2 years after historic union vote, Grinnell students sign 1st-in-nation contract

Students attend a “Back to Bargaining Rally” outside of the Joe Rosenfield `25 Center on Feb. 28, 2024. Bargaining between the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers and the College resumed in February after nearly a year hiatus, leading to the historic contract that was approved on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Zach Spindler-Krage, The Scarlet and Black)

By Guest Post

April 5, 2024

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Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) officially ratified, in a 162-1 vote, the first contract in US history to cover all undergraduate student workers.

On Friday, Grinnell College signed the contract, which takes effect immediately.

The historic contract raises the base wage for all student workers to $13.50/hour, an increase of $5.25 since bargaining began in 2022. It’s the culmination of over a year and a half of collective bargaining between UGSDW and Grinnell College.

Hannah Sweet, a junior, and sophomore Conrad Dahm, UGSDW co-presidents, publicly announced the ratification of the contract immediately after voting ended at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, surrounded by the UGSDW executive board. The new contract will apply to all student workers on Grinnell’s campus, which Dahm estimated to be between 600 and 700 employees.

“We showed that worker power and solidarity cannot be defeated,” Dahm said. “We showed that unions don’t give up. We fight to the bitter end because we care about what we’re doing.”

Ellen de Graffenreid, Grinnell’s vice president of communications and marketing, wrote that the college “sees ratification as a very positive development.”

“The college is pleased to have an agreement that clarifies students’ roles as employees and their role as students,” De Graffenreid said. She added Grinnell could not comment on their legal fees spent on collective bargaining.

2 years after historic union vote, Grinnell students sign 1st-in-nation contract

Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers display the first wall-to-wall undergraduate contract in U.S. history. The Union approved the contract by a vote of 162-1. It will immediately take effect after Grinnell College signs it on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Photo by Zach Spindler-Krage, The Scarlet and Black)

Higher wages, stronger worker protections

In addition to the higher base wage, which will increase by 27 cents each academic year until the contract expires on June 30, 2027, the contract also establishes stricter worker protections.

All student workers will now be protected under just cause, meaning employers must have a legitimate, fair reason to fire or discipline workers. If any student worker feels they have been unfairly disciplined or discharged, they will have access to a grievance procedure to address the issue.

In previous collective bargaining negotiations, Grinnell had proposed to exclude academic workers from just cause protections, which would have left many student workers as “at-will” employees, subject to firing at any time without a clear reason.

The new contract also provides new compensation options for community advisors (CAs), who work 16 hours per week as trained residence hall leaders. CAs will now have the option of choosing to be compensated via a room grant, or a stipend equivalent to their room grant, which is set at $3,938 per semester for the 2024-2025 academic year.

Additionally, the new contract introduces a change in the arbitration process—the final step of a grievance procedure. In the past, the dean of students was the decider on arbitration. Now, third party arbitrators will be used.

Negotiations, complaints, accusations

Before reaching this agreement, UGSDW and Grinnell bargained over the terms of a new contract for over a year and a half. During this time, there were frequent instances of significant disagreement, culminating in a strike and legal action.

After Grinnell provided a proposal to UGSDW in the spring of 2023, the union voted to strike. When union leadership informed the college about the strike, Grinnell sent an email to students alleging it would be an unlawful strike, ending bargaining for the course of the strike.

On May 10, 2023, the college filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint alleging bad faith bargaining on the basis of an “illegal strike.” UGSDW responded on May 11 by filing a ULP alleging the college was illegally refusing to bargain and had engaged in coercive statements.

UGSDW and Grinnell reached a settlement on Feb. 20 to resolve the ULP complaints, and returned to the bargaining table in late February after nearly a year to negotiate the contract.

Prior to this conflict, on Nov. 7, 2022, Grinnell alleged a UGSDW’s newsletter and video alleging the college walked out of negotiations “materially misrepresent[ed] the collective bargaining session.” UGSDW stood behind its claim, but Grinnell eventually eliminated in-person audiences for the bargaining sessions. The subsequent sessions were instead live streamed.

In the fall of 2022, UGSDW and Grinnell disagreed about the Union’s method of distributing its newsletter around campus, with more claims of collective bargaining agreement violations.

UGSDW plans next steps following contract ratification

Although UGSDW leaders had to make compromises to reach this agreement, Dahm said they didn’t “give up what we believed was important to our membership.”

