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The Scarlet & Black

The Fight for Partial Expansion: Why Grassroots Activism Works


By Keir Hichens

For the sake of transparency, I am a recently elected member of the UGSDW Executive Board. This means I’m biased, but also that my opinions are well-informed.

Last Saturday, Grinnell College’s board of trustees publicized their decision to block partial expansion of UGSDW to student jobs outside of Dining Services. This is historic, personal and predictable. Most of all, it’s a perfect example of how and why grassroots activism works.

In the fall of 2018, the UGSDW general membership voted by a five to one margin to expand, allowing all Grinnell student workers the representation and resources offered by a union. Both the Board of Trustees and President Kington’s administration refused to recognize the vote. After a lengthy legal battle and months filled with protests and occupations of Nollen House, President Kington agreed to broker a deal in early the early spring of 2019. Thus, partial expansion was born: a compromise that recognized the College’s concern about “academic” jobs like MAPs and teaching assistant positions but addressed the Union’s calls for representation in workplaces like the mailroom, SHAW and lifeguarding. President Kington wrote the partial expansion proposal himself and assured UGSDW’s Executive Board members that the Trustees would approve the deal at their May 2019 meeting.

Spoiler: they didn’t. The Trustees declined to vote on the issue until the fall, citing their concerns that they hadn’t had adequate time to consider partial expansion’s ramifications. The Union was disappointed. Remember, this was the compromise they tabled, not full expansion that current membership had overwhelmingly approved more than six months prior. When the Trustees’ meeting in the fall of 2019 rolled around, they once again declined to vote on partial expansion. This time they even failed to even provide a timeline for their decision. Shortly after, they held a listening session to gather more student input, where the Trustees were required by federal labor laws not to refute or respond to students’ concerns. By all accounts, this session was a success. Students felt more heard than before, and the Trustees said they were made aware of many issues that were new to them. This epiphany, however, did not seem to spur any further action or communication on behalf of the Trustees. In honor of the one-year anniversary (yikes) of the original vote to expand, the Union held a protest outside Nollen House, and in December we were still without a timeline.

Then, approximately two weeks ago, the entire school was notified via Campus Memo that the Union and Trustees would be meeting to discuss partial expansion. This came as a shock to us Executive Board members, as it was the first we had heard about any meeting. On the day of the meeting, five minutes before walking in, we received another Campus Memo alerting the school that the Trustees were rejecting our proposal for partial expansion.

In the meeting, Trustee representatives delivered impassioned monologues for more than 40 minutes about their identities as Grinnellians, their lush personal histories of supporting labor and social justice, and, ironically, their desire for dialogue. They continuously spread blame between all parties involved for the lack of dialogue. Most memorably, Board chair David Maxwell struggled to come to terms with the power dynamic between trustees and students stating, “I don’t think about power at all.” When all was said and done, they said that they respected our passion and activism, and that they share our vision for student workers’ rights. They presented some steps they are taking as a direct result of our activism, including an annual increase in pay rates and the standardization of HR practices across all campus jobs. Finally, they said that we “don’t have to organize anymore.”

It would be easy to say that this was a big loss. The College continues to deny a majority of campus workers their right to collectively bargain, and we were offered some small concessions in place of any real power. But this wasn’t a loss ­– far from it. The way I see it, the Trustees acknowledged that we are a force to be reckoned with. They attempted to override our organizational power first by hiring a team of union-busting lawyers, waiting us out, belittling us with patronizing language and finally by ceding some small victories and asking us to go away.

We’re glad the Trustees agreed to annual pay raises and standardization of HR practices, but let’s be clear: when you get the next Campus Memo commending their work on behalf of student workers and taking credit for these new changes, don’t be fooled. That credit must go to the students who took time out of their incredibly busy schedules to stand up and say that something is not right. That credit must go to the students that put hours and hours of work into building an infrastructure that allows other students like me to have the tools to effectively organize individuals into a movement. Left to its own devices, the College never would have taken the time to reexamine unfair hiring practices or poor work conditions or low wages. It’s up to us to hold them accountable, and we’re not going away.

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