Why Kenyon Student Workers Went On Strike
Student workers organized to oppose unfair labor practices by their administration.
On Tuesday, March 16th, student workers went on strike at Kenyon College to protest student employment policies and to stand against unfair labor practices committed by the college administration. The Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC), the campaign to form a recognized labor union representing all students employed by Kenyon, organized and led the strike. K-SWOC’s strike is the first known undergraduate labor strike in U.S. history.
The strike came after mounting frustrations from student workers who had not been paid for weeks because of “quiet period” restrictions imposed on campus life in response to rising COVID cases. The initial quiet period was put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID during move-in for the spring semester. After three weeks, the quiet period was lifted. During quiet periods, only work deemed “essential” is permitted to be done in-person.
Library and Information Services (LBIS) staff and lifeguards who work at the college’s athletic center were told not to come into work during the first week of the quiet period; many student workers lost hours and wages. After the quiet period was extended beyond the original three weeks, both the library workers and lifeguards were told to return to work; forced to choose between their health and safety, and a paycheck.
At the student-run Kenyon Farm, work does not stop during summer or breaks. Students live on the farm and work to feed the animals, take care of the crops, and maintain daily operations. Since this work can’t be done remotely, student farmers continued to work throughout the quiet period, and yet still some worked for weeks without pay.
Djibril Branche, a sophomore student farmer, worked for a month without pay because of a bureaucratic mishap; Branche had not been rehired for the spring semester and thus was not on payroll, even though he had not been laid off. Branche was only rehired when he asked about his missing pay during quiet period.
The Kenyon Farm has a history of hiring student farmers for the entire year, but the college administration recently implemented a policy which dictates that all student employees are to be hired on a semesterly basis. This lack of job security creates uncertainty for student workers who must work to remain enrolled at Kenyon.
Many student workers love their jobs and find deep meaning in their work. Grievances about lack of regular pay highlight the impact such financial disruption has on students’ mental health, compromising their ability to do their jobs well, focus on their studies, and care for themselves adequately.
These issues of job security and delayed pay span across different workplaces at Kenyon, and reflect a college administration that shows no regard for its workers. Branche notes in an interview, “…if we don’t do our jobs on a daily basis, chickens will die, goats will starve, things will be bad. But we’ve also really struggled with getting paid.” After the Kenyon administration refused to implement back pay for missed hours due to the quiet period, student workers at the farm, LBIS, and the pool voted by a majority to strike.
The strike was a 24-hour work stoppage with 47 workers in these three main shops, along with 83 workers from other workplaces who struck in solidarity. In total, 130 student workers went on strike and joined the picket line, starting at 7:45 AM and lasting all the way until midnight. After coffee and donuts in the morning — a staple of any good strike — student workers picketed in the afternoon on Peirce Lawn, where students must walk by to get to their classes or stop for a meal at the dining hall. Workers also picketed in front of Kenyon’s modular library and study spaces, where LBIS workers report for their shifts. Students bellowed chants and talked to their co-workers and allies throughout the day. At 12PM, a crowd marched across campus to picket in front of the athletic center in support of the lifeguards on strike. In the evening, a band performed union songs and student workers gave testimonials explaining why they were on strike to a crowd of workers, allies, and supporters.
Students danced to a folksy, violin-backed rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Which Side Are You On?” People rejoiced to the music, cheering for their co-workers and peers as they delivered rousing speeches detailing why they were on the picket line.
Sigal Felber, a senior Research and Reference Intern (LBIS) declared, “I am striking because my co-workers and I should be able to expect that we get paid for our work. Something that we discuss a lot in K-SWOC is that our working conditions are our learning conditions. As long as my work gives me persistent anxiety, stress, and disrespect, I am ready to strike.”
Campus maintenance workers, represented by United Electric (UE) Local 712, joined the picket line, highlighting the strong alliance between students and campus labor. In an interview, UE Local 712 Vice President Glen Goodwin said, “The students went to battle for us. We’ve tried to support them in their effort too.”
For some students, seeing maintenance workers standing on the picket with K-SWOC quelled any doubts they may have had about the legitimacy of the campaign. Campus workers stood with student workers to recognize the shared struggle against an administration with a history of anti-labor practices.
The strike was effective at increasing general goodwill on campus toward K-SWOC while also effectively disrupting the workplaces involved. Apprentice Teachers (ATs), who teach students as a part of Kenyon’s Intensive Language Model, struck in solidarity with the shops who authorized the strike by majority vote. Classes and review sections were cancelled because 40% of ATs withheld their labor. Upon learning their classes weren’t cancelled due to a scheduling mix-up, but because of a strike, many students expressed support for their ATs.
On the day of the strike, Kenyon’s tech support hotline, Helpline, was staffed by its manager alone, who filled every single shift because the entire Helpline unit was on strike. Helpline is an essential service at Kenyon; remote classes cannot be held if Helpliners aren’t available to help with Zoom issues and assist with technical difficulties for in-person classes. Prolonged strike-action by Helpliners could create a serious crisis for day-to-day academic operations, precisely the kind of crisis that could give K-SWOC the leverage necessary to win recognition.
Department meetings had to be cancelled and events were postponed because LBIS workers were picketing. The disruptive effects of the strike show that Kenyon relies on student labor to function, a reality that gives workers immense power. The strike was a succesful structure test for K-SWOC that helped grow confidence in the union drive. For student workers, taking militant strike action built energy in the workplace and shop-level that had not been there before.
Kenyon student workers have repeatedly tried to solve workplace issues on a case-by-case basis and have taken their issues to their supervisors. In the process, workers found that these issues and experiences are shared between workplaces and can only be solved by the administration making policy changes for the entire workforce. Nick Becker, a junior Helpliner and member of K-SWOC’s steering committee discussed this problem:
“[Kenyon administration] tell us they’ll take care of it in our specific situation and make the issue go away. But the policies are never actually clarified. There’s never student involvement in the official decision-making structure.”
In labor organizing, going on strike is often a last resort which comes after escalating tension in the workplace or at the bargaining table. Kenyon’s administration gave student workers no other option.
The strike was a significant escalation in the campaign for union recognition; K-SWOC requested voluntary recognition from the college after going public in August of 2020 and demonstrated a supermajority of support within the workforce, but the Board of Trustees rejected the recognition request in December 2020. Individual shops have seen victories, workers have put pressure on their supervisors, but none of these actions have delivered the union K-SWOC is fighting for. The strike is the ultimate weapon against the boss, and the union can only be won by workers taking militant action on the shop level, flexing their muscles to bring campus life to a halt.
What are working conditions at your campus like? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.
Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!