College students at Smith, Mount Holyoke joining union wave

 The Smith College campus.

The Smith College campus. gazette file photo

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 12-04-2023 5:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Joining a rising wave of fledgling student worker unions nationally and locally, student dining workers and residential advisers at Smith College have announced the formation of new unions to represent their interests.

Those moves come on the heels of residential advisers at Mount Holyoke College voting unanimously in November to unionize under United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459.

These are just the latest examples of what the Chronicle of Higher Education is describing as “extraordinary and historic” explosion of student-worker unionization.

A recent report by City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies found that the number of new student-worker collective bargaining units had gone from zero in 2020 to 30 through the first six months of 2023. The new unions add up to a nearly 50% increase over the total number of student-worker bargaining units that were established between 2013 to 2021, the Chronicle reported.

“Student-worker unionizations have skyrocketed, amounting to an ‘extraordinary and historic’ phase of student-labor organizing,” the Chronicle report states.

At Smith College

The student dining workers at Smith say their decision to form the United Smith Student Workers (USSW) is the result of mistreatment related to pay, training, safety concerns and management.

The new union is affiliated with Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153.

Smith College’s own residential advisers filed for union recognition under the UFCW the same day as the dining workers.

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Sam Heyne, Local 153 organizer, said a “supermajority” of more than 66% of Smith’s food service workers — 272 out of approximately 400 — signed the union petition. The group submitted authorization cards to the college administration Nov. 17, asking for voluntary recognition.

Students said college administrators have not responded, so organizers have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.

Smith College issued a statement last week acknowledging receipt of the petitions from the OPEIU and UFCW “seeking to represent Smith student dining hall, cafe, catering, and residence life workers.”

“The NLRB’s election processes will determine whether our student workers will be represented by the union, and the results of that process will determine the college’s next steps,” the administration stated.

Student dining workers Olive McFarland and Amina Castronovo said they’re hoping an election can be held before the winter break.

Big employer

Smith College Dining Services is one of the largest student employers on campus, with 15 dining locations, the Campus Center Café and a catering department, according to information on Smith’s website.

Because of this, McFarland noted, it’s difficult to determine an exact number of student workers. Most of them are fulfilling the work-study requirements of their financial aid. They receive minimum wage and can work no more than 10 hours a week.

While low wages are a concern, McFarland and Castronovo said lack of training was a big issue that emerged from their conversations with fellow student workers last semester.

Training is conducted on an informal, ad-hoc basis, usually by other student workers, which has resulted in accidents such as burns and falls on wet floors, students said in a statement.

“Health and safety falls through the cracks,” McFarland said.

Scheduling is confusing, and there’s no system for replacing someone who doesn’t come in to work, Castronovo said.

On top of that, student workers say they may face unexpected cuts to their hours and the addition of job duties outside the scope of their roles as dining workers.

Grace Ellis, a student manager in one of the cafes, expressed concerns with boundaries between management and student staff:

“My manager is able to contact me at any point of the day, any day of the week, and I am expected to be available to come into work as needed,” Ellis said in the statement.

“I’ve worked many food service jobs in the past, and I’ve never had a job where I was expected to drop everything and come in to work.”

Union organizers also described tensions last year during Smith’s contract negotiations with Service Employees International Union Local 211, the union representing the college’s full-time dining and housekeeping employees.

“I’m hoping a union for student workers will give us the leverage to better support the full-time dining workers in their goals as well as advocate for ourselves,” McFarland said in the statement.

Organizing boom

United Smith Student Workers is the latest group of student workers to join OPEIU 153, following workers at colleges including Tufts University, Barnard College, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The professional employees union, based in New York, represents workers at colleges and universities up and down the East Coast, Heyne said, citing new resident assistant unions at several colleges.

“Student workers have been a major source of new organizing,” Heyne said.

The Mount Holyoke News reported that residential advisers had become concerned that their duties were subject to change at any time, that their workloads could be increased and their pay cut.

In a vote taken Nov. 9, all 65 votes cast were in favor of the union, according to the News.

“We are committed to actively participating in good-faith negotiations with UFCW Local 1459 to help strengthen our student employees’ experiences and leadership opportunities on campus,” Mount Holyoke College spokesperson Christian Feuerstein said in a statement.

At Smith, McFarland and Castronovo said they’ve been following their peers’ unionizing efforts.

“We were really inspired by the other organizing campaigns,” McFarland said.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.