On a Saturday evening in mid-February, just hours before unionized student workers at Dartmouth College had pledged to go out on strike, college attorneys and administrators called an emergency meeting with the student workers’ negotiating team and announced that they would meet their demands, including an hourly wage of $21 and paid sick and mental health leave. Nancy Welch, a member of Tempest, sat down with Grace Hillery, a Dartmouth sophomore, member of the Student Workers Collective at Dartmouth (SWCD) bargaining committee, and hub leader for Sunrise at Dartmouth, to talk about this contract victory and its significance for the lives of working-class students on an elite Ivy League college campus.
Nancy Welch: Tell me about when and why student workers at Dartmouth decided to unionize and what conditions drove your organizing efforts.
Grace Hillery: The idea of starting a union began in the fall of 2021 among student dining workers. Coming back from the pandemic, Dartmouth had brought in a larger class size, with about four hundred additional students beyond what had been the normal class size. This resulted in intense working conditions with long lines, high demands, and increased risks to our health, all without an increase in pay. Dartmouth as an institution and the student body at Dartmouth have insane amounts of wealth, demonstrated by the college’s endowment of more than $8.5 billion and the fact that one in five students at Dartmouth belongs to the top one percent.
Dartmouth is a majority white institution, but our unit is majority low-income and people of color, and we also have a high representation of international students and undocumented students in our unit. With the campus minimum wage set at $11.50 an hour, there was no place on campus where students could work and make a living wage. Many low-income students opt to work off campus since jobs in town tend to pay more than those on campus, but the international and undocumented students within our unit don’t have the option of working for higher wages off campus.
I think it’s a misconception that students are just working for pocket money when a lot of students depend on this money to survive and to provide for their families as well. Within our unit, a lot of students need this money to cover their basic necessities and provide for their families back home. When we announced in January 2022 that we were unionizing, the college did not voluntarily recognize the union, and so we went into an NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] election, winning the union with a unanimous vote.
NW: Tell me more about how student workers decided that unionizing was the way to correct these conditions.
GH: I think the idea came to us in part out of the frustration of being redirected from person to person in the administration, without our needs and frustrations being addressed. Joining a union and establishing a legal power to force the college to meet our needs made sense to get power back into the hands of student workers and workers in general. Student workers at Dartmouth—and our generation as a whole—are much more open to the idea of socialism and looking critically at how our society is structured, and at the way things are not working for working-class people. It seemed like a natural option—forming a union to redistribute power back to working people. We were also inspired by graduate student workers on campus who are unionizing—and they have been a major ally. Other undergraduate student unions were a major influence, too, especially K-SWOC, the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee.
NW: What brought you to the point of preparing for a strike? What did you seek at the table and how did Dartmouth respond?
GH: We had been in negotiations for months, and as workers who are full-time students, our time is limited. We were at the point of exhaustion as the college claimed that the best they could do for us was $18.50 an hour, and they were not moving. We have been adamant about $21 from the very beginning when we initially unionized.
Last spring, the college did increase our wages to time and a half as hazard pay for pandemic conditions—which amounted to over $21 an hour—and provided paid sick leave, so we knew the college had the resources to pay us what we were asking for. We had held rallies and brought testimonials from our members outlining the ways $21 an hour would improve our lives to bargaining sessions with their lawyers, and the college still wouldn’t meet our demands. In the middle of the pandemic, as essential workers, we put our lives on the line and we put the lives of those we are close to on the line when we showed up to work every day.
When the college announced an end to pandemic hazard pay, even though COVID-19 is still present on campus, we had evidence and proof that they could, in fact, afford to pay us $21 an hour. It was hypocritical for the college to say they could only afford to pay us $18.50 when they had demonstrated they were able to pay us more than what we were asking for in the past. If the college wasn’t willing to acknowledge the concessions we had already made and accept our demands for $21, we wanted to know we had done everything within our power to win $21 when our unit finally accepted a contract, so we decided the next course of action was mobilizing to strike.
