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Union of students approves contract with College

The+new+contract+is+likely+the+first+of+its+kind+to+be+negotiated+between+a+union+of+student+workers+and+a+private+college.+Photo+contributed.
The new contract is likely the first of its kind to be negotiated between a union of student workers and a private college. Photo contributed.

By Steve Yang
yangstev17@grinnell.edu

The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) has voted to support a tentative agreement that would raise the hourly base wage from $8.50 to $9.25 for all student employees of the Marketplace Dining Hall and provide an additional 75 cents per hour based on hours of experience. The agreement will go into effect on Oct. 1, following President Kington’s official submission of approval. The agreement will provide 265 employees — both students and full time workers — with a 9 percent wage increase.

“I am pleased that with this agreement, students will finally have an easier time contributing to their education,” wrote union President Cory McCartan ’19 in a press release. He cited rising tuition and stagnant wages as “erod[ing] the relative value of work-study wages by over 25 percent.”

McCartan began investigating wages paid at Grinnell versus industry standards after he noticed that approximately one in six shifts were not covered at the dining hall and then decided to establish a union for students. The union was formed in March of this year and received recognition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after a month-long process.

The new contract is likely the first of its kind to be negotiated between a union of student workers and a private college. Photo contributed.
The new contract is likely the first of its kind to be negotiated between a union of student workers and a private college. Photo contributed.

“The cards … authorize the union to represent [students],” McCartan said. “Thirty percent [of the student workers signing] is sufficient, and [we] got about 45 percent to sign. We went to the [NLRB] in mid-April, notified the College and board about gaining enough interest to get a certification and an election was held on May 5. With a 91 percent margin [in favor], the union was … recognized by the board seven days after the vote.”

Student workers who were asked about representation in the union were initially hesitant to sign their name onto the union authorization cards, citing concerns about retaliation, unions themselves, paying dues or spending time in meetings. McCartan and union Secretary Rachel Bass ’19 dispelled these notions, leading to a swift influx of new members.

“People would say, ‘I don’t want to get fired, I like my job as it is,’ and that’s understandable. But union activity is protected by federal labor laws,” McCartan said. “Because Iowa is a right-to-work state, you can’t require people to pay dues or join unions. We’re entirely worker run, and there are no dues. Once we decided to go that direction, it was easy for people to see a lot of upside with minimal downside.”

Another concern was fairness for career staff, as some students suggested the union was too student-focused and should allow for non-student workers as well.

“It was hard to explain that career staff jobs and student jobs are in different units, and we can’t be the ones to organize them,” Bass said. “Some people were against the union because it wasn’t inclusive enough, but for legal reasons we can’t do that.”

McCartan said that he felt students assuming the career staff also wanted to unionize would be presumptive, and that the union’s formal position was to avoid actively encouraging other staff to unionize, unless there was support and interest from those employees. He also criticized the notion that the students’ unionization process would be detrimental to any attempts by non-student workers to unionize should the latter group choose to do so.

“Career staff and student staff wage raises are not zero sum. They have a different set up … and we didn’t feel it was our place to make a judgment on that,” McCartan said. “Also, our unionizing now does not make it harder for them to unionize later. In fact, it could make it easier, as our own union shows cooperation from the College and would make it easier for others to follow.”

Union members brought a bevy of different issues to the table, including better training, health safety and overall job security. After numerous calls with The College over the summer, negotiations sped up surrounding McCartan’s wage goal: students working an average of ten hours a week should make 5 percent of a school’s tuition in fees, a wage that comes out as $10.12 an hour.

“The whole process was give and take, as negotiations usually are. Nobody walked in expecting $10.12, but we didn’t want to approach negotiations … with no overlap for cooperation,” McCartan said.

Eventually, student dining hall workers reached an agreement through a vote on Sunday, Aug. 25. In addition to the new base wage being set at $9.25 an hour, students who commit 110 hours a semester will get back pay at the end of the semester for $0.25 per hour. A second semester working 110 hours will result in an additional $0.50 per hour of back pay and a third semester will result in $0.75 per hour, the upper limit. Student shift leaders will also enjoy bonus pay and make $10.00 an hour under the new policy.

Bass added that the College was extremely cooperative with the union, even proposing the tiered bonus system without prompting.

“Knowing we had support was really valuable,” Bass said. “I’m grateful to the school for not shutting us down when we were five or seven members.”

She added that the union negotiations have made her feel less cynical about the power of groups working together to get things done and optimistic about extending the union’s achievements towards including the interests of Spencer Grill and catering workers as well.

“We didn’t initially make it that way because it was difficult enough to get it started for the Marketplace,” Bass said. “I would like to see us include all three components of Grinnell dining.”

McCartan remarked that the union will be in charge of re-negotiating the payment contract every year and that union representatives are being trained for the new negotiation process set to begin again next April.

This article was originally published on Tuesday, Sept. 27. An update was published on Thursday, Sept. 29.

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