Student workers attempt to unionize, claim ‘labor exploitation’

A group of college students announced on August 17 that they will attempt to form a union of “undergraduate workers” in order to push back against “labor exploitation.”

The students are from Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia. The name of their union will be the United Undergraduate Workers of Swarthmore (UUWS), and they will begin to collect member signups on September 10.

According to the student-run newspaper Voices, UUWS is being introduced as a direct result of a recent decision by the Swarthmore administration to end its practice of paying students to host prospective students and to instead run the program on a volunteer basis.

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Swarthmore Vice President and Dean of Admissions Jim Bock announced the decision via email on August 9, saying that in lieu of financial compensation, student hosts will now receive “Swarthmore swag” for their trouble.

Campus Reform obtained a copy of Bock’s email from the Swarthmore Interim Director of Communications Mark Anskis. 

The email, addressed to past student hosts, explains that the school conducted surveys revealing that 75 percent of respondents claimed they were “not influenced, or were influenced very little, to do so because of possible payment, and that they would have volunteered to host without payment.”

In addition, the email notes that “more than two-thirds of students said that they would be as likely or even more likely to host in the future without being paid for it, or that they would continue to host prospective students regardless of whether payment was offered.”

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In a statement provided to Voices, the UUWS described Swarthmore’s decision as part of a “nation-wide, and now, campus-wide, effort to attack our labor rights,” citing the June 27 Supreme Court decision Janus v. AFSCME that bars public sector unions from charging “fair share fees” to non-members.

“Together, we can fight and win wage increases and an independent body to review workplace grievances,” the statement declares. “With a union, all undergraduate workers will be protected from labor exploitation and will be able to assert their right to be paid and treated fairly.”

In the meantime, the UUWS organizers are vowing “not to work for free, as an unpaid host, until Jim Bock reinstates compensation,” and are even circulating a “#NoFreeWork” petition where students can sign their names to that pledge.

Writing to Campus Reform, however, Anskis asserted that Swarthmore is “grateful to all students who graciously volunteer to host prospective students,” noting that a “number of them have already volunteered” to continue to do so in the fall without pay.

“Hosting was never intended to be a guaranteed or sustainable form of employment,” Bock told Voices. “This change reflects admissions best practices employed by many institutions where students voluntarily offer their hosting time to promote their institutions.”

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The UUWS statement also articulates other grievances with the college, asserting for instance that “Drawing on this nation’s history of worker violations, Swarthmore College has been complicit in underpaying and mistreating undergraduate workers for far too long.”

“We know that Swarthmore College can afford to pay us what we deserve and treat us with respect, yet time after time, the college has deliberately chosen not to do so,” the students contend.

Swarthmore’s student employment page, however, says that the lowest student worker wage for the upcoming year is $9.70 per hour, which is 34 percent higher than the federal and Pennsylvania minimum wage of $7.25.

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UUWS also created a video of students sharing complaints about their employment at Swarthmore.

One student criticized Swarthmore’s practice of having Writing Associates (a writing advisory service) undergo a semester-long unpaid job training, while two others, both of whom said they had received academic grants or other financial aid, complained about dealing with student debt. 

Another student’s remarks echoed the UUWS statement almost verbatim, saying that students “face skyrocketing tuition costs, insurmountable student debt, and stagnant wages, forcing [students] to navigate Swarthmore College as both its students and its workers.”

The UUWS statement also declares that its founders are “mad as hell” about rising tuition costs, low wages, “punitive and illegal” workplace practices, and a “hostile administration.” The statement does not specify the specific “illegal” workplace practices, but in the video sharing personal worker experiences, one student accused the Writing Associates of failing to accommodate her mental health issues, which she claimed is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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Anskis told Campus Reform that the school recognizes “the need for all students, especially our work-aided students, to find gainful and meaningful employment opportunities during their time at Swarthmore.”

“In the past year and a half, we initiated a series of conversations, including with students, to assess the College’s student employment programs and we’ve been working to improve them,” he noted. “In response to the feedback we received, we identified several short- and long-term plans to improve the student employment experience.”

This fall, for example, Anskis said that Swarthmore “will launch a new software platform, JobX, to provide a central portal to post and find jobs,” which he predicted “will help students to learn of available openings in which they might be interested.”

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UUWS, though, maintains that a student employee union is the only way to wring meaningful concessions from the administration.

“With an endowment of nearly $2 billion, Swarthmore College can afford to pay its workers fairly without hurting students’ financial aid or tuition costs. The threat to increase tuition or to limit financial aid is simply that—an empty threat from an administration that wants to divide students, pit us against one another, and stifle our collective voices,” the group writes. “Not only does this threat not service first-gen or low-income students that rely on financial aid and fair wages (and who the college claims to want to help) but it also prioritizes top faculty and their astronomically high wages over all students.”

Adding that its concerns go “beyond unfair wages,” the UUWS argues that students “need a permanent, non-administrative institution that represents workers and shapes worker-college dialogue across various issues,” such as job training and enforcing ADA regulations.

“As President Trump ramps up his attack on organized labor and Jim Bock takes away our pay, we are building a union of Undergraduate Workers to win the pay and treatment we deserve,” the statement concludes. “After all, it’s #OurWork. And together, it’ll be #OurUnion.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81