Frequently Asked Questions about Union Expansion

New Questions

May 9, 2019

The Board determined that given the complexity of the issues, it needed more time to deliberate the implications of student union expansion.

The Board indicated it may take up discussion of student union expansion at its October 2019 meeting.

In preliminary discussions with the union about selective expansion, the College made it clear that the soonest new student positions would voluntarily be added to the union would be during the 2019-20 academic year.

On May 5, union members unilaterally voted to impose a deadline of May 31 for the expansion to be finalized. The College never accepted that deadline, which would have drastically changed the timeline the administration had communicated might be possible.

Student union expansion presents complex issues with immediate and long term implications for both students and the College. The Board felt it was prudent to take the time necessary to fully consider those before moving forward.

On May 4, the Board indicated its intent to suspend talks over voluntary selective expansion of the UGSDW bargaining unit pending further discussion by the Board at its October 2019 meeting.

The Board voted to direct the administration to suspend discussions about potential student union expansion during its meeting on Saturday, May 4. That action occurred before the union voted on Sunday, May 5 to accept possible voluntary union expansion.

Expansion Questions

Updated Feb. 21, 2019

Earlier this year the union indicated that it was willing to consider this option, and we believed there was an opportunity to reach a solution.

No, he did not make such a promise.

UGSDW student leaders did not request a meeting with the Board of Trustees. The Board welcomed 40 student protestors who arrived at the board meeting unexpectedly. The students chose to chant and sing rather than addressing the board or engaging in dialogue. After 10 minutes of listening, the board chair elected to adjourn the meeting.

We believe we communicated a comprehensive explanation of our concerns about the potential adverse impact of campus-wide union expansion on Grinnell’s ability to pursue its educational mission and preserve its distinct culture. Among other things, we pointed to the potential for limitations on student hiring, assignments, scheduling and advising as well as the potential for unacceptable personal disclosures.

There was not an effort by students to address these issues prior to the UGSDW’s attempt to expand the union to cover virtually all students on campus.

Some have raised the issue that an expanded union is necessary because increases in compensation that students earn for on-campus work have not matched increases in tuition. On this point, we think it is important to note that Grinnell is proud to be need-blind with regard to admission, and we remain deeply committed to ensuring that the College is accessible to students from every walk of life. We provide one of the most extensive and generous financial assistance programs in the country and continue to meet the entire demonstrated financial need of every admitted student through a comprehensive system of grants and loans as well as work on campus. We are also continually increasing our financial assistance budget to ensure that need-based financial aid students are not reliant on wages to cover any increases in tuition or fees. As tuition increases, we don't expect need-based students to work more to cover those costs. Instead, their other financial aid increases to close the gap - most notably, their grant from Grinnell College.

Seventy percent of Grinnell students receive need-based aid with an average grant/scholarship award of $45,077. Grinnell funds 93 percent of the almost $56 million in total grants and scholarships awarded to students this year.

There are significant differences between Grinnell’s situation and those at Brown, Columbia and Georgetown—most significantly that Grinnell is an undergraduate institution whereas the other unions cover graduate students almost exclusively. That said, the College has reached out to the union to discuss potential selective expansion of the union to cover positions that are more like those in dining services.

No. Grinnell has a long and proud history of championing social responsibility, and we are committed to maintaining strong partnerships with the unions on our campus, including the UGSDW. In fact, the College and President Kington supported the formation of UGSDW, which became the first independent union for undergraduate students in the country. The UGSDW is an important part of Grinnell and we value the impact its members — and other union employees at the College — have on this community every day.

As expressed by President Kington and supported by the Board of Trustees, the College’s concern is that an expanded union that covers nearly all students on campus, especially roles that are primarily academic experiences, could affect Grinnell’s distinctive culture and diminish educational opportunities for our students.

No, it is not. The College never  threatened to oppose the union’s request to withdraw its petition.

Before the UGSDW withdrew its petition, the union filed several “unfair labor practice” charges with the NLRB. While Grinnell was in the process of responding to these allegations, the College learned that the UGSDW had asked to withdraw each of the charges it filed with the NLRB. The Regional Director approved these withdrawal requests and closed each of the cases. At the time that UGSDW withdrew its charges, the NLRB had not made any findings on the merit of the allegations.

Absolutely not. That would be inconsistent with Grinnell’s commitment to student financial support.

No, and it never will.

