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Student Union of Workers launch union drive

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Photo: Student Union of Workers table in Buntrock Commons to gather signatures for union cards. Megan Lu/The Olaf Messenger

 

The newly-created St. Olaf Student Union of Workers (ST.U.W.) held a union launch event on April 23 at the Buntrock Commons Plaza. The organization is not yet a legally-recognized union — they need at least 30% of student workers to sign union cards in order to become official. The launch event was held in order to publicly announce the union drive and to ask for students to sign cards. 

 

The event, which drew an estimated crowd of 40 people, was upbeat and energetic. ST.U.W. organizers held a hand-painted banner which featured the name of the union surrounded by red fists. Several speeches were made, and all were met with enthusiastic applause. Annalee Gray ’25, who works in Stav Hall, said that she was helping to organize the union because she was unhappy with the pay and working conditions at the dining hall. 

 

Sabina Smith ’24, a leading member of the unionization effort who works in Stav Hall, also alleged that the working as well conditions for dining hall staff are deeply in need of reform. Smith said that they quit during the 2020-2021 academic year because they were only paid $10.15 per hour, and their breaks were cut. When they returned to work the next year, they said conditions did not improve. 

 

Smith closed their speech by saying, “Together, we can fight for a contract that recognizes everyone’s needs. Whether you want training requirements, raises, more control over scheduling, basic respect, hours, better housing, or divestment from Oracle, the tech company that is funding genocide in Gaza, this union will fight for you and with you because we are the workers, we are the union, and we have the power to enact the changes we all need and deserve.” 

 

Last fall, Bon Appétit workers at St. Olaf began the process towards unionization, asking the dining service company to sign a legal agreement that would provide a “fair path” towards a union decision, allowing workers to vote on unionization without being penalized. Proponents of unionization cited low pay, lack of training, and the severe understaffing that occurred during and after the COVID-19 pandemic as major reasons for their effort. Bon Appétit workers are unionized under Unite Here Local 17, which is Minnesota’s hospitality union. 

 

The Bon Appétit union drive was supported by progressive organizations on campus, namely St. Olaf Leftists and the Climate Justice Collective. 

 

Student work award dining hall workers, however, are not covered by this union because they are paid separately by the College. This is a driving motivation behind the ST.U.W. effort. 

 

Smith said that “Bon App’s unionization campaign with Unite Here Local 17 has inspired and added momentum to our own.” 

 

Other speakers stressed a desire to unite student workers across departments. Will Asinger ’25, a union organizer and the Lead Organizer of the St. Olaf Leftists, said that he was excited for the opportunity to both support his coworkers in the Academic Success Center, as well as to learn more about the issues facing workers in other areas, such as the dining hall. 

 

In an interview, Smith said that the union drive originated last year when student organizers were supporting the Bon Appétit effort. 

 

“We started in Stav [Hall] because that’s where most of us were working. But we decided that we wanted it to be an across the board union for a couple of reasons,” Smith said. 

 

Legally, a student union would have to include all student employees. Smith also said that they simply wanted to include every student worker in their group. 

 

The organizers of ST.U.W. have decided to pursue an independent union instead of working with Unite Here Local 17 because according to Smith, “they don’t have much experience working with students.” 

 

“This gives us more power to fight for what we want, how we want to, because a lot of bigger unions don’t have experience working with students, and also can kind of direct the way that the campaign is going, and we want this to be organic and led by students,” Smith continued.  

 

Raises and better training are major issues that would potentially be part of the union’s demands.  

 

“We [those who have already signed union cards] are still the minority of student workers, so we want to [wait and] hear from students about what they would want to win,” Smith said. 

 

According to Oracle, it is common for student jobs to pay around $12 per hour. This is slightly more than the state minimum wage of $10.85, but is a low rate for students, especially those who live and work on campus over the summer and need to pay for housing and food. During the school year, the issue of low pay is compounded by limited hours, posing difficulties for the students who rely on these jobs to cover living expenses. 

 

When asked about the tactics that the union might realistically take in order to bargain with the College, Smith said that they haven’t figured everything out yet. It could be difficult to use traditional union tactics such as strikes, because of the nature of work study employment. The potentially vastly different demands of workers across different departments and offices might also present a challenge. 

 

ST.U.W. hopes to strategize about how to overcome these bargaining issues once the union is able to file for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

 

To file for legal recognition with the NLRB, ST.U.W. would need signed cards from 30% of all student workers, who, according to ST.U.W., represent roughly one third of the student population. 

 

The hopeful union organizers tabled inside Buntrock Commons every evening during the week after the launch event, and appeared to gain many signatures. The Olaf Messenger spoke to organizer Solon Augspurger ’26 while she was tabling on Friday, April 26. She said that tabling has been successful, but that ST.U.W. has not yet reached their goal. ST.U.W. leaders are not currently disclosing the number of cards that have been signed, but they say that, after their week of tabling, they are more than halfway to their goal. 

 

At the launch, its organizers said that, if everything goes according to their plans, they hope to establish a union by next fall. 

 

smith89@stolaf.edu