Are Unions Coming to the World of Admissions?

In wake of Hamilton College vote for collective bargaining, will other admissions offices see unions form?

October 18, 2021
 
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The National Labor Relations Board counted the votes last week. By 25 to 20, the student workers in Hamilton College's admissions office voted to unionize.

It is the first win by undergraduates seeking to unionize since the NLRB in March revoked a Trump administration rule that made them ineligible for collective bargaining. It is also the first union specifically for a college admissions office.

The question for many in admissions was, will there be more unions coming?

College administrations at private four-year colleges generally do not like unions (although there are many cases where they work well with them). But in academic areas, such unions are relatively rare. A 1980 Supreme Court decision, NLRB v. Yeshiva University, held that faculty members are, in effect, part of a college's management and thus are ineligible for collective bargaining. That decision, however, was about tenure-track faculty members with considerable power at their university. Many union leaders believe it should not apply to all private colleges' faculties. But the decision leaves open the possibility of unionizing adjuncts and others at private colleges. (Labor relations at public colleges are governed by state laws, which vary widely.)

Workers in admissions offices haven't -- except for Hamilton -- unionized. The Hamilton union includes tour guides and admissions fellows, who interview prospective students.

Samantha DeRiso, director of political and public affairs for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local One, which organized the Hamilton workers, said that since the union went public (in August), it has learned of other campuses organizing unions for admissions. She declined to name the colleges, because "I wouldn’t want to jeopardize these workers yet by revealing any specifics." But based on what she's heard, she said, "I think this could be a movement for sure."

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, agreed that there will be more attempts to form unions.

"In the months ahead, we are likely to see NLRB petitions filed for the representation of graduate assistants and undergraduate student workers on other private sector campuses," he said.

Thirty percent of workers must sign cards to force an election, but most organizing drives seek more than that. The Hamilton union said about half of workers in its union signed cards.

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David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said via email that "as with any precedent-setting event, it seems likely that we could see efforts to replicate a union petition in other settings. From that perspective, admission offices would probably be well-advised to consider this a possibility on their campus."

Will unions be helpful for admissions? "We will get varying opinions from throughout the admission profession about whether unionization would be objectively good or bad, but the one consistent response I believe we would get is that establishing unions in this context will introduce a new, more complex system for working with undergraduate students," Hawkins said. "Regardless of whether students initiate such a petition, though, admission offices will need more institutional support to ensure that their work arrangements with students are carefully crafted to ensure the protection of both the admission office and the students."

The Issues at Hamilton

At Hamilton, the union was thrilled with the outcome. “I am always excited for a first-time election, and to make history is amazing,” said Frank C. DeRiso, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local One.

Hamilton issued a statement on the new union after the vote was announced.

"The National Labor Relations Board has counted the ballots and a majority of those admission student workers who voted selected union representation," the statement said. "Hamilton supports the right of workers to choose what they believe is best for them. We recognize that there were strong opinions on both sides of this issue, and we encourage everyone to work together as we move forward. As always, Hamilton greatly appreciates all of the hard work and dedication that our student employees bring to the jobs they perform while pursuing their academic careers."

While that statement was accepting of the union, and Hamilton plans to negotiate a contract, Hamilton gave the students information to discourage unionization.

An FAQ posted by the university said, "Students who work at Hamilton College have always had a direct relationship with the college as their employer, in addition to their academic relationship. Each student worker and each supervisor or manager can freely communicate with one another about any issue at any time, work together to address workplace issues and develop individualized arrangements. In a unionized work environment, the direct employment relationship between each student worker and the college would be replaced by a legal bargaining relationship between the college and the external labor organization, in this case UFCW Local One. The college would be legally prohibited from dealing with student workers directly over any terms and conditions of employment. The union would negotiate a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement between the UFCW and the college governing the terms of employment. Union work environments are typically formalistic and rule-driven. The overall impact would likely be a work experience that is less personal and more transactional. Unions also require payment of dues."

As to wages, the FAQ said, "There is no guarantee of a wage increase, and there is no guarantee that the final contract would be better than what the student workers had before the union."

But more than 40 faculty members signed a letter in The Spectator, the student newspaper, saying that "a union empowers workers, through organizational resources, collective bargaining rules, and increased solidarity, to be able to seek better working conditions and protect themselves against not only employer malfeasance or abuse but also the capriciousness of employer responses to developments like COVID. Such protection is especially important for students from economically marginalized communities -- often first generation students or students of color -- who may often face a choice between accepting unfair or unsafe working conditions and losing essential income."

Union leaders said many grievances motivated the drive to organize.

"Workers reported a number of concerns ranging from wage theft, being declined a pay raise, an unrespectful work environment, and being forced to give tours during heat advisories and other inclement weather-conditions," a union news release said. "Admissions also announced the return of in-person tours during spring 2021 without consulting tour guides."

Hamilton denied those charges, and other charges.

"Is Hamilton permitted to talk with student workers about the union? Yes, it is perfectly acceptable to provide student workers with information, to articulate the college’s position on the issues, and to answer questions so students can make an informed decision. It would be a strange election process if only one side was allowed to express its views," Steve Stemkoski, director of human resources, said in a letter to The Spectator. "It has also been suggested that the college did not consult with tour guides before resuming tours last spring. This also is simply not true. The college did consult with the tour guides and offered those who were not comfortable conducting tours substitute work options."

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