Students at Iowa's Grinnell College pulled back Friday from a campaign to expand their two-year-old union over concerns that a Republican-dominated board in Washington could use it to strip all or most student workers of the right to bargain collectively.
It's the latest organizing drive to hit pause in the face of a likely loss before the National Labor Relations Board, which since the election of President Donald Trump has rolled back many precedents set under the administration of Barack Obama.
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Dozens of organizing campaigns had gained momentum at schools ranging from Georgetown University to the University of Pittsburgh, driven by the rising costs of education -- as well as a 2016 NLRB decision that solidified students' protections under federal labor law.
But many schools have refused to bargain, rejecting the students' status as workers. Rather than appealing to the NLRB, unions have stopped in their tracks, fearful that the current board -- now stacked with Republicans appointed by Trump -- would use any opportunity to reverse the 2016 decision, thereby stripping students of the ability to form unions.
"This Board has shown that they have a view of the Act that is not very hospitable towards worker organizing," said Sharon Block, a former board member who now directs the Labor and Work Life program at Harvard Law School. "You just can't discount the possibility that they would reverse that docket again."
Grinnell undergraduates had formed a union of dining services workers in 2016, and voted last month to expand it to all 796 student workers on campus, from research assistants to library workers.
The school's administration opposed the expansion effort, retaining two white-shoe law firms known for squashing union campaigns. After the election, Grinnell announced plans to appeal, arguing that students should not be considered "employees" protected under federal labor law.
Following two weeks of conversations with other student organizers across the country, the Grinnell organizers decided on Friday to withdraw their petition, which means the school will have no legal obligation to bargain with them.
"We're not going to put the rights of hundreds of thousands of student workers across the country in jeopardy," said college junior Quinn Ercolani, president of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers.
A movement gaining steam
Unions, which have been in decline across the country as their traditional strongholds in manufacturing have hemorrhaged jobs, have been having a moment among young people.
Recent Pew Research and Gallup polls have found support for unions among millennials at 75% and 65% respectively, higher than any other age group. A spate of union victories at online publications like the Huffington Post, Vice News and Vox Media has raised the profile of labor organizing.
The mounting cost of college is overwhelming stagnant work-study wages. That's what initially propelled Cory McCartan to organize at Grinnell as a freshman three years ago.
Mopping floors, washing dishes and scrubbing pots was already tough work -- but it was made harder by the fact that about one-out-of-every-five shifts went unfilled, meaning McCartan and his colleagues had to pick up the slack, making $8.50 an hour.
"I noticed right away that there was understaffing," said McCartan, who is now a senior. Instead of mounting a protest, he chose a course of action normally reserved for workers who aren't also in school: "The obvious solution was to form a union."
McCartan succeeded, establishing the nation's first and only undergraduate union at a private university with no resistance from Grinnell administrators, who even hailed the new contract that raised wages to $9.76 an hour as a "win-win" that would attract more workers to pick up shifts at the dining hall.
So far, most of the interest has come from elite colleges, where aid packages are relatively generous and students have strong earning potential upon graduation. But Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who focuses on affordability in higher education, said unions could have the biggest impact at more working-class institutions where the ability to earn a decent wage could make the difference between a student finishing their degree or having to drop out because of the cost.
"As a college, if we think providing decently paid on campus work promotes retention, then it isn't just a labor issue," Goldrick-Rab said. "It could cost the university a little more, perhaps, than employing other folks. But it could save money if it keeps people in college."
But winning and sustaining a union of college students is no easy feat.
Until the Grinnell students organized, there was only one undergraduate union in the country: A group of 500 resident assistants and peer mentors at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who organized with the United Auto Workers in 2002.
On that campus, they had plenty of company, from graduate students to librarians.
"It helps that UMass Amherst is just about wall-to-wall union," said Eve Weinbaum, an associate professor at the university's Labor Center. "So the undergrad workers have a lot of support, and the administration is used to dealing with different bargaining units, and figuring out what makes sense for each one."
Unlike graduate students, who depend on the university for most of their livelihoods for six to eight years, undergraduates usually leave after four years and rarely work more than half-time on campus. Most unions pay for professional staff with their dues; the Grinnell union has optional dues and runs exclusively on volunteers.
"The turnover issues and the ability of the university to stall, and challenge them legally, is a big battle," said Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York. "The laws are so against workers. Going the traditional route is kind of destined to fail, almost."
That's why college students have typically relied on activism to make gains for campus workers. United Students Against Sweatshops, for example, has expanded from its focus on the workers who make college apparel overseas to successful campaigns for a $15 minimum wage at New York University and Columbia. The Service Employees International Union, which has a division focused on adjunct instructors and grad students, says one of its demands is a $15 minimum wage for all student workers.
Changing winds in Washington
Now, at least for the next few years, both graduate and undergraduate students may have to stick to activism without the supporting framework of labor law in order to win any gains.
Graduate students at Loyola University Chicago voted to unionize in early 2017, but the administration has still refused to bargain a contract, saying it disagrees with the NLRB's 2016 decision concerning an election at Columbia University.
"They are students in every sense of the word," the university said in a statement. "Therefore, they do not qualify as 'employees' within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act. Consistent with this position, shared by the higher education community, we maintain these students are not eligible for union representation."
Normally, the union might file a protest with the NLRB, which could enforce the university's legal obligation to deal with the union. But since the board became dominated by Republicans, the union has held back for fear of triggering a wholesale repeal of the Columbia decision.
"The concern is that the environment is unfavorable for us if the case came before the labor board," said Ella Wagner, a graduate student in history and a union organizer.
Instead, the union has focused on applying pressure through other means to win stipend increases and other benefits. And it's not the only one: Several other graduate student organizing campaigns have withdrawn their petitions to the NLRB over the past year in order to avoid an adverse decision.
Wagner said that while a reversal of the Columbia decision would be a blow, it wouldn't change the union's strategy of pushing the university for changes. "We're going to be here no matter what," she said.
For its part, Grinnell says raising wages would force it to cut the number of work-study jobs and give them only to students with the greatest financial need. Because of that, the college said in a filing with the NLRB that expanding the union would deprive students of their right to privacy, and create an "underclass of serfs performing campus employment opportunities while their wealthy classmates simply concentrated on their studies." (The filing was later amended to remove that reference.)
The students dismiss that argument as a false choice. The college, they say, could afford to pay students a few bucks more per hour without eliminating positions.
In the dining hall, for example, students have gotten an 18% raise over the past two years, and McCartan said fewer shifts are going unfilled, although a college spokeswoman said that shortages persist.
"These aren't really tangential to the university's mission," McCartan said. "They need us."