- Eric Santomauro-Stenzel
Student Workers’ Labor Union Desires Highlighted at “May Day Fest”
Updated: Aug 27, 2022
Note: the author of this article assisted with the logistical planning of this event.
BABBITT PAVILLION, Dark Side - On Sunday, May 1st, May Day (also known as International Workers’ Day), students, staff, faculty, and some of their families attended a three hour afternoon concert to “recogniz[e] the labor of student, faculty, and staff workers at Hamilton.” Organized by the Hamilton College Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and students in COLEG-341 Levitt Leadership Institute, performers included the bands Sluna, Yonic Youth, and Uptown Booty. The approximately 100 attendees throughout the event heard from a dozen students, staff, and faculty who spoke about their work experiences both positive and negative and the importance of labor unions in securing stronger labor protections and better compensation.
Event organizers provided free food and drink and distributed pamphlets describing the benefits of joining a union and listing workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Jack Diligent ‘23, who is a student worker and the Communications Steward for YDSA, said in an interview the event was intended to demonstrate left-wing and labor politics do not have to be stressful and depressing. “It was nice to say, ‘let’s organize something with a very celebratory vibe that is fun and celebrates the achievements and progress that we’ve made as student workers.’”
In an interview, attendee Ryley McGovern ‘25, who is a student worker, current Student Assembly (SA) Class Representative, and candidate for his year’s class presidency, was excited to hear student workers’ stories and appreciated these stories were combined with the bands’ performances. “I think it’s a great model. People who might not have come out [otherwise]…are hearing about student workers.” He explained, “It’s a concern to realize there is no advocate [in] a worker vs. employer relationship, which is why I think the student union is so important.”
Juliet Davidson ‘23, a member of Sluna and Yonic Youth and a student worker, said in an interview during the concert she and Yonic Youth were drawn to the event because of its connection to their “mission-oriented” role as the only all-women band on campus. Yonic Youth was founded in 2018 with admiration for Kirkland College, the women’s college taken over by Hamilton in the 1970s. “With that context, I think coming to this event in recognition of student work and of work to create better, safer spaces on campus, I think it really hits the nail on the head,” she said.
This academic year, student workers across campus have been forming labor unions to advocate for better working conditions and compensation. In the fall, student admissions workers successfully voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and are currently in contract negotiations with Hamilton College. More recently, Resident Advisors (RAs) and Days-Massolo Center (DMC) Student Ambassadors also filed to unionize with UFCW, with an election to occur in early summer. Hamilton’s official position is that student workers are not legally protected by the National Labor Relations Act and therefore cannot form unions. Vice President for Enrollment Management Monica Inzer, who oversees the Office of Admissions, responded to admission workers’ decision to unionize saying “students will vote with emotion instead of rational thinking.”
In a speech at the concert, Izzy Rutkey ‘22, a tour guide and member of the admissions union negotiation committee, decried a dissonance in Hamilton’s messaging, referencing numerous allegations of students being paid with gift cards and being exposed to COVID-19 and unsafe weather. She said “Imagine being told you’re the most sought-after job on campus but that you don’t deserve an 80 cent raise, and that instead you’ll actually just get paid with a gift card.” She shared that the College walked out on the first bargaining session on April 8th with UFCW after five minutes because two students attended via Zoom, as one was COVID-19 positive and the other a close contact; the crowd booed. Hamilton’s own COVID-19 policy requires positive students to isolate and avoid group settings. This claim was corroborated by The Monitor in another report. Rutkey expanded that on the second day of negotiations, the only common ground Hamilton came to is that the union would be between the admissions workers and the College, “I wasted another two hours just for them to say what we already knew.”
RAs also spoke to the crowd. RAs usually do not have set hours and are expected to drop what they are doing in case of work responsibilities; they are only compensated via free housing. Julio Demb ‘23 expressed that he both supports the union and appreciates the Residential Life directors, and that he does not see those two things as incompatible. He went on to say “I think the union is good for us, and I think it’s good for [our supervisors] in order to advocate for a workplace where RAs are cared for and better able to do their job.”
Emily Boviero ‘24, who says she took the job in part to ease the burden of her tuition, feels undervalued by the College. She declared, “At the end of the day, we are sick and tired of Administration and Res Life not understanding our complaints.” Referencing an “RA Appreciation Day” where Hamilton provided RAs with donuts, she said, “We do not want a donut as a means of gratitude, we want better pay and work conditions.”
