Undergraduate Unions: The Next Frontier?

Undergraduate Unions: The Next Frontier?

It’s not just graduate workers who are pushing the envelope of campus organizing. Undergraduates like the dining hall workers at Iowa’s Grinnell College are finding creative new ways to win better wages and working conditions, too.

Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers ratify their first contract, September 27, 2016 (USGDW)

In the wake of the NLRB decision affirming the right of graduate employees at all universities to unionize, campuses are emerging as a key site of growth and experimentation for organized labor. A fight at Harvard is ongoing, as graduate employees organize to join their counterparts at Columbia, who “overwhelmingly” voted to unionize on December 7—even if Columbia is now seeking to overturn the election. But it is not just graduate employees who are pushing the envelope. In September, the administration at Iowa’s Grinnell College—a small liberal arts college located in a town of 9,000—signed a contract with the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), the first and only union representing undergraduate students at a private college or university.

Cory McCartan, a second-year Grinnell student who works in the dining hall, came up with the idea for UGSDW in February. McCartan, who studies mathematics and had no previous experience with labor organizing, described the union as “an elegant solution” to two major problems facing Grinnell’s Dining Services department: wages that weren’t keeping up with the cost of tuition, and the difficulty of finding students willing to fill the work-study positions.

The two problems were, of course, related. In addition to being seen as more difficult than other work-study jobs like staffing the library or residence hall security desks, wages for dining hall student employees had not increased since 2009. In the same period, tuition had increased 35 percent.

Rather than taking a more traditional route like requesting raises on an individual basis or lodging a complaint with the financial aid office, McCartan and his coworkers began researching how to form a union.

One barrier that immediately arose was Iowa’s status as a right-to-work state. “We knew right away that dues were a non-starter,” McCartan told me. But rather than abandon the idea of organizing, McCartan and his fellow organizers decided to try to form an independent union, unaffiliated with an international. Without union staff to pay, their thinking ran, dues wouldn’t be necessary.

However, without an international affiliation, they also had no legal support. The UGSDW organizers relied on public information such as the NLRB staff and website, as well as academic papers, to guide them through the process of union recognition.

McCartan and the other organizers were unsure how the college would react to their efforts at unionization. Union-busting measures could have been fatal to the unaffiliated union drive. Fortunately, the college decided to remain neutral, a decision that McCartan ascribes to Grinnell’s social justice brand. When the endowment has grown to $1.7 billion, he told me, fighting its own students over pay would have been bad publicity for the school.

By mid-April, UGSDW filed a petition signed by 92 of the 220 student dining workers calling for an NLRB election. The date of the election was set for May 5, immediately before finals. Still, with twenty-three students voting, only one vote was cast in opposition to union recognition. Contract negotiations started soon after.

In keeping with their status as an independent union, UGSDW’s bargaining team was made up solely of members. The two controversial topics at the bargaining table were pay and a no-strike clause. UGSDW’s opening offer on a base wage was $10.12 an hour, as opposed to the pre-union wage of $8.50. Grinnell countered with $9, and the two sides eventually settled on $9.25. The bargaining team also accepted a no-strike clause in exchange for a formal grievance procedure. UGSDW members ratified the one-year contract on September 27.

Since then, the college has voluntarily raised the wages of two related work-study jobs: those in the catering department and the campus coffee shop. UGSDW now has over sixty members and continues to grow. “Once you talk to [dining hall workers who are not yet members], they sign up. Becoming a member gives them a voice in bargaining,” said McCartan, who is now the president of UGSDW.

UGSDW’s current contract expires June 30 of this year, but McCartan hopes to conclude bargaining another one-year contract by the end of this academic year. His goals include tying wage increases to tuition increases and signing up more members so they can be involved in the bargaining process.

In the long run, McCartan hopes that UGSDW sparks more unionization across Grinnell’s campus. Currently, the only other union on campus is Teamsters Local 90, which represents facilities workers. McCartan said UGSDW is committed to supporting any other campus workers (students and non-students alike) who organize for union representation.

Already, it looks like UGSDW’s status as the only undergraduate union at a private school won’t last long. In December, resident advisors (RAs) at George Washington University petitioned for an NLRB election. Unlike at Grinnell, the GWU administration is fighting the undergraduates’ legal status as employees—and unlike at Grinnell, the workers have decided to affiliate with an international, SEIU. Despite these differences, both sets of undergraduate workers are fighting to expand the boundaries of which workers are allowed to collectively bargain.

They are joined by an increasing number of undergraduate groups across the country seeking to improve wages and working conditions on campus by linking their efforts to the Fight for $15. The Student Worker Organizing Committee, a national offshoot of United Students Against Sweatshops, is just one of a panoply of groups fighting for #15onCampus, from San Diego to Memphis to Massachusetts.

At Grinnell, one issue with the UGSDW’s current contract does remain outstanding: the status of the dozen or so high school students who work in the dining hall. UGSDW and the college have formally requested a clarification from the NLRB on the question. McCartan is hoping for an answer before Inauguration Day.


Evan Burger is an organizer and writer based in central Iowa. His articles have appeared in Jacobin, the Journal of Critical Theory and Praxis, and the Iowa Informer. You can find Evan on Twitter at @evan_burger.


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