Smith College student dining workers vote for union

Smith College.

Smith College.

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2024 3:17 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Dining workers at Smith College voted overwhelmingly Thursday in favor of organizing as United Smith Student Workers (USSW), a new union affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153.

“I am so excited that my co-workers and I are joining the wave of undergraduate workers unionizing to fight for a better workplace and a better campus,” Sasha Rtishchev, a sophomore on the organizing committee who works at the Dawes dining hall, said in a statement.

The vote in the National Labor Relations Board election was 66-1.

“It’s an overwhelming win,” Local 153 representative Sam Heyne said Friday. “They worked very hard for this.”

Smith College said in a statement that it was ready to work with the new union.

“Smith respects the decision of its students who work in dining. We will negotiate in good faith with their union representatives.”

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Heyne noted that some 270 out of a total of approximately 400 student dining workers signed the union petition in November. But NLRB rules state that only those who work an average of four hours a week or more are eligible to vote. Student dining workers are capped at 10 hours a week.

That reduced the voter list to 139, and that included some who had graduated or who are studying abroad this semester, Heyne said. However, she said, the actual scope of union membership is still to be determined.

Student dining workers at the private women’s college say they began organizing to improve pay, establish better training practices and implement safer working conditions.

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.

“Smith could have voluntarily recognized our union of 400 student dining workers but instead chose to proceed to an election where only 139 workers were eligible to vote,” Amelia Wesley, a Smith junior, Chase dining hall worker and member of the organizing committee, said in a statement from the union. “Our union is prepared to fight for all of us to be included in our contract.”

Sophomore and organizing committee member Amina Castronovo said the hard part comes now.

“We have to speak to all 400 dining workers and figure out our demands,,” she said Friday. “It will take a while.”

She said union members are hoping to have a contract by early May, though she acknowledged that might be optimistic.

She said there’s a lot of excitement around unionizing efforts on campus, with resident advisers winning their election in December and a number of other student organization looking to organize.

“The union win at Smith highlights a broader trend among our generation and resistance to capitalist, white supremacist oppression,” Castronovo said in the union release. “We are ready to revolutionize our own communities and workforces in solidarity with each other. It’s the only way forward.”

The next step is bargaining, and Heyne said the union was looking to get some dates on the calendar as early as possible.

USSW is one of the first student dining workers unions in the country and the second group of unionized student workers at Smith College.

House community advisers, often known as resident assistants or residential advisers, became the first in December when they won their bid to organize under the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union, known as the SCRL Collective, is affiliated with UFCW Local 1459.

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