Allen: Workers of the College, Unite!

A union for all Dartmouth student workers would help protect students’ rights and raise their wages.

by Spencer Allen | 1/7/22 4:00am

Over the past several months, two of Dartmouth’s peer institutions — Harvard University and Columbia University — saw members of their student unions strike. Harvard’s graduate student union went on a three-day strike in late-October, which later led to a contract that increased pay. Columbia student union began striking in early-November; that strike is still ongoing, upending academics as the union fights for fair pay and recognition of hourly student employees as union members.

Meanwhile, no Dartmouth student worker belongs to a recognized union for their work at the College, leaving many student workers without the ability to advocate for conditions in their workplace. Though student employees with employment concerns can attempt to appeal to the College’s good graces, Dartmouth has yet to do enough on its own to best support its student employees. Without the College doing everything it can to pay its student workers justly and provide sound working conditions, student workers must unionize to protect the interests of all.

A hallmark of unionization is a union’s potential to obtain collective bargaining for pay. This week marks the first pay period in which student workers at Dartmouth are now paid under the newly raised $11.50 an hour minimum wage. There is no questioning that this is an improvement from the measly $7.75 minimum wage that some students were paid up until last term. However, this pay bump still fails to meet the students’ needs. Last year, I argued that the student minimum wage ought to be no less than $13.18 — the livable wage for single adults in Grafton County — and should be comparable to the wages that employers in Hanover and the surrounding area are paying their employees in response to the regional labor shortage. Though the College has yet to raise its minimum wage to sufficiently benefit students and remain a competitive employer in the area, a union can pressure Dartmouth to pay its employees adequately, raising the campus minimum wage in order to support all employees.

Fair pay is not the only benefit students can earn from union membership. Time off — whether due to sickness, vacation, or other means — can be secured for student employees through union bargaining. Currently, there is no formal mechanism for taking time off from jobs for any reason. Often, this means that it is the individual students’ responsibility to find coverage when they need time off. Furthermore, I am aware of no position that offers formal paid time off to students; for many students who need to take some time off, they will later struggle to cover additional shifts while balancing courses and other commitments to make up for lost compensation.

I do not write this in some sort of socialist fever dream; unionization for Dartmouth’s student workers seems to be on the precipice of reality. Just this past Wednesday, the newly formed Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth announced in an open letter to the College that “[a] supermajority of student workers at all Dartmouth Dining Services locations” have agreed to be represented by SWCD as a union. Even though the SWCD has not shared how many student workers have signed union cards, the sheer number of students working at Novack Cafe and other campus dining locations can give us a sense of just how many students might want to unionize. Dartmouth should voluntarily recognize this union, and hopefully, student workers in other parts of campus will have similar opportunities soon. 

Some may argue that these benefits could be met by employees simply asking for them. In my time working for Dartmouth — I have worked every term I have been enrolled — asking for better benefits has rarely ever worked. Some supervisors may express their sympathy for students’ concerns, but those concerns often seem to die out as they rise in the institutional pyramid, preventing the change that students need in their work. Unfortunately, some supervisors are simply dismissive of students’ workplace concerns. Some friends have shared with me that supervisors have even gaslit them by saying that students at Dartmouth have it better than at other schools in terms of compensation — something that, among the Ivy League, is mostly untrue. Relying solely on the College to treat its student employees with the respect student employees deserve has failed time and time again.

At a college where the administration frequently neglects the needs of its student employees, it is finally time that a union takes shape to protect those students. Students are well aware that they are a vital component of Dartmouth’s ability to function, but they are exhausted from waiting for the College to come to its senses and treat them with the respect they deserve. In this new year, a new union is the only way for Dartmouth’s student employees to be recognized as the lifeblood of campus operations.

Spencer Allen works in Baker-Berry Library as a student manager in the access services department.

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