Statements and Positions

Information Summary

(September 2019)

Key Union Developments at Grinnell

  • Since the 1970s: College has maintained a long and positive relationship with professional union representing building and grounds staff employees (currently Teamsters Local 90).
  • May 2016: College supported the establishment of the first independent union for undergraduate students in the nation, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW).
  • December 2016: College agreed to voluntarily expand the bargaining unit to include catering.
  • September 2017: UGSDW gave notice of intent to expand from dining workers to all student workers.
  • October 2018: UGSDW petitioned NLRB regional office to hold a vote to expand union to all student workers.
  • October 2018: NLRB hearing held on campus, College opposed expansion to all student workers.
  • November 2018: NLRB ruling to allow vote by UGSDW members. College filed motion to stay the election based on position that the regional office’s ruling was incorrect; the motion was denied.
  • November 2018: UGSDW held expansion vote, for which 796 students were eligible to vote (based upon NLRB criteria that any undergraduate student employee of the College who logged work hours between Sept. 16 and Oct. 15, 2018, could vote). Out of the 796 eligible, approximately 366 participated; of the 366 ballots cast, 274 voted for expansion, 54 voted against, 38 ballots were challenged; expansion passed by simple majority vote.
  • December 2018: College appealed decision to allow vote to NLRB; UGSDW withdrew petition to expand; College withdrew appeal.
  • Spring 2019: UGSDW and College entered into exploratory discussions of limited expansion of 14 positions, potentially affecting 222 students (in addition to the 338 existing dining student workers).
  • May 2019: Board of Trustees passed a motion to hold any further consideration of expansion pending further study and deliberations, update expected at October board meeting.

The College’s Position on Unions

  • Grinnell has been and continues to be supportive of unions.
  • The College has worked closely and collaboratively with union employees at Grinnell for nearly 50 years.
  • UGSDW is an important part of Grinnell; the College values all student workers and everyone who contributes to the operations of the campus.

The College’s Position on Student Dining Union Expansion

  • The College supports UGSDW, but opposes expansion.
  • Board of Trustees expressed concerns about impact of expansion and deemed it prudent to take the time necessary to fully consider those before moving forward.
  • In the system of shared governance at Grinnell, a decision regarding the expansion of a union is a matter that falls directly under the fiduciary responsibility of the Board of Trustees.
  • UGSDW’s case for expansion was not based primarily on wages, hours, work conditions, or other traditional collective bargaining issues.
  • Student union expansion presents complex issues with immediate and long-term implications to limit faculty-student and staff-student relationships and communications.
  • Unionization of all student work positions could present barriers to delivering on the College’s commitment to open deliberation, especially during periods of negotiations or potential strikes.
  • Unionization introduces a third party (the union) into student-faculty relationships; in the eyes of the NLRB, faculty members who supervise students can be considered management and agents of the College. Likewise, staff members who supervise students can be considered management and agents of the college.
  • NLRB regulations on student work positions could impact all students’ experience, as well as having potential for acute and unexplored impact on international students (e.g., visas), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students, and undocumented students.

Potential Concerns About Expanding Student Dining Union to All Student Workers

  • Limits on 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 students’ academic interests.
  • Limits on Hiring — Union contract provisions might 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.
  • Limits on 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.
  • Limits on Advising — Faculty members 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. 
  • Unacceptable Personal Disclosures — Union rules might also require the College to reveal a student’s financial status to the union and possibly to the faculty or staff member seeking to hire the student. This is inconsistent with the culture and ethos of Grinnell.
  • No Binding Promises — Even if union leaders promise to refrain from making any demands that lead to the problems outlined above, current union leaders cannot bind future union negotiators.
  • Interference with Shared Governance — An expanded union might also interfere with the model of shared governance that guides decision-making at the College. Many different groups have input into most College decisions, including students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni. A union that represents all student workers at the College potentially introduces an outside party, whose priorities are more likely economic as opposed to educational, into the College’s governance. This could have significant unintended consequence by giving the union a role in matters that are inherently academic in nature.

