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UGSDW debates potential strike

By Zoe Fruchter & Chloe Wray

At 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 7, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) held an emergency meeting to entrust their President Quinn Ercolani ’20 with the power to declare a strike. This meeting constituted the most recent step in a series of escalations between UGSDW and the College in the conflict over UGSDW’s right to hold an election, as approved by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), to cover all student workers. UGSDW called its members together in response to a memo from Grinnell College president Raynard Kington’s staff, which stated the College’s intent to appeal the NLRB’s ruling.

All student employees of the College who logged hours between Sept. 16 and Oct. 15 can vote on expanding UGSDW on Nov. 27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in JRC 101. According to the NLRB ruling, the College has up to two weeks following the election to appeal the results. It is assumed that student employees will vote to expand UGSDW in which case the College will likely appeal the election outcome.

If the College goes through with their appeal, UGDSW intends to employ a variety of targeted actions to encourage the administration, which has repeatedly avoided negotiations with UGSDW to drop the appeal. Such actions could include picketing Nollen Housem the location of many senior administrative positions including that of President Kington, or executing a series of smaller strikes of offices whose work affects mainly the administration and not the student body, including Phonathon or admissions.

“Frank [Harty, one of the College’s lawyer in this case] said any communication will go through [him] first and there will be no meeting with President Kington,” said Sam Xu ’20, UGSDW Board member-at-large. Xu represented the union in the NLRB hearing.

Kington declined to comment to The S&B.

Following Kington’s All-campus Memo, a group of 69 UGSDW members gathered in Main Quad to vote on three measures proposed by UGSDW’s board of directors. The gathering marked UGSDW’s largest ever meeting. Another 60 student-workers voted in an absentee ballot emailed to members on Wednesday afternoon.

The three proposed measures sought to authorize the UGSDW president to call a campus-wide strike for members, excluding dining workers, in the case of continued resistance from the College administration; authorized the Board to plan, organize and call additional labor actions as they deem necessary and authorize the president to charge a $200 fine to UGSDW members who cross a picket line without the permission of the president, or expel the member.

The first measure passed with by 86 percent. The second measure also passed, thus extending authorization over strike planning to the board. Ercolani asserted that the executive board would like to avoid a strike, but that these authorizations are necessary given the College’s uncompromising stance.

However, some members questioned the value of the strike, as many student-workers rely on their income from on-campus jobs to survive at Grinnell.

Other students expressed their reservations as to whether UGSDW could orchestrate an effective, equitable strike.

“I was a little worried, you know [the email invitation to the meeting that UGSDW members received from the Union] was like ‘emergency meeting,’ … I was worried about rushing to decisions that I may not agree with … for me it was important to know that the interests of those students — who would have a very, very strong legitimate reason for crossing the picket line — that those were heard,” said Dean Burrell ’22, a student and mailroom employee.

UGSDW board pointed to their donation driven “strike fund” as a solution to this problem; low-income students would receive the funds in the event of work stoppage to support students during a strike. The board also informed members that it would be illegal for the College to fire any worker for going on strike.

UGSDW advisor Cory McCartan ’19, who also represented the union against College attorneys, reminded members that the strength of a union lies in its collectivity.

“The one thing I’m one-hundred percent certain about is that, as a union, we should not endorse any one of us crossing our own picket line,” said McCartan. “How we’d like to talk about making sure that is clear to everyone, and what repercussions would be for basically breaking the trust of every single one of us in this room, we can talk about that. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty inexcusable, just to cross a picket line established by your fellow members.”

To symbolize this commitment, the final measure that the Board proposed was a $200 fine for crossing the picket line.

Henry Brannan ’22, a UGSDW member who attended the meeting, took issue with this measure.

“Though I can’t think of a scenario where I feel like it would be okay to cross a picket line, I also can’t think of a scenario where it would be equitable to fine a low income student $200. And so I spoke up and the leadership was extremely receptive and agreed with what I said … when you really care about something, you get invested in ensuring it’s the best it can be.”

Rachel Bass ’19, agreed with Brannan’s sentiments. She added, “It seems like a pretty weak symbolic stand if we’re always going to be like, ‘Well, we’re not going to enforce it and we’ll make all of these exceptions for it.’ So if people don’t want the fine, and no one is really keen on enforcing it, then I don’t think we should have a rule that we won’t enforce.”

Other members agreed that the fine presented a financial threat. As a result of these concerns, McCartan proposed lowering the fine to $20 or expulsion from the union as punishment for crossing picket lines. This option was approved by a margin of 45 members.

“I was very glad to hear voices in opposition to some of the things we were doing,” said Ercolani of the evening’s debate. “We don’t always have that … and I think it’s critical for us to consider ourselves a democracy, for people to have differing opinions … I think it brought the meeting to a place that the most people will be comfortable with what we do.”

UGSDW has received an outpouring of support from alumni over social media and through email communication. Over 200 alumni from graduating classes dating back to the 1960s signed a Letter to the Editor, available in last week’s edition of The S&B, in solidarity with the union. Grinnellians employed at legal organizations across the country have also reached out to offer their expertise.

“We were just very moved by the outpouring of support from alumni … it’s astounding because that’s what we see Grinnell as being [as] an institution, that’s how we see part of being a Grinnellian is being active and passionate about what happens here … that’s why we do that work, for the students who are going to become alumni,” Ercolani said.

The outcome of this debate is in the hands of the UGSDW leadership and its members, as well as all student workers eligible to vote in the election.

“I think we had a lot of important discussion, both practical discussion and philosophical discussion … we will continue having these conversations and debates so that we can adequately reflect our members’ vision of how the Union should practice our ideals of equity and democracy and how we promote them,” Xu said.

Quinn Ercolani ’20 addresses UGSDW members on ways to proceed in the event of an appeal by the College.
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