This month at Grinnell College, undergraduate student workers ratified their first contract — the first wall-to-wall undergrad worker union contract in the US. Jacobin spoke to union leaders about the victory.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, the undergraduate student-worker union at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, became the first wall-to-wall union of undergraduate student workers to ratify a contract. The independent Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), originally established in 2016 by student workers in the campus dining halls, won an expansion vote in 2023 to cover all undergrad workers at the college. On April 4, the union’s membership voted to approve a contract after two years of negotiations with the university — interrupted by a strike last May that Grinnell claimed was illegal.

The contract victory represents yet another win for the growing student-worker labor movement in the United States, which in recent years has spread rapidly among both undergraduate and graduate students. Jacobin spoke with UGSDW copresidents Hannah Sweet and Conrad Dahm about their union’s long fight for a contract.

Sara Wexler

Can you tell me about the recent contract ratification?

Conrad Dahm

On April 4, 2024, a vote closed for the ratification of our new contract, which covers all undergraduate student workers. By a vote of 162 to 1, our membership approved the vote officially ratifying the contract.

There has never been a wall-to-wall undergraduate contract ever ratified before in the United States. So we ratified and implemented the first such contract in US history. This is historic for the country, but also historic for our union, because it represents an effort that began in 2017 when our initial expansion effort was union busted and we withdrew it, fearing a negative precedent at the then [Donald] Trump-appointee-controlled National Labor Relations Board [NLRB].

It’s also historic for us because we survived years of union busting, thousands upon thousands of dollars’ worth of lawyer fees from the college, and hours upon hours of organizing from ourselves. It was the culmination of the work of hundreds of individuals and an immeasurable amount of time spent fighting for that contract.

Hannah Sweet

I think the contract is a testament to the resiliency of not only labor organizing on Grinnell’s campus, but labor organizing on all undergraduate campuses. There are unique challenges to organizing within this environment, and the contract win shows that it’s possible.

Sara Wexler

What were your roles in this movement? How did the organizing begin?

Hannah Sweet

I’m currently one of the copresidents of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers. I got involved with UGSDW about two years ago.

I was a community advisor, or an RA, on my campus. I had some grievances with the job and started organizing for self-interested reasons. But it became much more than that. I started to learn that this was a shared struggle — other people on campus in different workplaces were having these problems too. At the time, we had already had the vote [to expand the bargaining unit to all undergraduate workers], so I ended up joining the bargaining team and got more and more involved.

Conrad Dahm

I am also a copresident of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers along with Hannah. We are both serving for the year of 2024. I’m a year below Hannah; Hannah’s a third-year, and I’m a second-year. I was never at Grinnell pre-expansion — my class was the first class to go to Grinnell with a wall-to-wall [undergraduate union].

I became involved over the summer [before I started school]. I looked at the wages for my work-study job, and I saw that the base wage in the dining hall was $10.75, and that was higher than most wages on campus because of the union contract. The base wage on campus was $8.25.

We survived years of union busting.

So before classes even started, once I got to campus, I officially joined the union and became a member. I attended bargaining training, and I’ve just been involved ever since. I served as secretary-treasurer and now I serve as president, both as rank-and-file member. Hannah and I both still work on campus. I work as a lifeguard, and I also am the editor in chief of the Grinnell satire newspaper. I’ve worked other jobs on campus as well.

[Before I joined the union,] I didn’t really know how Grinnell functioned. As I got involved in the union, I became more aware of how the school functioned and how Grinnell exploits student workers, who [didn’t have] a real voice because there was no contract. I wanted to get involved to change that.

I come from a proud union family. Both my parents were union members. My dad’s retired now, but both my parents are former members of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. They’re both public high school teachers, and both have been rank-and-file teachers and officers in their union. My mom is very involved in the labor movement in Illinois and has served as president of her school’s bargaining team before.

So from a young age, I saw what a union can do. I remember many summers my mom being gone for weeks at a time at the bargaining table, and I’d be at home and would be told that mom is bargaining a contract. I was able to have that experience now serving on the bargaining team here.

