Swarthmore College: It’s Now or Never on Listening to Your Community

This week is a potentially momentous one in the history of Swarthmore College. The petition to unionize, signed by an overwhelming majority of resident assistants (RAs) and filed on Monday with the federal government, guarantees a referendum on the topic, likely in a little over a month. If a simple majority of RAs vote to unionize in this referendum, the administration will be legally obligated to recognize the Swarthmore Workers Union. However, this entire process can be bypassed if Swarthmore College simply chooses to voluntarily recognize the union. While the result will likely be the same, the question of voluntary recognition before the college is a fundamental one, and one to which students current and prospective, as well as alumni, ought to pay particular attention. 

This choice now before the college’s board, president, and general counsel is an opportunity for a course correction, just in time for the much-touted strategic plan. It provides a singular chance for a school that has heretofore failed to meaningfully address employee grievances to send a clear message: that when it goes to sit down at the table with workers, as it likely will have to soon, it does so not simply because it is compelled to by law. Of course, to walk this path the school must also commit itself to negotiating in good faith, refrain from retaliatory action, and generally conduct itself in a manner resembling the sort of respectable institution it purports to be. To voluntarily recognize the union might even be a first strike in chipping away at one of the central hypocrisies of Swarthmore College: a school that so prides itself on exceptional students, faculty, and staff but seems entirely allergic to letting those folks have any real say over the conditions that govern their lives at this place. 

It is this hypocrisy that is to blame for the sorts of decisions that have left our staff, students, and faculty without adequate on-campus childcare despite a decades-long campaign. It is this lack of respect for the voices and work of employees that has kept the dining center understaffed to the point of makeshift automation. The yearlong campaign for staff and student wages last year was answered with an announcement of wage increases which, while certainly necessary, were rendered moot in the face of rising inflation. While maintaining its obstinacy, the administration has also ramped up its efforts to crack down on protests, introducing policies in the student handbook to specifically target sit-ins and other demonstrations. When activism and pressure on the school result in, at best, the lightest of concessions, and, at worst, prosecution by the school, can we hardly be surprised that the community is looking at options with some real legal teeth to them in addressing their concerns? I maintain, however, that it is not too late for the school to use this moment to pivot, voluntarily recognize the union, refrain from union busting like their peer institution the University of Pennsylvania, and negotiate in good faith with the Swarthmore Workers Union. 

This recent history of Swarthmore College makes me somewhat pessimistic about how its decision-makers might ultimately come down, but it is exactly this same pattern of behavior that makes a course correction all the more important. There are many wonderful things about this school, its beautiful campus, learned faculty, and passionate students, but you would be hard-pressed to find a student on campus with favorable views of the current administration. Somewhere amidst the boardroom bonding and PSEG paychecks, they’ve forgotten those of us who live, work, and study every day at Swarthmore College. 

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