This article is featured in the 2023 Commencement & Reunions special issue.
Over the past three years, Dartmouth students and faculty members have made large strides in labor organizing through three unions: the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, the Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth and the Dartmouth College Library Workers Union. The Dartmouth College Library Worker Collective is the only union which has not been recognized by the College as of press time. The Dartmouth spoke with various members of these unions to understand the motives, goals and challenges that they have faced.
The Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth
The SWCD, the union representing Dartmouth Dining student workers, first emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic during the Fall of 2021. According to founding member Sheen Kim ’23, the union’s inception came when a wave of undergraduate unionization was sweeping the nation due to worsening working conditions during the pandemic.
“The first [fall of the] pandemic, workers were coming back and pay was low,” Kim said. “You had all these exploited workers at the frontlines of COVID-19 serving their much wealthier peers. A couple of [student] managers at the time came to us … and cooperatively, we decided a union was the move.”
This year, the union won a $21 per hour minimum wage for its workers — a struggle that Kim described as a “long, drawn-out process.”
“It took months to even get to the table in the first place,” she said. “From the start, we had been insisting on the $21 per hour figure. We saw that the Columbia grad student union had won $21 for all its research assistants, and Hanover is one of the most expensive places to live in New Hampshire, so we had that figure from the start.”
According to the SWDC’s website, the Dartmouth administration refused to change their offer of $18.50 for cafe workers in January. As a result, the union decided to strike this February. 99% of its members voted to strike, resulting in the College eventually accepting the contract.
“For the large part, bargaining itself is a game of power,” Kim said. “The school has the mass wealth, but the workers have the power.”
Moving forward, the SWCD is working to support other unionization efforts on campus by showing up at events for the library workers and graduate student unions, along with ensuring that the College respects the terms of their new contract, since negotiating a new contract is only the first step, Kim added.
Kim said that several Dartmouth Dining managers are cultivating an environment that does not align with the terms of the contracts, reporting “distributing incidents when workers have been treated in ways that are not befitting of a conductive work environment.”
“We don’t only want to win the pay,” Kim said. “We want to create an environment that shows student workers have power here … coming out of a pandemic and economic crisis, students should have a wage that represents their work and gives them a chance to enjoy being a student, not just having to work to survive.”
The Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth
GOLD, the union representing all graduate student-workers, first announced its intention to unionize in the fall of 2021 and spent over a year organizing in the lead-up to its first election, which it won in April 2023.
Logan Mann TH, a second-year graduate student at the Thayer School of Engineering, said that when he first arrived at Dartmouth, he was excited to engage in academic work but found it impossible because he could not afford to live in Hanover. This motivated him and others to found GOLD.
“The constant challenge of making my life work ultimately proved much harder than my coursework or research, so I saw no better option than to unionize,” Mann noted. “Our struggle started out of desperation, but then it gradually transformed into a vision of much greater hope.”
Mann explained that the union has four main goals: cost-of-living adjustments to keep pay in line with rent increases, comprehensive benefits including healthcare and childcare coverage, additional support for international students when moving to Hanover and a safe and equitable workplace that includes protections against sexual harassment and predatory management.
The union received strong pushback from the College, which attempted to stall the process of filing for recognition by appealing to an arbitrary distinction between “fellows” and “non-fellows,” according to Mann.
“Dartmouth announced its intent to challenge over half of all eligible voters on the grounds that they were fellows, and therefore not employees of the university,” he explained. “When they sent us their list of people they considered fellows, it was fully randomized — we think they blindfolded themselves and threw darts at the board, with the objective of challenging over half of the voters in the election.”
Since the National Labor Relations Board has to adjudicate each challenge individually, the process would have significantly delayed the union’s formation, Mann explained. Ultimately, GOLD countered the College’s stalling tactic by convincing the people Dartmouth sought to exclude to not vote in the election, so the College would not be able to challenge any of the ballots cast.
“The result was only 13 challenged votes,” Mann stated. “We won the election by over 90 percent.”
Mann explained that GOLD is currently drafting its proposals through weekly bargaining meetings that he aims to make “the most democratic and participatory as possible.” Mann said that while he has no doubts that bargaining will be a fight with the Dartmouth organization, he believes that “we’re organized and passionate enough, and we can win.”
Dylan Barbagallo TH, a Ph.D. student at Thayer, described the union organizing as requiring hours of research, writing and phone banking.
“You have to recognize that students [are continuing] their research while putting all this effort into organizing,” Barbagallo said. “During the election, people were working together every night for six nights a week, phone banking and writing up documentation. It was an awesome force of collective advocating that got this done.”
The Dartmouth College Library Workers Union
Dartmouth’s most recent organized labor effort, the DCLWU, announced its intention to unionize in April and is currently in the middle of its election, according to acquisitions services supervisor Tim Wolfe.
According to Wolfe, the union originated from, “a thousand little roots in different places.” He said that several issues crystallized the decision to unionize in the past few years, such as the staff losing set rules of professional advancement and being required to complete “unreasonable” tasks like patrolling the buildings during the pandemic, which potentially exposed workers to COVID-19.
Once Wolfe and others started talking to friends and colleagues, they discovered the broad nature of support among library workers.
“There was just as much support among professional staff as there was among 40-year veterans in technical services who had grown cynical and expected the worst from Dartmouth at all times,” Wolfe said. “At that point, we realized there was broad support for coming together and advocating for ourselves.”
Wolfe explained that one of the union’s central goals is to create a professional development structure that serves both professional development staff and technical staff. The previous advancement structure applied to the professional development staff but not the technical support staff, who lack recognition for their expertise.
The process of creating the union has helped bridge the cultural divide between the professional and technical staff, according to Wolfe. He added that initial excitement upon creating the union came from the realization that library workers “have shared concerns.”
Wolfe noted that speaking with library workers’ unions at other universities, along with other unions at Dartmouth, further convinced him of the value of collaboration and inquiry.
“Early on, I remember talking to some folks at Northwestern [University] who were a year into the process,” Wolfe said. “They said, ‘We started without knowing anything either, so don’t worry — you can do this.’”
Although he said that the administration’s reaction to hearing the library workers were unionizing was “minimal and predictable,” the response from the community has been “incredibly touching,” with organizations both within and outside Dartmouth expressing their support for the library and its workers.
“The American Labor Association president immediately tweeted in our support and sent us a care package,” Wolfe said. “People have also noted how valuable the library is to the academic life at Dartmouth and want very much for it to be as good as it can be, which is all we want — we have a communal interest in [our efforts of] being successful.”
Sheen Kim ’23 is a former Opinion writer for The Dartmouth.