NW: How did you get strike-ready?
GH: On January 24, we presented a full-package proposal to the college, reiterating our demand for $21 an hour. We held rallies, we collected testimonials, and at bargaining sessions, we read statements from student workers about how $21 an hour would be life-changing for them. When the college countered their initial proposal of $18 an hour with $18.50, we found it insulting and felt it was not a package we could bring back to our unit after they had made their need for $21 an hour clear for upwards of a year.
The college was fighting over a wage increase that would be an insignificant cost to them, but that would significantly improve the lives of our members. This marked a point when we realized that being in a union isn’t only about negotiations, it’s not only about bargaining over concessions and hoping the college responds in good faith, it is about power. As workers, we are the people who have the power—and we can use that power to force our bosses to accept our demands and meet the needs of our workers. This realization was monumental in deciding to seek strike authorization.
We began doing one-on-ones. We formed subcommittees. We did a lot of outreach leading up to a strike authorization vote, which ended up getting 99-percent approval from our unit. We reached out to allied organizations on and off campus, we met with faculty members who supported our cause, we reached out to other union leaders who had led successful strikes to get their advice, and we raised a strike fund to ensure members of our unit would be taken care of when we went on strike. We were mobilized to strike, and we fully intended to do so.
The evening before we intended to strike, the college’s lawyers and the administrators representing the college were all able to come together on a Saturday night and have this meeting with us to tell us that they had accepted our package proposal. It was incredible, it was groundbreaking for us. And it was also very eye-opening: just the threat of workers unifying and mobilizing and striking was enough to move them to meet our demands.
NW: Congratulations! Can you tell me anything else about the tentative agreement and also where you are in ratification discussions and voting?
GH: Our members have already voted on and accepted the tentative agreement, so we are hoping and expecting that it will be implemented for the spring term. One important item of note is that we negotiated to get a two-year contract instead of the three-year contract the college had pushed for. That’s important because as students, we are only going to be at Dartmouth for four years. It would reduce our power as student organizers if student workers who have experienced the process for one contract are no longer here for the next. Another big deal for us was winning mental health and sick pay. Especially given the mental health crisis on campus and amongst our generation, having the college give us mental health and sick pay will improve the lives of our members and be a step towards allowing our members to be students first and workers second.
NW: What is the significance of this victory for other workers on campus?
GH: Our aim is to make sure that the lives of all student workers on campus are improved. Student or not, if you are a working person, you deserve a living wage. And we will continue to fight to make sure that you get that living wage. Our efforts are part of a larger movement to expand the power of workers, and while we are proud of our recent victory, this is just the beginning. Although the college refused our proposal, which would have made it easier to bring other student workers into our unit, the fact that we were able to achieve this victory has demonstrated the power that workers have when they unite, and it has definitely increased conversations about unionizing on campus.
I’ve had other student workers ask me if we could unionize their workplace, so I’m optimistic about the future of workers’ rights on campus. In the meantime, as we figure out what our plans are moving forward, we hope to support graduate students as they unionize. Additionally, Sunrise Dartmouth is working to expand the scale of our mutual aid network so that we can meet the immediate material needs of working-class and low-income students. The process of forming a union is long and labor intensive, especially in the face of union-busting tactics, so as we work to mobilize other student workers, mutual aid will be crucial. Ultimately, while we still have a long road ahead of us, our recent victory demonstrates the power of unified workers.
Update: Days after the SWCD scored this contract victory, Dartmouth administration announced that it would raise immediately the minimum wage for all student workers from $11.50 to $16.25 an hour–further fuel for the continuing fight for unionization and $21 campuswide.
Featured Image credit: Photo by Amy the Nurse; modified by Tempest.
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Nancy Welch is a writer and activist in Hanover, New Hampshire. She is a member of Upper Valley Democratic Socialists of America and Upper Valley for Abortion Rights.