** Editor’s note: The title has been changed from “What we can learn from Kenyon College’s undergraduate student worker strike” to “What we can learn from Kenyon College’s undergraduate student worker union” for greater clarity and accuracy.
For more than a year, undergraduate student workers at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, have been engaged in a fight for improved working conditions, an adequate COVID-19 response and the recognition of their union, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (KSWOC). Labor organizing in higher education has reached a fever pitch since a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that graduate student workers at private universities are employees with collective bargaining rights. Since then, graduate workers at Brandeis University, Tufts University and Harvard University have achieved official union recognition, with major organizing campaigns everywhere from the University of Pittsburgh to the monumental 17,000-person Student Researchers United (SRU-UAW) at the University of California.
However, this latest streak of organizing has largely left out undergraduate student workers. With uncertain, ever-changing legal terrain and widely-varying, high-turnover working conditions, undergraduate labor organizing is difficult but could represent a transformative body of popular mobilization and working-class power. Luckily, the trailblazing path set by the only two previous undergraduate union victories, the Residential Assistant/Peer Mentor Union, UAW Local 2322 (RAPMU) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) at Grinnell College, provided guidance for subsequent development. Following this path, KSWOC seeks to expand the scope of higher education labor organizing by winning recognition as an undergraduate worker union and by being the first “wall-to-wall” union representing all undergraduate student employees at an academic institution.
In line with the radical tradition of their national affiliate, the United Electrical, Radio, & Machine Workers of America (UE), KSWOC was born out of what many Kenyon student workers perceived as a lack of basic respect and tenable working conditions by the school administration in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. An interview with KSWOC organizer Nick Becker, among other organizers, painted a bleak picture of pandemic-era Kenyon. Right from the beginning of quarantine back in 2020, it took a petition and the joint efforts of hundreds of student workers, faculty, the maintenance staff union and the Kenyon chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America to pressure the administration to provide pay for those unable to work due to the pandemic. In the following months, a growing militancy spread across the campus as workers came together in solidarity and began organizing against their mistreatment by the Kenyon administration.
In fall 2020, a bit more than a year ago, KSWOC went public with its demands, calling for voluntary recognition of the union from the Kenyon College administration. KSWOC’s campaign rollout had consistently high support from the community despite being mostly remote, earning the support of their peers, faculty, staff and even elected officials like Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Since then, KSWOC has continued to fight for workplace dignity and demand recognition, despite the administration’s repeated refusals to voluntarily recognize the union and several potential violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), staging a number of pickets, rallies and speaking events as well as securing signed union cards from a solid majority of student workers.
KSWOC’s future will lie in either an election administered by the NLRB in accordance with the NLRA or in the unlikely situation of the administration agreeing to a community election administered by a mutually-agreed third party. Whatever happens, the significance of KSWOC in the larger labor movement and the lessons that can be drawn from their efforts go far beyond the Kenyon College campus. What student workers at Kenyon have done is a prime example of what Becker refers to as structure-based organizing, which is outlined in Jane McAlevey’s book “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age.” McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer, describes structure-based organizing as the process of building power based on concrete, material interests in order to structurally challenge oppressive arrangements of material control, as opposed to the activist-based advocacy model of appealing to the goodwill of a few elites. As Becker characterizes it in the case of Kenyon, the KSWOC strategy of organizing alongside people as fellow workers results in a much more disciplined, powerful campaign than coming in as an outside group trying to push on the behalf of others. A campus labor-organizing club or activist group will inevitably attract mostly those who already self-select as some sort of progressive or “activist.” However, by approaching people as student workers, you have a clearly delineated group of people you can reach out to about issues that they, as workers, have a vested material interest in, making otherwise apolitical workers more likely to join.
In a broader political context, widespread organizing of student worker unions would have far-reaching consequences. Academic institutions are often some of the largest employers in their areas, and the working conditions at the largest employer in an area often dictate the conditions at smaller enterprises. Thus, academic worker unions are crucial in shaping working conditions for broad swathes of the American working class, in and out of academia. Furthermore, an undergraduate student worker with a union would likely be in that union for at least two to three years, reaping all the benefits of a union workplace. If that union is built correctly, with a commitment to democratic member engagement and teaching organizing fundamentals, every student worker that graduates would have not only the experience of being in a union, but also the skills gained from that experience to build labor power wherever they go. With each union churning out hundreds, if not thousands, of well-trained, former union members every year, potentially across hundreds of colleges and universities, the impact on organized labor movement and on elections, indigenous rights, racial liberation struggles and other social movements would be unfathomable.
Justin Yuan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.