The College must honor its commitment to a free, fair and prompt election for student workers.
This editorial is featured in the 2022 Winter Carnival special issue.
On Jan. 28, the College rejected a request by the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth to voluntarily recognize it as a union for student dining workers. As an employer, the College was within its rights to do so — but it was the wrong call.
In a letter addressed to SWCD leadership, College President Phil Hanlon asserted that, in order to determine whether the union is a legitimate “bargaining unit,” the College must pursue an election sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board. Yet the SWCD has already demonstrated the popularity of their proposal — according to their official Twitter account, “over 80% of [Dartmouth Dining Services] student workers” are in favor of the union. Assuming this figure is accurate — and we have no reason to believe it is not — the SWCD has already well exceeded the majority needed for certification, and a simple card check agreement — in which a third party would verify that the requisite majority of student dining workers had signed onto the union — should have been sufficient. The College’s refusal will only needlessly and painfully prolong the unionization process.
With that said, it is the road the College has taken. Campus will now see an election moderated by the NLRB with terms negotiated by both the College and the SWCD. Looking ahead, the College must commit to ensuring that this election is — in both legal and ethical terms — free, fair and prompt.
As it considers its next steps, we also call on the College to refrain from using its vast resources to engage in the kinds of “union-busting” tactics that have become all too common in this country. During a 2018 unionization effort at Amazon, for example, employees at one fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama were treated to a series of videos aimed to scare them away from unionizing. These videos, deceptively marketed to workers as “union training,” were satirically likened to a dog-training course taught by Cruella de Vil by one late night host. When its workers made their own attempt to unionize, Delta Air Lines led a similar campaign, putting up posters claiming that “union dues cost around $700 a year” and encouraging workers to spend that money on video games and alcohol. Despite this sort of propaganda, unions can actually offer tremendous benefits for workers, including higher wages and better conditions. Why else would companies fight so hard to prevent them?
The College must also ensure that the SWCD leaders who sit opposite them at the negotiating table — and any students who voice an opinion about unionization — are not punished, sanctioned, intimidated or coerced in any sense. Votes should remain completely anonymous and the College should commit ahead of time to negotiating with the union, if it wins the vote, in good faith. Most importantly, workers must feel that their vote will not harm their future prospects of employment by the College. Any form of coercion would, in addition to being illegal, irredeemably compromise the fairness of the proposed election.
A perfect example of how the College should not act comes from one of our Ivy League peers, Columbia University. When its graduate student union entered a prolonged series of negotiations for better pay and arbitration benefits, officials responded with strike-breaking tactics and threatened to cut students’ pay and hire temporary replacements. Columbia’s administration cruelly argued that the workers in question were ineligible for union protection and, thus, could be legally retaliated against.
Notably, any union-busting efforts would directly affect first-generation, low-income students, who disproportionately staff the higher-paid, labor-intensive dining jobs on campus. One worker described Novack Cafe — one of a few Dartmouth Dining locations almost entirely operated by students — as holding “a unique significance to FGLI students above everyone else.” More generally, however, student workers of all backgrounds have endured enough hardship already and deserve to have their efforts rewarded posthaste. The College should do its part to streamline this process; it has already delayed it once by insisting on NLRB involvement. An election should be held as soon as possible, and no later than spring term.
SWCD’s leaders deserve commendation for their accomplishments so far. They undertook the difficult task of negotiating with the College, which essentially unilaterally controls student labor at and around Dartmouth. Despite facing a leviathan, the SWCD has already temporarily won 50% hazard pay for Dartmouth Dining workers and full sick pay for all student workers — not just dining workers — who have to isolate or quarantine due to COVID-19. However, attaining recognition will enable the SWCD to lock these gains in and fight for even better wages and conditions. The other union on campus, the Local 560 Branch of the SEIU, has long had a positive relationship with the College — its president told The Dartmouth in a Feb. 2021 interview that the union had no major issues with the College during the pandemic. We expect that the SWCD would be able to build a similarly constructive relationship with the College.
Student workers, whose labor is essential to this campus’s day-to-day operations, deserve our full support as they strive to make their voices heard. In solidarity with their efforts, we call on Dartmouth not to stand in the way of that goal.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.