A Union for Admissions Workers

Student workers at Hamilton College seek the right to collective bargaining.

August 30, 2021
(Hamilton College)

Student workers in admissions jobs at Hamilton College are seeking to unionize. If they are successful, they will have created the first union in higher education with an admissions focus.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1 filed a petition of recognition with the National Labor Relations Board this week, seeking a union election.

Hamilton’s dean of admissions said she was surprised by the effort to form a union. But the college does not plan to try to block an election.

About half of the proposed bargaining unit, which includes tour guides and senior admission fellows, signed authorization cards calling for the election, according to the union. Thirty percent must sign cards to force an election.

“We are calling for higher wages, a uniform disciplinary process and greater respect,” said Eric Kopp, a senior admissions fellow and member of the organizing committee, and a Hamilton senior. “Hamilton wants its students to think critically, so that’s what we’re doing.”

The union would comprise about 65 employees, Kopp said.

"About 16 are senior admission fellows that interview prospective candidates and assist the admissions office with other tasks," he said. "It’s considered one of the most prestigious jobs on campus, mainly because only seniors have the role."

The remaining employees are tour guides. They give tours of the campus to prospective students and their parents and families and participate in online programming and information sessions. Kopp said there are also three tour guide coordinators who also work as guides.

The union wants "higher pay, a uniform disciplinary process, codified advancement rules within the department, travel compensation and greater control over messaging," said Kopp.

"Workers have reported discontentment with admission management," he said.

The union is only possible at Hamilton because the NLRB, in a surprise March announcement, said it would formally withdraw a Trump-era proposed rule regarding graduate and undergraduate student workers. That rule would have declared students who are financially compensated in connection with their studies nonemployees under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore exempt from NLRB oversight.

"The petition filed to represent student employees at Hamilton College is the first such petition since the recent change in the NLRB majority after the Senate confirmed President Biden's two nominees," said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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Angel B. Pérez, chief executive officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he did not know of any admissions offices that are unionized.

The Hamilton admissions dean, Peaches Valdes, wrote a memo Thursday to the students in the proposed union.

"I am writing to confirm receipt of the petition calling for an election to form a union," she wrote. "The notification came as a surprise to me and my colleagues since we have always prided ourselves on providing a pleasant working environment, maintaining open communications, and hearing from students about any issues or concerns. That remains our policy."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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