United Student Workers of Berea-CWA Announce Union Campaign at Berea College, Kentucky

By Ameer Abedy and Ülvi Gitaliyev

On March 16th, United Student Workers of Berea (USWB), affiliated with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), announced their unionization campaign in Berea College. Berea College, a work college consortium, requires students to hold labor positions along with their academic duties. The aforementioned positions can range anywhere from manual labor, such as being a janitor or farmworker, to holding administrative, managerial duties, such as the Student Government Association. The fourth Great Commitment of Berea College, “The Dignity of Labor” states that  “At Berea, we don’t just admit students-we hire them.”  The college claims that the purpose of the labor program is to develop students’ work ethic and contribute to their future career development. Still, many students see the program as more of a burden on their academic performance, rather than a benefit to it.

When I heard about the union organizing on campus, I knew I wanted to help right away and try to make the Labor Program better

Hayden Roberts, Berea College student

Students interested in unionizing discovered a whole host of issues in the Labor Program, ranging from below minimum wage pay for most labor positions to lack of respect from supervisors. Students hope that by unionizing, the administration will do the right thing and sit down with student workers at the decision-making table to collectively bargain a first contract. Hayden Roberts, a student and former lifeguard at Berea College, spoke to The Berea Torch about his reasons for joining the USWB: 

“I’ve always been a supporter of unions, they are a huge part of why this country has a 5-day work week, minimum wage and somewhat reasonable work hours. When I heard about the union organizing on campus, I knew I wanted to help right away and try to make the Labor Program better for students and make Berea as a college a better place. 

At my first job as a Lifeguard, my first supervisor quit halfway through the year, and we just had to keep the pool running without a supervisor with students doing the work of the full time supervisor we were supposed to have. I was even forced to come in on my own time to train new freshmen who had never been lifeguards before, even though we had staff who were supposed to be in charge of certifying new lifeguards. 

For me, the Union represents an opportunity for students to actually have a voice. By having a union, we can actually protect students and help them.”

Hayden Roberts, Berea College student

“Image from the old Berea.edu Fourth Great Commitment website.”

The student worker’s organizing committee (OC)  hosted a launch party on February 16th, garnering hundreds of union cards the following weekend. By the middle of March, half of campus had signed union cards, thanks to outreach in-person and over the phone. Much of the energy for the union comes from the Organizing Committee. There, students and USWB/CWA staff, including Berea alumni, coordinate outreach plans and plan a union campaign. One OC member and Berea College student, Steven T. Lintelman-Nader, spoke on why he joined the OC:

“I joined the organizing committee, because I saw how little options other students had with their work – especially Freshman. Sure, if you are lucky, you could switch jobs after a few months, but that didn’t mean you were guaranteed a safe, respectful labor position.

Being part of the Organizing Committee let me actively try to make things better around campus. I came to Berea on board with the idea of working instead of drowning in loans, but that doesn’t mean the Berea College Labor Program is perfect.”

Steven T. Lintelman-Nader, Berea College student

One task accomplished by the OC was the formulation of a Mission statement. This includes context for the need of an independent organization of student workers and their vision for a better Berea College Labor Program.  The following full list of points is taken directly from the Mission Statement, which says that “the following should be among the rights of all Berea College student workers:”

  • A formal grievance system to resolve workplace issues in a timely manner with union representation.
  • Wages that enable all students to afford basic necessities and have financial security post-graduation.
  • Negotiable job contracts with clear guidelines, expectations, and agreed-upon hours and scheduling.
  • Training programs, specific to each labor position, that cover all information necessary to perform our jobs as well as adequate resources to ensure safe working conditions in every workplace.
  • Accommodations for students with differences in ability that support their growth and success in the workplace.
  • Enforcement of the College’s policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
  • Full-time employee staffing that meets the needs of each department and enables labor supervisors to be consistent, clear, and intentional with student workers.
  • Opportunities for leadership and skill development in every workplace so that student workers’ positions contribute to their professional growth.

At the time of publishing, Berea College has made no official comment about the unionization effort. Still, the college might respond by sending out a campus-wide statement claiming the union is a third party, or that there are already systems in place to deal with labor issues. They may even do what some other colleges have done in the face of union campaigns — hold captive audience meetings while student workers work to pressure them to vote no.  If the USWB hopes to win a future union election, they will need steadfast and public support from members and allies to stem the tide against such anti-union messaging. 

I came to Berea on board with the idea of working instead of drowning in loans, but that doesn’t mean the Berea College Labor Program is perfect.”

Steven T. Lintelman-Nader, Berea College student

Since a strong majority of campus has signed union cards, the College can choose to voluntarily recognise the USWB. If this happens, a one year negotiating period will follow in which the USWB and Berea College will iron out a new contract that is satisfactory to both sides. Otherwise, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is obligated to organize an election with the student body, where a vote in favor of unionization by the majority would grant recognition. Berea College could also decide to challenge the unionization in court, arguing that undergraduate students in work colleges should not have the right to collective bargaining. Non-students can support the union by signing this petition, urging the college to stay neutral and bargain with the USWB in good faith.

Republished from Berea Torch.