Student Wages and Tuition

  • Grinnell continues to be committed to meeting the entirety of the demonstrated financial need of all admitted students through a comprehensive system of grants, loans, and work (with earnings currently up to $2,500).
  • Unlike most schools, Grinnell students are not limited to 8 to 10 hours of work per week but can work up to 20 hours per week. Unlike other schools, Grinnell also allows non-need students to work up to 20 hours per week.
  • Wages for student workers are just one way in which the College supports students financially.
  • The College continually increases its financial assistance budget to ensure that need-based financial aid students do not have to rely on wages to cover any increases in tuition or fees.
  • As tuition increases, we do not expect need-based students to work more to cover those costs; instead, their other financial aid increases, most notably, through College grants.
  • Approximately 86% of Grinnell students receive some form of financial aid. About 70% of Grinnell students receive need-based aid with an average grant/scholarship award of $45,077.
  • The College funded 93% (over $50 million) of the almost $56 million in total grants and scholarships awarded to students in 2018-19. The remaining 7% of the total grants and scholarships are funded by the federal and state government and other outside sources.

Status of the Student Dining Union

  • A new contract, negotiated with the existing bargaining unit of student dining workers for a one-year term (effective July 2019-June 2020), was signed May 2019.
  • During negotiations, the union asserted that student union members have a role in investigating and adjudicating Title IX and other bias claims, independently of College processes.
  • Potential expansion to include additional student work positions is on hold pending consideration by the Board of Trustees.
  • NLRB has announced a rule-making process scheduled to commence in September 2019 that will determine if labor laws will apply to student employment on college/university campuses.
  • The formal rule-making process could establish a standard for determining whether students who perform services at private colleges or universities in connection with their studies qualify as “employees” for purposes of unionization under the National Labor Relations Act.
  • Regardless of new rules, to the extent allowable by law the College intends to continue to recognize the UGSDW.

Campus Discussion of the Issues and the Role of the NLRB

  • NLRB has rules about what employers, supervisors, and/or agents can and cannot talk about.
  •  As a community and as individuals we must avoid doing anything that might violate or be alleged to violate these rules or any labor laws.
  • We must avoid conduct that could be characterized as threats, interrogation, promises or surveillance (TIPS).
  • In order to abide by NLRB rules, all student employee supervisors — including faculty members who oversee student employees — should continue to refrain from discussing unionization if the topic arises.
  • Other faculty and staff who choose to engage in union-related discussions should 1) avoid any statement that could be perceived as a threat or promise, 2) refrain from asking questions about the union, conditions, or negotiations, as these could be interpreted as interrogation, and 3) do not engage in or monitor union-related discussions students are having but treat those as private and protected conversations.

Statement Regarding Student Protest

(Feb. 8, 2019)

A small group of protesting students gathered at a Board of Trustees meeting on campus. Engaged citizenship and civil discourse are key to what makes Grinnell special. In this spirit, the Board of Trustees invited the protesting students into its meeting. We fully support the rights of students to protest peacefully and in ways that do not interfere with safety or the educational experience of others.

At Grinnell, we have a proud history of championing social responsibility and educational access. We remain committed to our position regarding an expanded union that would include roles that are primarily academic experiences and could affect Grinnell’s distinctive culture and diminish educational opportunities for our students. We also remain committed to engaging with students, as students, on matters that are important to them.

When Visions of Mission Collide

(Dec. 20, 2018)

President Raynard S. Kington published an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed: "When we take positions and make decisions based on a political litmus test, we hurt the very core of our institutional mission."

Statement Regarding the Withdrawal of the NLRB Petition

(Dec. 14, 2018)

The College has not, and will not, oppose the union’s request to withdraw its petition. The College’s concern has always been about how the expansion of the student union could affect Grinnell’s distinctive culture and diminish educational opportunities for our students. We believe the actions we took to preserve our educational mission were in the best interests of the Grinnell College community. 

The Potential Impact of Union Rules on the Grinnell College Community

(Dec. 7, 2018)

At Grinnell, we appreciate the partnerships we have with unions. We are concerned, however, that expanding UGSDW to include more than 70% of students on our campus will take away from Grinnell’s distinctive approach to education, in which individually advised learning takes place both in and out of the classroom:

  • Limits on 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.
  • Limits on Hiring – Union rules would 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.
  • Limits on 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.
  • Limits on Advising – Faculty also serve as advisors, 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.
  • Unacceptable Personal Disclosures – Union rules might also require the College to reveal a student’s financial status to the union and possibly to the faculty or staff member seeking to hire the student. This is inconsistent with the culture and ethos of Grinnell.
  • Interference with Shared Governance – An expanded union might also interfere with the model of shared governance that guides decision-making at the College. Many different groups have input into most College decisions, including students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni. A union that represents all student workers at the College potentially introduces an outside party, whose priorities are more likely economic as opposed to educational, into the College’s governance. This could have significant unintended consequence by giving the union a role in matters that are inherently academic in nature.

