Grinnell College Risks Its Reputation With Labor Dispute

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
Posted 12/9/18

3 Comments on "Grinnell College Risks Its Reputation With Labor Dispute"

  • It’s funny how some people can look at a single aspect of a news story and represent that as the entire story. Yes, Grinnell College is possibly the only undergraduate school where some of its students are unionized. A union formation the college supported in 2016. Furthermore, the college is one of the only schools in the country where admissions is need blind and they commit to meeting 100% of the student’s demonstrated need which keeps most students from paying anywhere near the sticker price. Further, a portion of the student aid that’s provided and the student contributions to tuition are from student campus employment. It is these jobs that students are seeking to unionize, and its these jobs that are inextricably linked to the student aid and contributions (students are currently expected to contribute $2300 from work study – in other words the funds from about 8 hours per week of work-study during the school year). The challenge for many Grinnell alumni who support the students and their efforts to bargain with the school over pay and support the Grinnell College’s position, is that the relationship between work study pay, work study opportunities, and financial contributions to education is far more complicated than a sound byte about a $1 per hour raise offers. At the end of the day, it’s unclear that raising wages for these student jobs, because most are linked directly to student aid packages, would actually benefit the students that need it most (and student aid components are certainly beyond the realm of a union’s bargaining). These students are employees of Grinnell College precisely because they are students there. Their roles as students and employees are inseparable, while the Union is seeking to negotiate only on their employment status.

    • Take it or leave it, right? If they don’t want to work for a pittance, they can go eat cake. Grinnell has figured out how to get cheap labor and that’s all they need to consider. But I suppose you are right in that if they raise the pay, they can then raise the tuition and recoup it all that way. So there is no way out of here.

  • I have a friend out East who works in a university there. Her university has hosted students from many different states, but she especially remembered a few visiting Grinnell students because they were so very nice to others. That stood out to her even more than their talents and abilities. Grinnell College, you have something very special. Don’t blow it.

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