Alejandro Medina ‘22 shared that during the 2020-2021 academic year the other RA in his building left their position partway through the semester, so he became responsible for additional residents without extra compensation for his extra labor. Medina and Boviero felt overworked without recourse because RA compensation is tied to their housing, and as at-will employees they could be let go without a formal process.
Staff and faculty spoke out in support of unionization, too. Kevin Mojave, an employee of Facilities Management and member of the Service Employees International Union local chapter at Hamilton, explained the value of union dues to students, “for what would cost you a couple of coffees at FoJo, you have lawyers behind you, you have people that fight, you have people that their entire job in life is to make sure that you don’t get screwed.”
Associate Professor of Literature Pavitra Sundar applauded students for organizing unions, “[In graduate school] I was taught to think structurally, think not just in terms of intersectional identities but intersecting structures of oppression… I am amazed that all of you already know that… We’re here in showing support and solidarity in any way possible.”
Multiple students raised the ways their workplace experiences overlapped with other forms of marginalization they experience on campus. In a context of increased community attention to bigoted incidents on campus, Medina, who is also a DMC Student Ambassador, was dismayed that, “Sometimes people who are put into certain [administrative] positions, even though they might look like you, it feels like they’re working against you…[some in Administration say] ‘Oh, you have the DMC, what more could you want?’ or ‘Oh, you’re being represented here, what more could you want?’ and then they’ll point to certain people or institutions on campus that’ll be used against you.” Medina explained that recently the DMC hired more employees with extra funding, but as a result his hours were cut from 15 hours a week to 4. He saw low funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Hamilton as a major issue. Following widespread outcry against the College in summer 2020, President David Wippman announced an additional $200,000 a year for five years from his discretionary fund for DEI efforts; there has not been a follow-up announcement about where that money has gone.
Basil Brown ‘24, a docent at the Wellin Museum, expressed frustration with the inaccessibility of Hamilton to disabled people in their remarks. This year, Hamilton has come under fire for long-standing and widespread violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a system that puts the burden on students to prove their need and create solutions for their own accommodations. In an interview, Brown resonated with these sentiments and said when they began to use a mobility aid it was the first time their workplace had a discussion about accessibility, because it became an “imminent need.” To accommodate disabled student workers, Brown wants more flexibility in scheduling and more care from the institution, but feels, “fixing Hamilton College[’s inaccessibility] is hard to imagine without reimagining the whole structure.”
Throughout the event organizer Libby Militello ‘22 solicited donations from the crowd to compensate the bands. All three bands elected to donate the $205 to undergraduate student workers at Kenyon College in Ohio who have been on strike since April 11th to demand official recognition from the school.
Davidson, who had also performed the night prior, was happy to donate in solidarity given the purpose of the event but expressed frustration with how student performers, and students in general, are not compensated for their labor. According to a College policy that is not listed on the school website, students cannot be compensated with any College funding for services or performances. In an email to the Monitor, Associate Director of Student Activities Kaity Stewart explained that Student Activities will occasionally hire a student on payroll for a short job, but that “While we could theoretically offer hiring students on payroll as an opportunity for clubs, our office doesn't have capacity to hire students intermittently to do one event and we do not want to be in the business of paying student members of a club to do work for their own club or organization.”
Davidson, who was her year’s first-year Class President and has written for multiple student publications, argued this policy should “absolutely” be changed. She said, “recognizing student art [as paid labor] generally on campus… is not a common practice.” Yonic Youth and Sluna currently play for free. “Even with student organizations, particularly media organizations, that type of work is very demanding. I was on Student Assembly for a while, and none of that work is paid.” She asked, “If it’s uncomfortable for Student Activities to pay students, then why are they expecting students to behave like they’re fully employed?”
As the performances wound down, a member of Uptown Booty shouted “workers’ rights!” to cheers from the crowd. Diligent says he would “definitely” like to do the event again next year given the good turnout, performances, and speakers. “Unions are just tools for workers to have power, because usually it’s just the employers that have power… Student workers work hard, and they deserve power.”
Updated 5/3 for spelling.
Updated 8/27 to delete a student's full name and class year for their privacy out of concern for employment discrimination due to their political beliefs.