Working at Swat, Part 1: The Push for an Undergraduate Union

Note: This story is part of an ongoing feature series on labor at Swarthmore. Stay tuned for more about the WA debate, work-study at the college, Swarthmore’s employment policies and the challenges UUWS will face in next week’s Phoenix issue.

The United Undergraduate Workers of Swarthmore held their first event, a “Mass Training,” on Saturday, Sept. 8 in the Intercultural Center. As a get-to-know-you exercise, attendees — of which there were about 16, including eight first years — arranged themselves in the room around the center, approximating a meaningful location relative to Swarthmore. In the north stood Will Marchese ’20, a UUWS leader. He chose Chicago, where he organized for a restaurant workers’ union after his freshman year. Other students in the room took turns sharing their stories. Some voiced concerns about fair compensation in their future careers, such as teaching. Some were from small towns where family members faced poor working conditions. Some had worked at unionized businesses; others, factories. All aimed to change working conditions for students at the college through unionization.

The group first appeared on August 16, when they created a website, Facebook page, and video featuring Jissel Becerra ’20, Grace Dumdaw ’21, Marchese, Sara Laine ’21, SGO President Gilbert Orbea ’19, and Faith Booker ’21, and an unnamed alumna. Their concerns ranged from payment of Resident Advisors to unpaid WA training to wages and student debt. The next morning, they announced their position in a Voices post sent out to the student body, which followed Dean of Admissions Jim Bock’s announcement on Aug. 11 that students who hosted prospective students would no longer be paid. They cited this as emblematic of a deeper problem.

Drawing on this nation’s history of worker violations, Swarthmore College has been complicit in underpaying and mistreating undergraduate workers for far too long,” the post stated. “We face skyrocketing tuition costs, insurmountable student debt, and stagnant wages — forcing us to navigate Swarthmore College as both its students and its workers. We know that Swarthmore College can afford to pay us what we deserve and treat us with respect, yet time after time, the college has deliberately chosen not to do so.”

Though they did not publicize their efforts until the hosting decision came out, Marchese and Becerra conceived of the idea to start an undergraduate workers’ union at the college in May 2018. They had both been hired to work as Writing Associates and were dissatisfied with the program’s compensation during the first semester of being a WA. They began pitching the idea to friends and eventually expanded their network.

UUWS draws on a long tradition of labor-related movements at the College in the past, such as a Living Wage Campaign that led the college to adopt a living wage for its staff in 2002 and the Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP) in 2014. Pearce, who also participated in O4S, connected previous campus movements’ unfulfilled goals with the constant shifts in membership due to students graduating.

“[The administration makes] small concessions rather than meeting the actual [demand],” she said. “‘Oh, we have a lot of Spring of Discontent activism, okay, we’re gonna change the alcohol policy. Fixed it!’ And then a few years later, we have to go back and be like, ‘No, you didn’t actually fix that.’ And they rely on that student turnover to wear people out, ‘cause they’re staying here forever. They live here. They have a million-dollar house right over there.”

According to Pearce, UUWS both draws inspiration from these past movements and hopes to circumvent some of the problems they’ve faced.

“Say when we get a contract and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, cool,’ there’s still going to be a union that exists and can renegotiate or fight for the contract to be honored when people try to break it,” she said.

However, according to UUWS, their movement is distinct in its goal to provide a long-term, self-sustaining structure for students to voice labor concerns.

“The difference between [the Living Wage Campaign] and what we’re trying to do — We’re thrilled that it was successful, but that instead of just being a campaign that just reaches a goal, a union provides the structure to outlast and to continue,” Marchese said.

At least 50% of student workers have to vote in favor of building a union in order to authorize it.  The group is hoping for a 70% majority. After that, according to another Voices announcement by UUWS, all members of the union will vote on their demands and work towards negotiating a contract with the college.

“I would describe it as a leadership structure building another leadership structure,” Becerra said.

According to Booker, recent protest movements at the college have garnered national attention, and UUWS hopes to do the same.

“Sometimes it feels [that] people take for granted the implications of being at a place like Swarthmore and how influential it is,” Booker said. “Last year, O4S, they were in the Associated Press and … there were TV [news] references and there would be Fox News anchors very angry about snowflakes at Swarthmore College.”

Thus, with their three-phase plan and organizing strategies, UUWS seeks to set a precedent for colleges nationwide to unionize.

“When we thought about this, we thought about modeling a campaign and a unionization drive that can be replicated across colleges throughout the nation,” Becerra said. “So our plan is obviously centered on meeting Swarthmore students’ needs, but we also want to have our campaign be replicated.”

UUWS organizers have been in contact with students involved in the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, a group that successfully unionized in 2016. UGSDW was the first undergraduate workers’ union to sign a contract with a private college or university — in this case, Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa. Since signing its first contract, UGSDW has successfully negotiated pay raises for student dining workers and has introduced a system to process workplace grievances.

Cory McCartan, a Grinnell senior who was the first president of UGSDW, believes that UUWS’s biggest problem going forward will be to figuring out how to communicate with the college without provoking legal action. The college choosing to fight the unionization effort could have tremendous repercussions if the case reaches the National Labor Relations Board, whose decision could affect the fate of undergraduate workers’ unions at all private institutions. According to McCartan, the Board’s members, a majority of whom are Trump appointees, are unlikely to be sympathetic toward student workers.

“I think, for undergraduate and graduate unions, that’s the first and foremost what they’re going to be focused. How can we ensure a level, fair playing field before we start getting the NLRB election rolling? UUWS is going to face those same challenges as they go through this process because I doubt Swarthmore will be happy to welcome them on campus,” McCartan said.

As of the Mass Training, UUWS had not been in touch with college administrators but organizers expressed that they are willing to speak with the administration. However, SGO discussed the group and its concerns during their executive board meeting on Sept. 9. Orbea, who is a UUWS member and the President of SGO, had planned to discuss UUWS at his meeting with Vice President of Finance and Administration Gregory Brown and Financial Aid Director Varo L. Duffins on Sept. 11. However, they instead discussed JobX, the online job application site, and possible changes to undergraduate employment that the college is considering. In addition, SGO will be appointing representatives to a student employment committee led by Brown. The Phoenix will continue to follow further developments.

Graphic courtesy of Will Marchese.

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