GAMBIER -- Last spring the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) was established, and went public on Aug. 26.
The group was formed to represent student workers at Kenyon. A year later, K-SWOC organized a strike.
Sigal Felber, a Kenyon student and worker employed by the Library and Information Services (LBIS) Department, helped organize the group last spring.
“Since my freshman year at Kenyon I was definitely interested in raising student minimum wage and once I had been around the block a little longer and saw how student workers were treated ... I think I realized that the most efficient way to make things better was through an organized union,” Felber said.
Sally Smith, a Kenyon student and the lead Public Relations representative for K-SWOC, explained a few workshops raised the concern that student workers were paid during last semester during the quiet period (a period of time when positivity rates on campus are high and in response indoor gatherings are limited) but not this semester (despite circumstances being out of their control).
“We’re obviously frustrated because people use that kind of money for medical prescriptions and gas and food and textbooks and just other living expenses,” Smith said.
When K-SWOC presented these concerns to senior administration at Kenyon, the students said they were referred to the financial-aid office where they would fill out a form to request more financial aid as a result of changes in employment/salary.
However, filling out this form does not guarantee that students' financial aid will be altered to reflect their changes in employment.
There were emails for weeks, but Feb. 22 was the first time the possibility of a work stoppage was communicated with senior staff (at Kenyon), organizers stated.
Five workshops (LBIS, Lifeguards, Kenyon Farm, Wright Center, and Kenyon GreenHouse) ultimately voted to strike for one day, March 16, due to what it perceived to be unfair labor practices. More than 80 students from other workplaces also agreed to strike and over 130 people participated in person.
While the Kenyon administration was made aware of the strike, the college issued no official statement in response.
“Free and open expression is fundamental to a Kenyon education, and we do not typically issue statements when members of our community engage in peaceful demonstration," explained President Sean Decatur. "Our goal was and remains to ensure that all students, including striking students, continue to receive an excellent education and enjoy the many resources Kenyon provides its students, without retaliation or discrimination.”
Members of K-SWOC claim the school asked student workers how they would feel about unionization -- a line of questioning some considered an unfair labor practice as it can give employers reason for retaliation.
“K-SWOC did not make any specific claims of unfair labor practices, and we cannot speculate about what K-SWOC was referencing," Decatur said. "Consistent with Kenyon’s core values, our policies are designed to ensure that all students receive an excellent education, are treated fairly and respectfully, and have access to the many resources Kenyon provides its students, without retaliation or discrimination.
"Those resources include various avenues for students to seek assistance with any concerns they have, including direct access to faculty and staff, the Office for Civil Rights, and the Ombuds Office, who can offer support and talk through options — from seeking informal resolution to filing a complaint and seeking formal resolution.”
Student workers who struck and spoke to Knox Pages said they did not face reprimands or consequences other than losing their pay for the day they were not working.
In December 2020, a board formed by Kenyon College to decide whether or not to recognize the bargaining rights of K-SWOC ultimately voted not to recognize the organization.
Despite this, K-SWOC continues to advocate for student workers and has garnered over 500 alumni signatures and over 40 faculty signatures in support of the organization.
In its endeavor to be recognized, K-SWOC has been assisted by the local maintenance union (UE 712).
“UE 712 have been very helpful, they have been very instrumental in getting us acquainted with the labor ethos of Kenyon College," Felber said.
They even helped make signs for our strike and other protests.
“(While the committee has yet to be recognized by the college), I don’t think that has deterred our organizing to get students better wages and labor practices.”