’s professed dedication to self-governance and social justice.
But administrators argue they do more to further social justice and equal opportunities by offering some $50 million in student aid a year, the vast majority of which is in the form of grants and scholarships, and a fraction of which goes to student employment.
The union has offered a proposal if Grinnell drops its planned appeal before the NLRB. But administrators say they’ve decided not to negotiate while the case is pending, or risk losing certain rights in the appeal process.