A Note on Student Wages and Tuition

(Dec. 7, 2018)

Grinnell continues to be committed to meeting the entirety of the demonstrated financial need of all admitted students through a comprehensive system of grants, loans, and work. Wages for student workers are just one way in which the College supports its students financially. 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 – most notably, through grants from Grinnell College.

College Explains its Position on Student Union Expansion

(Nov. 12, 2018)

Grinnellians are proud of our commitment to championing education, access, and social justice. Given our values, it might seem that unionization of all student work positions would fit naturally into Grinnell’s culture. After all, the College agreed that forming a union (UGSDW, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers) in 2016 for student dining services employees was reasonable. We did so because, while dining services workers make a very valuable contribution to the life of the campus — preparing food, serving food, cleaning tables, washing dishes — their work is standardized, routine work carried out in regular shifts. Most other, non-dining work performed by students does not fit that definition. The primary reason students come to Grinnell is for their education. We believe an expanded union to include all student workers could cause significant harm to Grinnell’s mission and culture — shifting away from an individually advised, experiential, residential, liberal arts education in which work on campus plays a major educational role.

At Grinnell, we have historically approached student work the way we approach education, with an emphasis upon flexibility, fluidity, and responsiveness to individual circumstances, which would be compromised with an expansion of the union. We provide a variety of jobs that serve diverse student talents and career aspiration and support a wide spectrum of faculty scholarship and teaching interests. Most student employment is closely tied to individual educational interests and needs. An expanded union could significantly diminish our ability to offer work opportunities that serve as part of a holistic education that integrates experiences in and out of the classroom.

Our opposition to expanded unionization aligns with Grinnell’s commitment to access and socioeconomic mobility. While Grinnell remains committed to meeting the full demonstrated need of every student we enroll, we also want to ensure that meaningful work is available for any student interested in a job for any reason. Student work at Grinnell is not simply a financial aid resource. Students can choose not to work or, on the flipside, choose to work more than the number of hours included as part of their aid package (not to exceed 20 hours per week). This is unusual; other institutions limit work based on each student’s financial aid package.

Our faculty and staff can fluidly and responsively create jobs to meet a student’s career interests or to help with a short-term project within the tight time frame of a 15-week semester (including exam week). Because we consider most student work to be an extension of the educational experience, it is specifically part of the Student Employee Handbook, which states: “The mission of the College guides us to embrace the following values in student employment: Education — learning beyond the classroom… The program encourages work related to the student’s course of study and community service work wherever possible. … Academics at Grinnell are the top priority of our students…” (Pages 6–7).

Flexibility to fill, create, and discontinue positions allows for work that matches the needs of both students and the College. This work is reserved only for students — it is not work students compete for with non-students. The majority of education-enhancing work that students do is tied to academics; campus community; and careers, life and service:

  • Academic positions include research assistants; language mentors; tutors; writing, reading, math, and teaching mentors; graders; and, other academic support,
  • Campus community jobs include peer mentors, peer educators, and student leaders,
  • Careers, life, and service opportunities include work tied directly to career goals and skills, often in the form of community service, paid internships, or paid study abroad.

These experiences have a profound impact on the life and career paths students may follow postgraduation.

An expanded union could undermine the agility that makes such outcomes possible. Union rules about filling positions could limit the ability of faculty mentors and staff supervisors to match students’ interests and needs with positions.

Union practices also could dictate disclosure of student financial need. Currently, we make sure those who hire students do not know their financial status. Given our commitment to meeting the full demonstrated financial need of our students, we must align our resources in accordance with that goal.  Should there be an expanded student union, because of the likely increased pressure on the budget and the institutional obligation to ensure compliance with the contract, we would have to monitor and control costs centrally. As part of that control, we would have to insist upon prioritizing work assignments for students with financial need. In so doing, we would be required either directly or indirectly to reveal students’ financial status to the union and possibly to the specific faculty and staff member that would seek to hire them — something that flies in the face of the culture and ethos of Grinnell.

