Kim and Morales: The Union is Here to Stay

The College must agree to the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth’s demands for the safety and livelihood of its student workers.

by Sheen Kim and Alejandro Morales | 1/11/22 4:05am

The Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth has — after three grueling months of organizing — secured the support of a supermajority of the student workers of Dartmouth Dining Services, a turning point in our work to create a union of student workers. On Jan. 5, the SWCD sent an open letter to the administration and requested a response by Jan. 17. We now await a reply that, ideally, will consist of the College’s acceptance of our demands, including voluntary recognition of our union through a card check agreement and quarantine pay for DDS student workers in COVID-19 isolation. If the College truly cares about its DDS student workers, especially amid the dramatic rise in cases on campus, it must agree to the SWCD’s demands to ensure the safety and livelihood of DDS student workers.

Our demands stem from Dartmouth’s abject failure to address the very real grievances of student workers. Tensions began rising among DDS student staff at the start of fall term, which saw record-long lines and understaffed dining locations, leading to few breaks and arduous conditions for dining staff. The term can be characterized as understaffed, understocked and underpaid. 

On one occasion, one of us, as a manager at Novack Café, felt the stress of the job get to me after one and a half years. I felt nauseous, left my shift early, and proceeded to vomit in a toilet due to what my therapist called “stress from my job.” Shifts used to feel fun, but it suddenly got easier to get irritated by pushy customers. Who could blame them, when they’d spent 20 minutes shuffling from Carson Hall to the ordering counter only to find that the espresso machine was unexpectedly out of order once again?

For four terms, I worked 20 hours per week at Novack, nearly two waking days at work that my non-working peers spent freely living. During the fall, I had to reduce it to six for the sake of my mental and physical health. 

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, though. After four weeks of supervisor meetings that resulted from intense worker organizing and the threat of unionization, our full-time manager managed to push through a $2 raise, to $15 per hour, for select DDS locations. This was an excellent step — but a necessary wage cannot depend on the actions of one sympathetic supervisor. We must secure that power for ourselves. What we needed was a union: a way of negotiating directly with the College, a medium that not only fully understands the struggles that come with being a student, but of being a student worker as well. 

Over the past three months, DDS student workers worked through the stressful post-midterms and finals weeks, dedicated days of our winter breaks to gaining the support of a supermajority of our fellow workers, organized a mutual aid fund for student workers who may face cut hours and gained the support of over 740 individuals — students, faculty, alumni and general supporters — and 30 organizations all across the community and nation.

With many DDS student workers identifying as first-generation, low-income students, it is no wonder we have a bitter saying at Novack: “We don’t work because we want to, we work because we have to.” Now, as COVID-19 sweeps through campus, DDS workers are more exposed than ever. We are students that heavily rely on this source of income, and a positive COVID-19 test would mean a mandated quarantine and the loss of necessary wages. 

For this reason, our letter demands that the College compensate DDS student workers for shifts missed due to quarantine. There is precedent for this: The College reimbursed us for missed shifts last winter when the College abruptly shut down amid an outbreak. Now, we believe more than ever that the College should bear the responsibility for isolation pay, as its own lax policies are to blame for exposing DDS workers.

But it is not simply a matter of safety. During the pandemic, workers around the world lost $3.7 trillion in wage income, while the world’s biggest billionaires alone gained $3.9 trillion in stolen wealth. More and more, workers are refusing to put their health on the line while facing grueling working conditions and meager wages. 

Student workers are recognizing that we, too, deserve better. As our school made $2 billion over the pandemic year — a year wracked with student health crises and refusals to better student conditions — we recognize that we deserve more. 

Ultimately, the demands of DDS student workers for a union come from more than just a desire for a proper living wage. Workers demand and deserve a working environment free from COVID-19 — far, in other words, from the 536 active cases on campus as of Jan. 10 — and better channels of communication between workers and administrators. A union would pave the way for these necessities and move us toward a truly democratic college. As the SWCD writes in its letter: “​​We believe that only through a unionized campus, not through a fractured one, can the College be an equitable, democratic, flourishing place.” 

Students across the nation agree. In 2016, the National Labor Relation Board ruled that graduate and undergraduate students at colleges have the right to unionize. Undergraduate unions at Kenyon, Grinnell and Hamilton College have rallied support from student bodies and won increases in wages and other benefits for their workers. Most recently, at Columbia University, the graduate student union, Student Workers of Columbia - UAW, stunningly won a mandated minimum wage of $21 per hour for all its represented workers, increases in pay over the next four years and pay parity across schools. Victories do not only extend to pay raises, but to the protection of all students, and include measures such as independent arbitration for all claims of harassment. The wave of university unionization across the nation comes with heavy force, and we, as student workers, can join in and win what we are due. 

Whether the administration chooses to voluntarily recognize our union or not will not determine its fate. The student workers have spoken. The union is here to stay. To this end, SWCD invites all those reading this article to consider supporting our cause by signing onto our open letter, spreading the word to colleagues and donating to our mutual aid fund.

Alejandro Morales is a student manager at Novack Cafe and an organizer with the SWCD. Sheen Kim is an organizer with the SWCD.

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