Sara Wexler

Who does UGSDW’s bargaining unit cover? How many students are represented?

Conrad Dahm

We roughly have 650 to 800 workers on campus who are part of the bargaining unit. We don’t know the exact number, because the college will not give us that information due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the union maintains that the college is wrong in refusing to do so. So we don’t know the exact amount, but we are a wall-to-wall union, meaning that for any student worker on campus, if you work for and are paid by the college, you are a member of the bargaining unit.

Whether you work in the dining hall or you’re a lifeguard like me or a community advisor like Hannah or you work for the school newspaper or the satire newspaper or the literary magazine, if you’re a grader or a tutor — all jobs on campus are covered by the bargaining unit. We are the exclusive representative of all student workers of the college, [including part-time students and non-degree-seeking student high-schoolers employed by the college].

Sara Wexler

What were your demands going into contract negotiations? And what did you win in the contract?

Hannah Sweet

One of the big wins we got throughout this process was the just-cause provision. Prior to the contract, all nondining workers were at-will employees, meaning that they could be let go at any point for whatever reason their supervisor wanted to give — or for no reason at all.

At first, during the bargaining process, the college didn’t have an issue with applying a just-cause provision to most workers. But they were insistent that that provision could not apply to our academic workers. That includes graders, tutors, research assistants — basically anyone who does academic work, whose supervisor is a professor or someone in that area. That’s a significant portion of our bargaining unit. We did not want to agree to a contract without all of our membership having just-cause protections. And it’s not unprecedented: the [United Auto Workers] represents grad-student workers, and they’re doing similar work.

Having just-cause protections and job security is very important when it means the difference between being able or unable to afford your groceries for the next week.

So we ended up doing a walkout on March 15, 2023. At 5 p.m. people walked off the job, and we had an evening without student work. At the next bargaining session, we got movement, and the administration decided to extend just-cause to everyone.

That was one of our earliest substantial wins; it’s something I’m really proud of. Having those protections and that job security is very important when, for so many of us, it means the difference between completing or not completing a work-study requirement or being able or unable to afford your groceries for the next week.

Conrad Dahm

Along with the just-cause provision, we also won access to a grievance procedure for all student workers. Now, if any student worker feels that they’ve been wrongly disciplined or fired, or that the contract has been violated in a way that’s negatively affected them, they can file a grievance.

Although we had a grievance procedure in the dining workers’ contract, the big difference [in the new contract] is that now, at the final step of the grievance procedure, we have independent third-party arbitrator making the decisions. It used to be the dean of students making the decisions. As you could expect, the union did not win a lot of grievances when the dean of students from the college was the one making the decision. Now it’s an independent third-party arbitrator, so we can have an unbiased opinion on whether the contract was violated.

Other things we’ve won: we now have a provision in the contract [requiring the university] to bargain over the effects of major workplace rule changes or changes to the student-worker handbook, along with being able to bargain over the effects of elimination of a position or reductions in the workforce. This was a big win for us, because now, if the college wants to eliminate a workplace, they have to bargain with us over the effects of it, and it gives us the ability to have some workplace protections and to protect the jobs of our members. We also won a base wage of $13.50 an hour. That’s a 64 percent increase from the base wage when bargaining began, $8.

Finally, when we went on strike last year, one of the big issues was that the college was proposing a pay cut to community advisors. We wanted community advisors to have the choice between a room grant or a stipend equivalent to the room grant. Now community advisors have that choice.

Hannah Sweet

Another thing to add is that student workers had been working without a contract for about a year after we went on strike in May 2023. The college refused to bargain with us until the ULPs [unfair labor practices] that had been filed were adjudicated.

That was right around when our dining contract had expired as well. No one had any type of certainty this past year. So it was very important for us, as soon as we could get the college back at the table, to try to get this done and get some stability for our workers.

