Two weeks ago, students at Grinnell College voted in favor of expanding their existing dining services union to encompass all undergraduate workers by an 84 percent to 16 percent margin. Despite the overwhelming support for a labor union, on Friday, the students announced they were abandoning their efforts to unionize in the face of the decision by the Trustees of Grinnell College to seek a reversal from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In one legal filing, the Trustees argued that changes in the composition of the NLRB — in particular, the appointment of Members Marvin Kaplan and William Emmanuel — created an opportunity for the federal agency to revisit existing law holding that students qualified as “employees” entitled to protections under the National Labor Relations Act.
The students were placed in an impossible situation. If they defended their newly formed union against the Trustees’ legal appeal, the existence of unions composed of undergraduate and/or graduate students around the country was imperiled. If they didn’t defend the union, the Trustees won and all of the students’ organizing efforts would have been for naught.
In choosing to engage in an egregious attack on established labor rights, Grinnell College met its students, who were representing themselves pro se, with high-priced New York City-based attorneys that had previously attempted to reverse the NLRB’s position in cases involving Duke University, the University of Chicago, Washington University, and Yale University. Just like in Grinnell, hardball brinkmanship tactics by these attorneys led students at those schools to abandon efforts to organize.
As alumni of a great Iowa institution, we are deeply troubled by Grinnell College’s eagerness to be the face (and name) of an ideological campaign against labor. The prospect of an NLRB decision named “Grinnell” standing for the loss of student rights is fundamentally inconsistent with the values of the school, its history, its alumni, and its current students. Beyond us, alumni from across the country and across class years have stridently condemned the actions taken in our college’s name.
The decision to seek a reversal of existing law before Trump’s NLRB appointees was not the only option available to Grinnell College. Other universities have elected to reach agreements with students independently of the NLRB, while still others have foregone attempts to reverse NLRB precedent and agreed to recognize student unions.
In the short term, Grinnell’s union busting tactics have been successful. But the College’s actions have forced the community of Grinnellians to answer the question Florence Reece posed in song almost ninety years ago: Which side are you on? Students asking to see their hourly wages increase from $8 to $9? Or the College’s administrators, who have seen their collective compensation increase from $2.975 million in the 2008-2009 school year to $4.721 million in the 2016-2017 school year, per Grinnell College’s own reporting?
For large numbers of Grinnellians, the answer is easy. Although the students have been forced to abandon their efforts to build a broader labor union, the Grinnell community should do everything possible to eliminate the ability of the Trustees or Administrators to threaten student unionization efforts in the future. For example, we must insure that all potential candidates for the Democratic Party’s nominee for President are required to answer questions about the composition of the NLRB and the right to unionize generally. Mr. Kaplan’s and Mr. Emmanuel’s terms end in 2020 and 2021, respectively. If the ability of students to form labor unions depends on who replaces them, then the answers to these questions will be vital.
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• Nathan Rickard and his wife Julia Gage are Grinnell College graduates, in 1997 and 1996 respectively, living in College Park, Md.