The College made these points during a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional hearing to explain our rationale for opposing an election to expand UGSDW; however, as you may know, the NLRB regional director ruled that we should proceed with an election to take place on Nov. 27, 2018. Although we oppose union expansion, the College has informed UGSDW that if the vote to expand the union is successful, we will bargain in good faith with the goal of reaching an agreement.1

The College also will exercise its legal right to appeal the NLRB regional office’s decision, in belief that the national board will agree that an expanded student union is inconsistent with our mission and ultimately would diminish educational opportunities for our students.

Recently, the UGSDW sent a communication offering to make certain concessions if, in advance of the election, the College would renounce its legal right to make an appeal to the NLRB at the national level.

We appreciate that the students of the UGSDW recognized the legitimacy of a number of our serious concerns regarding privacy and flexibility, by offering to “commit to the following”:

“UGSDW will accept any contract language necessary to protect student’s [SIC] FERPA rights, and the college’s HEA/Title IV obligations; UGSDW will not interfere with the freedom and discretion of faculty to hire student research assistants.”

While it is notable that the UGSDW acknowledges the gravity of our concerns by proposing these and other commitments, in fact, a union today cannot make future contractual obligations or promises; it cannot speak for or commit future generations of union members, so these concessions cannot address our concerns.

The UGSDW communication went on to threaten a campuswide strike the day after the election if the College does not forfeit its right to appeal. UGSDW indicated it would engage in “on the job labor action,” which could include either refusing to perform campus jobs or doing so in a way that will disrupt the educational environment and the operations of the College.

If the union were to act on its threat to call a strike before engaging in good-faith bargaining, it would be in violation of federal labor law. Union and management are required to engage in good-faith bargaining and only subsequently, if an impasse is reached, is a strike an available option to the union. View an online copy of the union communication outlining possible strike actions.

Despite UGSDW’s assertions, the College’s position remains that a union representing all student employees is not appropriate and would interfere with the institution’s core educational mission, and ultimately harm students.

Threats have no place in a community committed to open inquiry and civil discourse. We will always focus in word and in action on the best interests of current and future students, and we will do so in a manner that upholds Grinnell’s mission of access and educational opportunity.

1 12/5/2018: 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. We think it is important for the full NLRB to hear and consider further the College’s concerns, and we expect to file this appeal soon. The College will continue to recognize UGSDW as the representative of the student dining service workers during this time. 

Archival Resources

Legal Brief: Statement of Issues and the Position of Grinnell College (Amendment filed Oct. 18, 2018)

Summary: Students’ primary relationship with Grinnell College is educational, not economic.

  • Impact on student experience - Grinnell argues that NLRB jurisdiction over the expanded unit could cause significant harm Grinnell's mission and culture - shifting away from the mission of an individually advised, experiential, residential, liberal arts education
    • Eliminate flexibility for staff and faculty to create a variety (in duration and type) of educational opportunities through jobs
  • Federal confidentiality compliance -Require the disclosure of FERPA- and HEA- protected student financial status to union leadership (other students) in order to prioritize job assignments for those students in need.
  • Flat, distributed decision-making - Higher education does not have the management/employee relations of “pyramidal hierarchies of private industry.”
  • Graduate/TA decision does not apply - In 2016, the NLRB reversed the 40-year precedent that student cannot to statutory employees- in a case regarding graduate teaching assistants (not undergraduates). Grinnell argues the 2016 reversal was wrong.
  • Broad array of jobs - There is no “community of interest” within the expanded unit because campus jobs are unique (not “uniform”) and educational in nature: e.g. research assistants, language mentors, writing specialists, reading tutors, math tutors, teaching mentors, technology assistants, admission guides.

Update on Student Unionization Issues at Grinnell College (Oct. 17, 2018)
Statement issued to update campus on the NLRB hearings and the request to modify language included in the original "Statement of Issues and the Position of Grinnell College."

Statement to College Community Following Election (Nov. 28, 2018)
On Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018, Grinnell students voted to approve the expansion of the bargaining unit represented by the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) to include all student workers at the College. The College remains deeply concerned about the significant harm that this specific change poses for Grinnell's educational mission.

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