Another win that I wanted to mention is, we have pretty strong [language around strikes]. This was something that we had already won in the dining contract and were able to carry over to this contract, and it preserves student workers’ rights to not cross a primary, lawfully established picket line. So if another union on campus goes on strike on campus while our contract is still in effect, students can refuse to cross the picket line and not risk their jobs, which is amazing.

Sara Wexler

When did bargaining for the contract begin, and what were negotiations like?

Conrad Dahm

Negotiations began in October of 2022. One of the big moves that fundamentally changed the bargaining process was that, at first, we had bargaining open via livestream and in person for anyone to view. We pushed hard for in-person bargaining after a bargaining session where a few people laughed at the college being unable to define a term. . . .

Hannah Sweet

We were discussing the just-cause provision and how the administration wanted to exclude academic workers. They were justifying it in terms of academic freedom — that it would threaten professors’ academic freedom if they were beholden to a just-cause provision. I was like, “Can you explain what you mean by academic freedom?” Since it was their justification for the exclusion of a vast majority of our unit [from the protection], and they got very defensive. The people who were watching that day in-person had an audible reaction.

After that, the college refused to meet with us unless it was closed bargaining. That was unfortunate for us because we believe in being a democratic union. We wanted this whole process to be as transparent as possible, because even though there were only a couple of us at the table, we were representing hundreds of people. They have a right to know what’s happening and the status of negotiations are, but we ended up finding a middle ground. It went from open in person and live-streamed to closed in person and live-streamed so people could still watch via their computers or digitally.

Conrad Dahm

When we went on strike, the administration characterized our strike as illegal and canceled all bargaining sessions, which we viewed as a violation of labor law because workers engaging in a strike does not suspend the employer’s obligation to bargain with the union. So we filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board in May 2023, and we settled those privately outside of the board, because the NLRB still had not issued a ruling by February 2024, and we wanted to return to the table as soon as possible.

When we returned to bargaining in February 2024, the attitude of the college definitely had shifted. Bargaining was a lot less contentious, and the administration was a lot more willing to give us what we wanted — because, I think, we showed that we were willing to take action.

When we went on strike in May 2023, the administration characterized our strike as illegal and canceled all bargaining sessions, which we viewed as a violation of labor law.

During the strike, the college received a lot of bad PR. Alumni were angry that it was engaging in this union-busting behavior instead of agreeing to the union’s pretty normal demands. We weren’t asking for that much: we were asking for a basic contract, a basic living wage, and they refused to grant us that. After we took action and returned to the bargaining table, they were a lot more inclined to compromise with us.

Hannah Sweet

A big part of that was that this had become a multiyear process. With that, the lawyer fees start to stack up. It was becoming a very financially consuming process and also a very time-consuming process. So I think the administration was very tired, but we communicated to them that we were in this for the long haul, and we would continue to show up to the table and continue to organize until we were able to get the best contract possible for our membership.

Throughout the process, there was a bit of a struggle to earn the respect of the college’s bargaining team. We were across the table from people who had been in labor law for decades. They’ve made their career out of it, people who are paid just to be there, and we are full-time students who are very strapped for time. We haven’t even gotten our bachelor’s degrees yet, but we were serious.

It took some time to earn that respect. Once we did, we started to see much better bargaining sessions. I think that’s generally what undergraduate labor organizing is: it’s a David-and-Goliath type of power dynamic. You have these student unions who don’t have any financial resources, don’t have much time, and who are being pulled in so many different directions as full-time students — against these multibillion-dollar institutions that have all the resources at their fingertips.

Sara Wexler

You mentioned union-busting tactics.

Conrad Dahm

First, the college did not give us employee information, which is required by the National Labor Relations Act [NLRA]. The administration said that it would be a violation of FERPA to give us the information of people who work at Grinnell. When the union was just dining hall workers, the college gave the information including name, phone number, email address — basic contact information required under the NLRA.

