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The Scarlet & Black

Some criticism of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers


I would like to begin this letter by stating unequivocally that I believe students have the right to unionize on this campus, and I am a UGSDW member. Furthermore, the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to allow an election is a victory for all student workers. 

However, we, as diverse and newly-empowered (by virtue of the union election) student workers, must fight for the values we proclaim and not let UGSDW control what we prioritize as a college community.

The union has consistently fought for universal pay increases for student workers as well as additional raises for experienced workers, student leaders and specific shifts worked. While this money truly helps some students who need it, this is not the only source of student worker funds.

According to College President Raynard Kington’s testimony at the NLRB hearing, the College pays about $2.5 million in annual wages to the 75 percent of the student body with on-campus employment. According to the New York Times, less than 25 percent of students come from households with incomes in the bottom 60 percent of the nation (this statistic is from 2013, but the share of lower-income students at elite colleges has slowly declined over the past two decades, so I think it’s still a good estimate).

As a thought experiment, let us assume that every student who is in this group works at the College. (Let us also assume that every international student on campus has a campus job; it’s unclear how they are counted in the Times study’s methodology). Still, 47 percent of students working at the College would be from the 60th percentile or higher of American household incomes.

A universal increase in student wages by just $1.50 translates to about $375,000 in student wages — $100,000 more than the sticker price of an entire Grinnell education. This money will not be distributed progressively. It will be distributed based on who is working — a factor that, shown above, is not exactly related to socio-economic status at the College. It’s also worth mentioning that this money will come from somewhere else in the College’s budget, and we as students have little control over where.

Other problems exist with the way the union operates. By expanding its leadership to the entire student body, UGSDW is explicitly focusing its narrative on student workers. In doing so, it largely ignores full-time staff employed at Grinnell College who can benefit greatly from unionization.

Consider a dining hall student leader who is with the college for four years and works 110 hours a semester (less than 10hr/week). With careful selection of shifts, this student could earn $12/hour. Call-in cashiers at the dining hall start their wage at approximately $11/hour. With a college degree, (which low-income and high-income peers complete at similar rates in Grinnell) that student leader will make an average early career salary of $41,032 in 2015 after leaving Grinnell (probably slightly higher now due to inflation). A 40-hour work week at $11/hour yields a pre-tax salary of $22,880 if no un-paid vacations are taken.

What values do we as the Grinnell community want to uphold? Let’s protest the financial aid office’s unfair treatment of international students, whose admission the financial aid office does not consider under need-blind policies. Let’s protest the President’s office for more support for low-income students. Let’s hold strikes for better wages for our full-time staff (Harvard students did this, and now the mandatory wage there is $25+/hour for Harvard staff). Don’t let UGSDW take up all the oxygen.

— Stephen Cropper ’21

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