What is Grinnell College thinking in its fight with its own students over a labor rights dispute?
The liberal arts school located in the middle of Iowa has refused to bargain with the student workers union on campus and is trying to quash its effort to cover more students. The fallout from a National Labor Relations Board decision that Grinnell is seeking could have serious consequences for students’ union rights all across the country. If you haven’t followed the recent developments, the Des Moines Register has covered the conflict here.
The gist of the story is this: student workers voted to form a union in 2016 for their dining hall workers. That organization successfully negotiated with the college administration for higher wages. This year, students sought to expand the union to cover even more student works on campus. Grinnell leaders tried to shut down the vote that was held in late November, but the regional NLRB allowed it go forward.
Grinnell College has filed an appeal with the national NLRB. A decision by that board in 2016 allowed student workers at private colleges to unionize, but Republicans now control it and could reverse that ruling thanks to the situation at Grinnell.
It would be incredibly strange for Grinnell College, whose student population is by far the most politically progressive/liberal in the state, to be personally responsible for striking a blow to national labor rights. It also seems very counter-intuitive to the university’s goal of recruiting their future classes of students.
Grinnell College has long touted their “strong tradition of social responsibility and action.” Anyone who’s been involved in Iowa politics knows how politically-engaged students are there, and many of their alums from Iowa have gone on to serve important roles in Iowa Democratic politics. Of course, the vast majority of students at Grinnell are from outside Iowa, drawn to the small rural town by Grinnell’s incredible reputation (they were ranked 11th in the nation for Liberal Arts).
It’s exactly that reputation that college leaders are threatening to ruin with this ill-advised battle against the student workers union. It’s already a hard sell to get talented high school students from San Diego, Boston or Atlanta to move to a tiny town they’ve never heard of that sits in the middle of Iowa corn fields. That gets significantly harder if you’re trying to pitch your school’s history of social activism while you’re making national headlines for crushing unions.
Labor rights hadn’t typically been a big rallying cry among the 18 to 22-year-old crowd, but it is now. Thanks to politicians like Bernie Sanders (who drew a huge crowd at Grinnell early on in 2015 for his caucus campaign) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and an ever-growing progressive movement that focuses on economic inequality, young people now see union rights as a key policy priority.
Perhaps the Grinnell College administration doesn’t know that. Perhaps they’ve gotten so out of touch with their student population that they don’t realize what they care about anymore. Because if they did, they wouldn’t be risking so much of their reputation on fighting off the students union request to raise minimum wages to $9/hour (they’re currently at $8/hour) – a modest request seeing how a student’s tuition and fees at Grinnell top $50,000 a year.
As the Register pointed out, only $2 million, or about 2% of the college’s annual costs, are spent on student wages. You don’t have to be a private college marketing expert to figure that the cost to clean up this potential public relations disaster for the school will far exceed whatever money they’d spend on higher student worker wages.
Perhaps we should add basic math to the list of things the administrator there doesn’t understand.
by Pat Rynard
Photo via Flickr