Expanding the union to include all student workers could take away from Grinnell’s distinctive approach to education, in which individually advised learning takes place both in and out of the classroom:

  • Limit student assignments. As a result of union rules that could apply to all student work, regardless of job type, faculty could be limited in working directly and freely with students to design research or teaching assignments that meet the students' academic interests.
  • Limit hiring. Union rules could likely dictate that faculty and staff fill positions based on seniority, rather than on a student's unique skills, interests or experience. This would mean that faculty and staff might not be able to select the candidates they believe are best suited for the positions.
  • Limit scheduling. The ability to tailor work schedules to a student's unique needs could be compromised. For example, a research assistant might have to, or choose to, work longer or later hours to complete a project by a deadline or before final exams begin. However, potential union demands may limit that flexibility.
  • Limit advising. Faculty also serve as advisers, both formally and informally, to Grinnell students. This is a cornerstone of our academic community. If all student workers are represented by a union, this may limit the ability of professors to freely advise students on certain issues without potentially violating union rules and federal labor laws.
  • Lead to unacceptable personal disclosures. Union rules might also require the College to reveal a student's financial status in collective bargaining and possibly to the faculty or staff member seeking to hire the student. This would be inconsistent with the culture and ethos of Grinnell.

Unfortunately, the usual model of shared governance isn’t always applicable in a labor dispute where communications by management (including faculty) are limited by strict labor laws. Special labor relations rules apply to union campaigns. Anything that might violate or be alleged to violate labor laws could lead to allegations of unfair labor practices, fines or rulings against the College, as well as lawsuits and other issues. Also, a decision regarding the expansion of a union is a matter that falls directly under the fiduciary responsibility of the Board of Trustees. In the system of shared governance at Grinnell, that issue resides with the Board.

The College takes the concerns raised in UGSDW's report very seriously, and we are committed to investigating the matter thoroughly. For more information, see the Special Campus Memo on this topic.

The College has concerns about the unintended impact that unionization could have if the union was expanded to include the majority of Grinnell students, including those serving in roles that directly support their educational experience.

At the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing last fall, President Kington shared the College’s own analysis indicating that although the vast majority of the positions the union sought to add to the existing unit had a significant educational component, others did not. The College has reached out to the UGSDW to open a dialogue about ways to potentially selectively expand the union by including additional student jobs that are more like those in dining. We hope to initiate discussions soon.

At Grinnell, we are proud to be a need-blind institution with regard to admission, and we remain deeply committed to ensuring that the College is accessible to students from every walk of life. We provide one of the most extensive and generous financial assistance programs in the country and continue to meet 100 percent of the demonstrated financial need of every student through a comprehensive system of grants and loans as well as work on campus. The College has also continuously increased its financial assistance budget to ensure that students with need-based financial aid packages are not reliant on wages to cover any increases in tuition or fees.

It is important that we periodically assess various aspects of student financial support. Recently the union has suggested that Grinnell’s financial aid is insufficient to meet students’ basic needs. With this mind, an assessment is warranted to determine whether the College’s current support is adequate to ensure Grinnell is accessible to all admitted students, and can sustain our students’ success once enrolled. Equally important, we must conduct such an assessment in the context of balancing revenues and expenses in the short-term while preserving institutional financial viability and sustainability for the long-run.

With this in mind, Board Chair Patricia Finkelman ’80 will announce the creation of a Board Task Force on Student Financial Support and Success to assess and address these issues. That task force will be headed by Board member and alumna Angela Onwuachi-Willig ’94, a noted scholar and current Dean of Boston University School of Law. The task force’s work will be supported by an advisory committee that will include students, faculty, staff and alumni. It is expected that a report on its work will be presented to the Board of Trustees at the October 2019 meeting.

We will continue to build upon earlier strategic planning efforts that, over the past five years, have brought institutional focus to improving student experiential learning opportunities on campus.

The next phase of this work will focus on strengthening the educational components of work on campus. Mark Peltz, the Daniel and Patricia Jipp Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service, will spearhead this initiative to ensure that students’ personal growth and professional development are an even more central focus of these opportunities. In support of this effort, the College will be creating a new position to focus exclusively on supporting campus experiential learning opportunities outside of the classroom and making sure these positions prepare students with critical career-readiness skills. Among other things, we will explore ways of improving training opportunities for both students and supervisors, incorporating mentoring and reflection activities, enhancing evaluation processes, and ways to document out-of-classroom educational experiences.

General Questions

Originally published Nov. 19, 2018; updated Dec. 5, 2018.