It provided that de facto for everybody until we got a wall-to-wall union and we began negotiations, and then they said, “It’s a violation of FERPA; we won’t give it to you.” We filed an unfair labor practice charge about that, and the board found merit in our claim and was prepared to issue a complaint on our behalf saying the college violated labor law. But due to the college threatening to appeal the decision, we decided to settle privately on [the college providing all employees] a waiver with an opt-in or opt-out clause.

We were across the table from people who had been in labor law for decades. They’ve made their career out of it, and we are full-time students who are very strapped for time.

Other union-busting tactics included characterizing our strike as illegal and misrepresenting labor law, in our opinion, to the campus community. Along with that, the college was generally not willing to respond and used its resources to sidestep the union at every turn.

Their union-busting tactics have shifted from 2018, when the college attempted to remove the right of all undergraduates to unionize. It threatened to appeal to the National Labor Relations Board dominated by Republicans at the time to remove the right of all undergraduates to unionize, and potentially graduate students as well. Grinnell was looking to overturn the 2016 NLRB Columbia decision that guaranteed the right of grad students and undergrads to organize unions.

Through the entire process, the college has tried to act like it is a social-justice institution. Grinnell is a very left-leaning school; it tries to present itself as caring about the social good and social responsibility. Yet the college engages in union busting. The attorneys it hired also represent corporations and employers in discrimination lawsuits and generally represent some not good people. Grinnell most likely spent thousands of dollars on these union-busting tactics.

Sara Wexler

What do you believe allowed the union to achieve everything it did?

Conrad Dahm

The dedication of student workers. Hannah and I and our bargaining team and the executive board and all of our membership consistently showed that, no matter how long this process was, we were willing to show up. If it meant a four-hour bargaining session on a Thursday when we have homework or a test; we will be there if it means showing up to a disciplinary hearing on a moment’s notice. I’ve represented people on thirty-minutes notice at disciplinary hearings and helped people save their jobs that way.

No matter how long or arduous the process was, we were willing to fight for a contract, and we were willing to go on strike and sacrifice pay, social time, and so on to secure a fair contract. I think that the institution finally realized that its union-busting techniques would not work and we would not back down.

Hannah Sweet

This wasn’t just a two-year process. This wasn’t possible just because of a handful of people that were at Grinnell while we were bargaining and while we were conducting the expansion vote. This win is thanks to the hundreds of organizers that came before us on this campus who continued to fight for that expansion, even after the union-busting lawyers came and they had to withdraw that case.

It’s thanks to all of that previous leadership that continued to build this organization and thought not just about what they could do for workers while they were here, but what they could do for workers in the future. Because a lot of the benefits that come from these contracts and from our organizing aren’t going to be reaped while Conrad or I are on this campus. The biggest impacts are going to be felt by the people who haven’t even applied to Grinnell College yet or by the incoming class.

Sara Wexler

Are you in touch with other undergraduate workers across the country? What role do you see undergrad workers unions playing in the labor movement?

Conrad Dahm

We’re in contact with the other wall-to-walls in the country and a plethora of other student-worker unions, including RA unions, dining halls, and so on. We’ve shared strategies and lent support.

We’re confident about the future of the undergraduate labor movement in the country. I think that if 2023 taught us anything, whether it’s our strike, the strikes or threats of strikes of other student workers, or strike or threats of strikes of other unions — the UAW, the Teamsters, and so on — is that people in America are fed up with the way that things have been going for years, the decimation of the labor movement and the policies that have led to lower wages and worse working conditions for people across the board. I think that people are finally starting to get angry and realize that they deserve a higher wage, that they deserve workplace protections.

Although there are differences between us, all unions are in the labor movement together, and we’re in contact with unions outside of the undergrad movement. We’re in contact with unions that represent a wide variety of industries, and all of them have been incredibly supportive.

Although what we do at Grinnell is on a smaller scale, when we graduate and go elsewhere, we’re not going to forget the actions of the university; we’re not going to forget the actions of our fellow student workers. We’re going to stand up and fight for each other, whether that’s for an autoworker in Detroit, a Grinnell student worker, a Teamster or a teacher or a journalist it doesn’t matter. We’re all in the same fight together.

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