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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the editor: a lifelong Grinnellian speaks out on unionization

Grinnell College is thoroughly entrenched in my identity. I grew up in a house just a block away from Gates-Rawson Tower. Since I can remember, my parents (both alumni) have regaled me with stories of their formative experiences at Grinnell — stories of standing up for social justice and fighting for what is right. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I admired how each successive student body shared that same commitment to social activism. In most instances, past administrations have respected and encouraged this activism in line with the College’s commitment to social responsibility. Recent actions by the current administration, however, have filled me with grave concern for the longevity of Grinnell’s social justice traditions. 

On the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 30, a contingent of Grinnell students exercised their legal right to protest the administration’s refusal to bargain with UGSDW. Earlier in the week, student workers voted overwhelmingly to approve the union’s expansion. Despite assuring the campus community that, “if the vote to expand the union [was] successful, [the College] [would] bargain in good faith with the goal of reaching an agreement” in a special campus memo distributed on Nov. 12, the College has refused to recognize the students’ democratic decision. Instead, they have vowed to appeal the decision to the NLRB, a process that threatens to jeopardize the labor rights of thousands of student workers at institutions of higher learning across the country. Adding insult to injury, senior members of the administration have consistently refused to even meet with UGSDW leaders. 

Finding several legitimate grievances with the administration’s conduct, supporters of the union engaged in direct action on Friday, collectively and respectfully voicing their concerns to senior administration officials. This demonstration comprised a peaceful march from JRC to Nollen House behind two senior administrators, during which students chanted and displayed pro-unionization signs. Union leadership planned this action in strict accordance with Grinnell’s Protest and Demonstration Policy. Photos and videos of this action are easily accessible on the websites of both The S&B and the Des Moines Register. 

I applaud these students for their courageous demonstration in support of labor rights, and I am deeply alarmed by the administration’s response. Within a few hours of the action, the student body received a joint communication from the Associate Vice President of Student Affairs and the Dean of Students. This email claimed that some protesters had “engaged in conduct that was clearly intended to harass and intimidate,” citing instances of “screaming within close proximity or otherwise violating [administrators’] physical space.” This is a gross mischaracterization of the demonstration. As was stated in a recent union press release, “organizers asked each participant to respect the personal space of any administrator involved” prior to the action, and the available video and photographic evidence clearly shows that participants adhered to these guidelines. For the College to erroneously claim that students sought to “harass and intimidate” administrators only minimizes real instances of harassment and intimidation that actually occur on our campus. 

The administrators’ communication also included a thinly-veiled threat to punish “[f]uture incidents of this nature” with sanctions up to and including suspension or expulsion from the college. Leaving the question of legality aside, this unprecedented and cowardly abuse of conduct policy language threatens to jeopardize our school’s culture of activism. Contrary to the administration’s apparent position, protests need not be comfortable, pleasant, or convenient; in fact, some of our country’s most lauded civil rights icons have suggested the opposite. John Lewis, for example, has consistently stressed the importance of getting into “good trouble.” And for the College to threaten inconvenient or unpleasant student activists while peddling marketing materials packed with social justice rhetoric to prospective families is hypocrisy of the highest degree. 

I say this to the administration of Grinnell College: Pay attention. Your egregious conduct has not gone unnoticed by students, faculty, staff, and alumni. It is time to recognize that your attempts to dictate and constrain our proud traditions are morally bankrupt and ethically abhorrent. It is time to stop threatening student protesters. It is time to recognize the expansion of our student union. It is time to recommit to our institution’s core values — the values that molded my parents’ adulthood and inspired my childhood. 

– David Gilbert ’21 

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    Jeff Dickey-ChasinsDec 10, 2018 at 8:55 am

    Excellent letter, David. This alum won’t be contributing any more to the college until they drop their legal action, and I encourage my fellow alums of the class of ’81 to do the same.