“We won the best contract under the circumstances,” Sweet agreed. “If you show up and they give you everything that you asked for, you’re not asking for enough.”

Grinnell said the agreement is “consistent with its positions throughout collective bargaining,”de Graffenreid said. “Many of the terms included in the final contract were offered by the college during collective bargaining in the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023.”

While the majority of the language and terms have remained consistent over time, the just cause and CA compensation components were new. Prior to the agreement, Grinnell said it “would not pay stipends to student employees,” nor include academic workers under just cause protections. These positions were reversed in the latest contract.

Independent of a formal contract, the College increased wages to $13 per hour beginning in fall 2023. Students have voiced concerns that increased wages would lead to decreased hours.

Dahm said, while the concern is valid, he is confident UGSDW can use Article 3.10 to prevent major workplace changes. Article 3.10 states UGSDW will have an opportunity to bargain over workplace rules that materially alter the essential functions of any position, the categorical elimination of a student worker position, and reductions in force.

Additionally, as a result of a February settlement, Grinnell now requires student workers to sign a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) release form before the College can provide UGSDW with employee information, including name, employment status, job title(s), college post office number, cell phone number, college email address, dates of hire and dates of resignation or termination.

UGSDW sent an email to Union members encouraging them to sign the FERPA release form so that UGSDW to “know who works where” and “the issues in that workplace.”

Dahm said UGSDW will now focus on enforcement of the contract.

“No matter who you are or where you work, we will be there and we will represent you to our best and full ability with the full strength of the union behind us,” Dahm said. He noted he does expect Grinnell to comply with the contract.

Sweet added that she plans to prioritize discussions of UGSDW’s history and purpose.

“Unions are political entities. When you look at some of the most impactful social movements in our history, unions have been at the heart of them,” Sweet said, emphasizing that any actions or stances UGSDW takes must be democratically decided on.

Grinnell union leading the way

The contract signed Thursday is the latest historic achievement by UGSDW—Grinnell College was also the first fully unionized undergraduate school in the US.

In 2016, Grinnell student workers established a union for dining hall workers. In 2018, the union voted to expand membership to all student workers. At the time, however, Grinnell was firmly against the idea, hiring legal representation and submitting an appeal to the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) to oppose the vote.

“The college values the work performed by students; however, our view of these jobs is based upon the central and fundamentally educational relationship between students and Grinnell College,” Raynard Kington, then Grinnell College’s president, said at the time. “Therefore … we oppose the intrusion of collective bargaining into the educational relationship.”

The union at that time decided to vacate its expansion win, fearing the then-Republican-controlled NLRB would rule against them, which they feared would set a dangerous precedent for all campuses attempting to unionize.

Four years later, with a more labor-friendly NLRB board in place, Grinnell College became the first fully unionized undergraduate school in the US after UGSDW expanded membership from exclusively dining workers to all student workers.

This time, recently-hired President Anne Harris and the Board of Trustees did not oppose the expansion. President Joe Biden even endorsed the student union during a CNN town hall at Grinnell in November of 2019.

Grinnell is one of only three institutions—along with the University of Oregon and the ​​California State University system—with wall-to-wall undergraduate student unions, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. At least 15 other institutions have unionized either dining services or residence life workers.

Sweet and Dahm said UGSDW has taken inspiration from Dartmouth College, Kenyon College, and the University of Oregon, in addition to benefiting from volunteer lawyers. They also said UGSDW is frequently in contact with other unions across the US to share bargaining strategies.

“I think some of the work we’ve done can be replicated and spread to other wall-to-wall unions,” Dahm said. “Hopefully they take some inspiration like we’ve done from other labor movements and win a union and win a contract to help their student workers.”

Student Worker Collective Dartmouth congratulated UGSDW in a statement to The S&B, writing, “We are honored to hear that our contract has been an inspiration to them, especially since their support to us back in 2020, when undergraduate unionism had not taken off yet, was critical to our decision to organize into a union.”

Cory McCartan, the founder and first president of UGSDW who graduated in 2019, also sent a statement in support.

“When we started our expansion campaign in the fall of 2017, I was hopeful we would get here, but had no idea how long it might take,” he said. “There were times when the college’s anti-union actions were completely at odds with its core values. But in the end, seeing student workers win this contract has made me so proud to be a Grinnellian and a former member of this great union.”

Contributed reporting from Taylor Nunley and Nick El Hajj

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