Special Campus Memo: College Explains its Position on Student Union Expansion

November 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. 

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