Students at Iowa college drop union organizing effort

Students at an Iowa college said Friday they want to drop their effort to expand a union representing student workers because they fear a federal board appointed by President Donald Trump would reject their request and set back unions at colleges across the country.

Grinnell College student Cory McCartan, who helped organize the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, said the group asked to withdraw its petition Thursday from the National Labor Relations Board in the face of opposition from college administrators. Students at the school, which has a national reputation for its emphasis on social activism, feared that board members would agree with administrators that an earlier decision approving the union was incorrect.

"We didn't think we could get a fair hearing from the national board," McCartan said.

A regional official with the board will decide whether to grant the request.

Grinnell spokeswoman Debra Lukehart said in a statement that the college welcomed the union's decision.

"The College's concern has always been about how the expansion of the student union could affect Grinnell's distinctive culture and diminish educational opportunities for our students," the statement said.

Students at other schools, including Boston College, Yale University and the University of Chicago, also have withdrawn petitions that were before the board because of fear that an expansive ruling against a group would disrupt organizations elsewhere. Colleges with student unions include Columbia University, Brown University and Harvard University.

Seth Douglas, a leader of the Student Workers Coalition at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, said his group also decided in June to drop its efforts to organize student housing workers, despite winning a vote only months earlier.

"We had no faith in the capacity of the Trump board to make a decision based on the merits," he said.

The dispute between students and administrators has been especially painful at Grinnell, a private liberal arts college of 1,700 undergraduates. Grinnell sprawls over 120 acres in a small community that shares its name, about 40 miles east of Des Moines.

Although the college accepted a union formed by food services workers — a union that should continue regardless of the expansion plans — it has fought the plans for a larger union, prompting sometimes heated student protests and threats by alumni of withholding donations.

"Almost every alum I talk to is pissed, and I am too," said Grant Woodard, a Des Moines lawyer and 2006 Grinnell graduate who has encouraged other former students to oppose the move. "The thought that Grinnell could be tied to a landmark decision that crushes student organizing sickens me."

Quinn Ercolani, president of the student workers union, said he was shocked by the college's opposition to an effort that largely revolved around increasing student wages. Ercolani noted the college has an endowment of nearly $2 billion.

"It doesn't want an empowered student body that has the ability to challenge them," Ercolani said.

Speaking earlier this week, Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington noted that 93 percent of the current senior class had worked for Grinnell at some point. He argued that placing a union between so many students and the faculty would complicate their education.

Unlike other college unions that primarily included graduate students, Kington noted Grinnell only had undergraduates and that many of their jobs are specifically designed to give them experience in their chosen field, such as assisting a key professor.

"We were not uninformed about the likely blowback, but we compared that to long term threats with the institutional mission," he said.

McCartan said union organizers still hope administrators will work with them to improve student worker wages and other conditions.