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  • Violet Newhouse

Successful Union Formation Gives Voice to Student Workers

In a vote of 25 to 20, with a turnout rate of 85%, the student admissions workers at Hamilton College, with the support of the Hamilton Student Workers Committee successfully formed the first union in higher education with an admission focus in the country. The win is a huge success for student admissions workers who now have a voice within their workplace after facing mistreatment by the admissions office. The union will allow the student workers to negotiate a contract with the college to improve their schedule and wages thus creating better working conditions and a respectful environment.

On August 13th, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local One filed a petition of recognition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of Hamilton College student admissions workers after 50% of student workers signed authorization cards, above the 30% threshold the NLRB requires to approve the election. Students wanted a union after experiencing mistreatment by employers including not receiving pay for working overtime, being paid with gift cards, not getting paid during the appropriate pay period, among other instances according to Izzy Rutkey '22, one of the Committee organizers. The vote to form the union then occurred on September 24th. It took 18 days to hear the results as two students off campus submitted mail in ballots and there was some debate over the eligibility of certain voters based on when they quit working for the admissions office.

In the time between the filing for unionization and the vote, Hamilton Student Workers Committee educated the student admissions workers on the benefits of unions while Hamilton College staff such as Vice President of Enrollment Monica Inzer and Dean of Admissions Peaches Valdez, who were never before as available to talk with employees, attempted to scare admission workers about the union through misleading information sessions. Rutkey '22 reported that the information sessions claimed students would make less money because of dues, they would lose personal relationships with the admissions office, and that overall the union would create worse conditions because it would not succeed. However, Committee members explained why these three things are all myths around joining the union. Students will not make less money with the dues because they will not accept a contract that does not benefit them and raise their wages enough to cover both dues and still earn more than before, plus the dues are an investment in their future to ensure representation. Additionally, the students will not face more bureaucracy because there is no third party negotiation as the students are the union members directly negotiating with the admissions office, while UFWC Local 1 will just be there to back students up. A union will not make the conditions worse because the union will not accept a contract that does not support their goals of higher wages, a uniform disciplinary process, and a more respectful environment. Moreover, the union will support both students who voted for and against the union and it will not bind future workers as the contract can always be renegotiated or students can vote to dissolve the union.

Unions are an important step in promoting economic justice because beyond increasing wages and improving work conditions they give workers rights and protect against exploitation. Unionized workers have greater benefits and earn up to 23% more when comparing weekly median earnings of both full-time wage and salary workers in unions versus not in unions. They are especially beneficial for marginalized populations that often face workplace discrimination as they provide members with an equal opportunity to advance in the workplace. Unions also provide workers with a unified voice to stand against the greed of corporations and institutions that thrives on the oppression of employees. The legacy of unions has created weekends and overtime pay, the end of child labor, and they help reduce the rate of poverty. Unions work for the 99% not the 1% by fighting for income equality.

Now that the union is formed, the next steps include finding out exactly what student workers want to see in the contract and electing student representatives to negotiate the contract. The process of negotiating could take a while and nothing is solidified until the contract is accepted by all parties, especially since the admissions office does not seem to want to make the process easy by agreeing to fair and respectful conditions. However, once the contract is accepted the admissions office must follow it and if they don’t the student workers now have bargaining power and can bring union representatives in if needed.

The formation of the union at Hamilton is an incredibly important step to ensure that students will no longer be mistreated, however, it being the first union in higher education with an admission focus in the country is an even bigger deal because it proves to all students that they have a voice against the institution. Students have a lot of collective power and when they work together, they can make change. Unions are important because they fight the greed of corporations and institutions by promoting income equality and equal opportunities. Student workers at Hamilton should be proud of the unionization and its contribution to the fight for economic justice.

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