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Alumni speak out on College’s decision to appeal UGSDW

David Macdonald ’21 and Nicole Rosengurt ’20 join the Union action outside Nollen House on Friday, Nov. 30. Photo by Paul Chan

By Jackson Schulte

Many Grinnell College alumni have spoken out through editorials and social media, offering vehement support for the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) and its right to collectively bargain with the College. While many of the alumni have argued that the College’s self-proclaimed progressivism does not fall in line with its opposition to UGSDW, they are especially concerned for the precedent an appeal would set for student workers nationwide.

Chase Strangio ’04, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented Chelsea Manning and a well-known figure on issues related to transgender people’s legal rights, tweeted on Nov. 30 that, “I usually do whatever Grinnell asks of me, but I can’t continue to support an institution that does this to their student workers.”

Many other alumni expressed similar sentiments over Twitter, recalling the hard work they did themselves when they were student workers.

“The more the College becomes another profit-driven institution that squanders what draws students there in the first place, the more it will lose its character,” wrote Strangio in an email to The S&B.

He added, “Sadly, many non-profit institutions fight their workers with union-busting lawyers. I find it despicable and an awful reflection on leadership. My advice to the student union is to keep fighting and connecting with larger movements for justice to build strength.”

Grant Woodard ’06, a lawyer in Des Moines and former chief of staff to a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, stated his frustrations with the College’s attempts to shut down union expansion.

“I think the way they’ve handled this entire situation has been atrocious,” said Woodard. “Their appeal could be used as regulatory precedence to undermine the rights of student workers not just at Grinnell but around the country.”

Woodard, like many students and alumni, is concerned with the higher powers to which the College may be answering.

“My guess is some of it is being directed by the board of trustees,” Woodard said. “They’ve always been a bit more conservative than the institution as a whole. The old political operative in me wants to know what else is behind this. What other amicus briefs are going to be filed using this case? The Koch brothers? Americans for Prosperity? The College needs to ask itself, is that really who we want to be affiliated with?”

Woodard also wonders whether the College can legitimately make an argument against the union based on its finances. He referenced the College’s recent expenditures, like the new Grinnell College Poll and the one-page, color ad it took out in the New York Times Sunday issue a few weeks ago. That is all not to mention the legal fees of appealing this case.

“When I see them take out a full-page ad in the New York Times that probably costs 100-150k, it just shows hypocrisy from the institution,” Woodard said. “You know, what particularly set me off is when I heard they hired Proskauer Rose. As a lawyer, my guess is they’re billing associates at $600-$800 an hour and partners at even higher. I don’t know that for sure, but from knowing friends at multinational law firms, this appeal might cost a million dollars.”

Woodard’s greatest frustration, though, is the national implications the appeal would have for student workers.

“I’ve had friends that have gone on to grad school that have struggled with the way higher-ed works in this country,” he said. “They’ve dealt with the indentured servitude that teaching assistants are put through. [The appeal] just absolutely disgusts me.”

It is no secret that Grinnell College students enter graduate programs at a higher rate than almost anywhere. The College boasts on its website that it is “7th nationally in the percentage of Ph.D.s per graduate.” Brendan Mackie ’07, now a history Ph.D. candidate at UC-Berkeley, wrote how important his student union is to his life in graduate school in an email to The S&B.

“Grad students are in a financially precarious situation,” wrote Mackie. “We don’t make a lot of money. We don’t exactly have the ability to go out on the free market and get work. So we rely on the union to bargain for the things we need — healthcare, wages and parental leave.”

A successful appeal from the College could set a precedence that would strip graduate student unions’ rights to collectively bargain with their institutions, potentially hurting graduate students like Mackie and other alumni in graduate school.

Andrew Behrendt ’06, a history professor at Missouri University of Science & Technology, organized for the graduate student union at the University of Pittsburgh. Behrendt feels that the College is going after the union with an intensity that he hasn’t seen elsewhere.

“My other alma mater is [the University of] Chicago,” said Behrendt, “and I’ve been paying attention to that and Columbia, Penn, Penn State. The colleges follow a certain kind of playbook because they use the same law firms. Pitt seemed to play it a little bit safer, but, there’s something about Grinnell that seems more aggressive, and that is a little bit surprising.”

“In my opinion, both as someone who’s been involved in organizing and as a historian, union busting comes from the same place: the maintenance of power. That of capital over labor, and bosses over labor … I think it could end up being a pointless tragedy,” Behrendt said.

Strangio said he does not currently donate, but the decision to appeal makes him unlikely to donate in the future. Woodard, Mackie and Behrendt all came to the conclusion that they will no longer donate money to the College should the school successfully appeal.

“I won’t put my money somewhere that doesn’t reflect my values, even if it is an institution that I loved for part of my life,” Strangio wrote.

“I love the College, it changed my life,” Woodard said. “I would not be the person I am now were it not for the College. All my closest friends are people I met at the College. But if this were to pass, for whatever it’s worth, I would not be donating to the College.”

“I will not give money to a [college] that refuses to recognize their students’ right to organize,” Mackie wrote.

“If they were to be the cause for other unions to lose their bargaining rights I don’t think I could continue to donate,” Behrendt said. “I feel like it is a betrayal of what I felt I learned there and the values I thought the school stood up for.”

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  • J

    JeanDec 7, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    I would like to see students paid $10/hr.
    They are asking for union to go from $7 to $8 dollars an hour.
    I believe in 1985 at Grinnell, federal work study paid me 4.00ish dollars an hour to lifeguard.
    That was 33 years ago.
    I believe that the board of trustees and perhaps even beloved Ray K., have not been in the positiin of subsisting at college due to parental SES.
    Show them the money!

  • K

    Kenneth Allison ‘07Dec 7, 2018 at 10:54 am

    I haven’t been the most faithful when it’s come to donating to Grinnell but I did donate last year. I will not donate to Grinnell any longer until this student workers are allowed to unionize. I used to be proud to say I went to Grinnell, that’s not the case anymore.