At Grinnell, we are proud of our long history championing education, access, and social justice. We work closely with faculty, students, and staff to ensure the College is a great place to learn, work, research, and create for every member of our community. While we have strong partnerships with our unions, we believe that expanding UGSDW to include all student workers could harm Grinnell’s ability to pursue its core educational mission and maintain its distinctive culture, in which individually advised learning takes place both in and out of the classroom. It would also introduce privacy concerns and diminish educational opportunities for students.

It is the College’s position that a union representing all student employees could cause significant harm; among other things, it could:

  • Undermine Grinnell’s core mission – by harming the College’s ability to pursue its core educational purpose and maintain its distinctive culture, in which individually advised learning takes place both in and out of the classroom;
  • Impede learning – by fundamentally changing the educational relationship between the College, faculty, and students. Expanding the union could effectively insert a third party whose priorities are economic, not educational, into learning outside of the classroom and alter the relationship between students and faculty;
  • Introduce privacy concerns – by requiring disclosure of protected student financial information to other students who serve as union leaders; and
  • Diminish student opportunities – by hurting the College’s ability to ensure that meaningful co-curricular learning is available for any student interested in a job for any reason. We know from feedback we’ve received that students value these experiences highly. Expanding the union could undermine the College’s flexibility to provide these opportunities to students in ways that meet their individual needs. 

Grinnellians are proud of our commitment to championing education, access and social justice. Grinnell has strong partnerships with unions on campus, and the College did not oppose the unionization efforts of students in dining services and their eventual decision to be represented by a union. Given our values, it might seem that unionization of all student positions would fit naturally into Grinnell’s culture; in reality, this expansion of the union would undermine the College’s ability to pursue its core educational mission and maintain its distinctive culture, where co-curricular, individually advised learning plays an important role. In fact, expanding the union would fundamentally change the educational relationship between the College, faculty and students by effectively inserting a third party whose priorities are economic, not educational, into the classroom and alter the relationship between students and faculty.

The primary relationship of students with Grinnell College is educational, not economic – and individualized education outside the classroom is a big part of being Grinnellian. We recognize the income that students earn may play a role in financing their education, but students working at the College are not here primarily to earn a living – they are here to learn, inside the classroom and out.

Recently, efforts to unionize graduate student teaching assistants, and even student-athletes have been in the news. UGSDW at Grinnell was the first independent union for undergraduate students in the United States, and is still thought to be the only independent union solely comprised of undergraduate students.

We respect and support the right of our students to express their views and have their voices heard.

However, we continue to believe that expanding the UGSDW to include all student workers at Grinnell could cause significant harm and undermine the College’s core educational mission and culture, impede learning, and diminish educational opportunities for students.

As previously stated, the College will be appealing the decision by the Regional Office of the NLRB that allowed the vote to expand the union. Because of technicalities of NLRB procedure governing challenges to Regional Director decisions in union representation cases, the College has concluded that we cannot bargain with UGSDW in an expanded unit while our appeal is pending before the NLRB. However, the College will continue to recognize UGSDW as the representative of the dining service workers, as before. 

About Unionization

Originally published Nov. 19, 2018; updated Dec. 5, 2018.

A labor union is an organization that represents employees in negotiations with their employer over terms and conditions of employment, such as working conditions, pay, and benefits. When a union becomes the exclusive bargaining representative for a group of employees, negotiations over terms and conditions of employment must be between the employer and the union, not between the employer and individual employees.

In August 2016, in a decision involving Columbia University, the NLRB reversed previous decisions and ruled that students who serve in compensated teaching and research positions at private colleges and universities are considered “employees” for the purposes of collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and, thus, can form a union.

A bargaining unit is a group of employees that share a community of interests (e.g., similar occupations, geographic location, duties, pay structure, etc.). A union that becomes the exclusive bargaining representative for a group of employees has the exclusive authority to negotiate with the employer over terms and conditions of employment covering all members of the bargaining unit.

No. Under the National Labor Relations Act, all student workers holding positions encompassed by the bargaining unit description would be represented by UGSDW and bound by the decisions that the Union makes on behalf of the unit if it is elected as collective bargaining representative. There is no opting out of the bargaining unit by individual student workers after the election.

Yes, if the international student worker holds a position that is included within the bargaining unit description. Status as an international student at Grinnell does not affect placement in the unit represented by UGSDW. And those student workers would be bound by the decisions that the Union makes to the same extent as any other members of the unit, with no right to opt out.

In states like Iowa with right-to-work laws, employees are entitled to work in unionized workplaces without joining the union or paying union dues. In other words, compulsory union membership is unlawful; members of a bargaining unit cannot be required to become and remain members of the union, or to pay union dues and fees, as a condition of continued employment. 

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