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Grinnell College attempts to become most unionized campus in America

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The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers leadership and student activists at an event announcing UGSDW expansion Sept. 20. Photo courtesy of Morgaine Garnier.

In an attempt to become the 'most unionized campus in the United States,' students at Grinnell College in Iowa are expanding their student workers union.

The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers hopes to create the only educational institution in the country where every undergraduate worker is represented by a union. 

The UGSDW was established in spring 2016 to represent student employees in the college's dining hall. The union filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in April and held an election to discern whether workers wanted representation. 

The election resulted in a victory for the UGSDW by a 91 percent margin. The group has fought for and achieved pay raises, paid rest breaks, equal pay for local high school students and several other benefits for student workers. 

Carter Howe, a current sophomore at Grinnell and UGSDW spokesperson, said the union was founded to expand democracy, give workers a voice and advocate for more fair wages. 

“Our main issue is that Grinnell keeps raising their tuition, but they don’t raise wages — so you end up having to work more hours than you would have previously just to attain the same amount for college,” he said. 

The union will expand its membership by distributing union authorization cards to student workers across campus. Fifty percent of workers must sign indicating they want to be represented in order to unionize. The UGSDW hopes to garner at least 60 percent of workers' support. 

“The union isn’t here to antagonize the college, but we are going to hold them to the principles of our institution, the principles of social justice that the college stands for,” he said. 

Summer White, president of the Grinnell College Student Government Association, said in an email that the union has requested to stay independent of the SGA, and the SGA does not have a formal stance on the issue.

“We recognize the possible benefits and the possible risks that may come with it,” White said. 

She said it is unclear whether or not unionizing is the best approach to meeting student workers’ needs.

"The student dining hall workers who have unionized have benefited from unionization, so I imagine that other student workers would benefit from unionizing in some of the same ways,” she said.

The Workers Union at UNC has taken similar steps to expand, but the group does not include undergraduate workers. 

Julia Longo, a spokesperson for the Workers Union at UNC, said it is just as important for universities to have unions as it is in any other workplace.

“The people at the top have a lot of power, and workers don’t have a lot of power except collectively — so by coming together and pooling our resources and knowledge, we can make workplaces more fair and safe for all workers,” she said. “Our union is very democratic and very worker based. Our goal is to have a really democratic, grassroots union where the workers decide collectively on what we want to do and how we’re going to do it.”

Longo said the union would love to include undergraduate workers but has not discussed the possibility in depth.

“The more people you can have in the union, the stronger the union is,” she said.


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