How Grinnell College Undergrads Unionized And Made History

Keir Hichens, center, and other Grinnell College student worker organizers react to the successful vote to unionize all undergraduate student workers at their college in April 2022.

Was Keir Hichens surprised that his small, private Iowa college would vote overwhelmingly to unionize its undergraduate student workers, becoming the first college in the entire country to do so?

Not at all, the Grinnell College junior said.

That’s because Hichens and other organizers before him spent five years putting in the work.

The unionization vote was delayed by everything from the pandemic to what Hichens calls the college’s earlier “union-busting” tactics. One time, there was even a toxic gas leak inside the building where students would be voting. Still, Hichens said the win was a foregone conclusion.

“We’ve done the organizing, we knocked every door on campus twice in the past six months, we did one-on-ones with hundreds of student workers, so we all knew where we were,” Hichens said. “There was really no doubt in our minds that, if the election was going to happen, we would win.”

And win they did.

On April 26, Grinnell College’s 700-some undergraduate student workers voted 327 to 6 to authorize the union, the first campus-wide undergraduate union to win legal recognition in the United States.

For its part, Grinnell College agreed to remain neutral in this spring’s vote. Through a spokesperson, it denied that it engaged in any illegal anti-union activity and said the college’s new president and board of trustees chair brought a “new perspective” which lead to better negotiations in the last two years.

“Grinnell fully recognizes that student employment is an important part of the undergraduate experience and is committed to working together to support the value of that experience in our students’ lives,” the college said in a statement. “We look forward to a productive relationship with the student union for many years to come.”

Hichens hopes for the same.

“We’re ecstatic about what this means, and also very excited to see what we can do because we’ve basically been in this organizing phase for five years now, trying to fight for just the basic right to sit down at the negotiating table with the college,” Hichens said. “Now it’s time to really leverage that power to get what student workers need.”

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Why did Grinnell students want to unionize?

Hichens said the main issues workers are fighting over are “poor supervision, poor training, [and] ridiculously low wages that stagnated while tuition and the cost of attendance increased.”

Hichens noted he works in student security for campus events. He makes $8.24 an hour—higher than Iowa’s minimum wage of $7.25, but far lower than what most businesses pay in Grinnell. Even Mcdonald’s, Hichens noted, starts at $13 or $14 per hour, which lures students away from on-campus jobs and contributes to understaffing.

“In the dining hall, for example, my first year there were roughly 350 dining workers, and right now there are about 120 total between the student cafe and the dining hall,” he said. “There’s an overwhelming sense that student workers are not paid what our labor is worth.”

How did they do it?

The newly unionized workers—there are more than 700 members, but the college and Hichens disagree on the exact amount—organized as the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers. The independent union was first formed in 2016 to organize students working in the college’s dining hall.

Hichens wasn’t at the college in 2016 when others took the initiative to work with the college (which remained neutral during that time) and unionize those workers. But once the union won, workers from around campus began clamoring for representation as well.

When it became clear all student workers wanted a union too, Hichens said Grinnell “started to push back.” He said the school hired attorneys “to basically challenge, at every step of the process, the student workers’ right to unionize.”

“Their main argument was the student workers have a primarily academic relationship with the college, and because our relationship is primarily academic, that we aren’t workers, even though our work is essential to the functioning of the college,” Hichens said, noting students work everywhere from administrative assistants to course assistants and every department from the mailroom to dining to housing and more.

“One of our slogans is, ‘Grinnell works because we do,’ and so I think that’s why we’re prepared to take action and show the college exactly how much they rely on our labor,” he added.

During the Trump Administration, Hichens said the union worried the National Labor Relations Board would rule against their effort, setting a precedent and dampening enthusiasm for unionizing at other colleges.

So they withdrew their petition in 2018 and waited until after Biden’s appointees joined the board in 2021. And, it turned out, other things had changed by then as well: The pandemic and resulting college closure for a time, as well as other national unionization efforts, showed students their work had more value than they thought.

A spokesperson for Grinnell said “changes in leadership,” when Anne F. Harris became president in July 2020, and Michael Kahn became chair of the Board of Trustees in May 2021, “significantly impacted college-union relations in recent years.”

Hichens said there was another reason, too.

“I think [Grinnell] also recognized the strength of our organizing on campus,” he said.

What’s next?

Getting workers together was the first step. Now, Hichens and other organizers are tasked with actually bargaining with the college and are reaching out to hundreds of student workers to find out what their priorities are.

But they’re also thinking bigger: Already, others have been reaching out to Hichens for advice, including new unions at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and Kenyon College in Ohio, the latter of which is in the midst of a student worker strike.

“We’re doing everything that we can to work with student workers across the country and give them the resources they need,” Hichens said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the strength of their organizing structure, those one-on-one conversations and workplace meetings, that will really get what student workers need.”

Grinnell College President Harris put out a statement after the vote to unionize thanking “UGSDW leaders who had the insight, conviction, and courage to reach out and take the first steps.”

“This election is also an opportunity for our college to more fully recognize that student employment is an important part of the undergraduate experience and to work together to acknowledge and support the value of that experience in our students’ lives,” Harris wrote.

That experience, Hichens added, will also be valuable as students join the workforce in years to come.

“(It prepares) student workers to go out into the workforce and unionize those workplaces as well, and to know exactly how organizing works from ground-level up, and to go out into the world and to use what we’ve built,” he said.

“It’s a part of a much larger wave that’s going on right now,” he added. “I think it’s very exciting.”

 

By Amie Rivers
5/12/22

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1 Comment on "How Grinnell College Undergrads Unionized And Made History"

  • How drastically will this increase tuition / fees ?
    I fear it will be significant and that will then make the loan issue worse. Are these proponents just pushing for “free” education, “free” housing, etc…?

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