Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth aims to conquer union efforts by dividing the electorate

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 04-12-2023 11:32 PM

With Dartmouth graduate students voting this week on whether to unionize, college officials likely believe their efforts to defeat the initiative at the ballot box are doomed.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to great lengths — and expense, I presume — to weaken the union’s future role on campus.

After originally agreeing to allow about 800 graduate students to vote in the election, Dartmouth reversed course last week. The college now contends that only about half of the students are eligible to join the proposed union.

From Dartmouth’s perspective, the fewer students in the union, the better. The college could save millions of dollars a year in salaries and benefits.

Perhaps even more importantly, it would greatly reduce the number of students who would gain the ability to join any potential work stoppage or strike if a labor contract couldn’t be agreed on.

Dartmouth, like many schools, relies on graduate students to help teach undergraduates and conduct research. If grad students stopped showing up for work due to a labor dispute, the college would be in a bind.

The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, is overseeing the voting, which ends Wednesday.

It’s apparent that Dartmouth has a lot riding on the election’s outcome and its aftermath. As I mentioned, the college tried at the last minute to limit who could vote. The NLRB denied the request.

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But it wasn’t a total defeat.

Dartmouth can challenge any votes of the 400 or so graduate students that it’s trying to block from becoming union members. The post-election challenges, if done one vote at a time, could take months for the NLRB to complete.

“We believe it’s just a stall tactic,” Rendi Rogers, a leader in the unionizing effort who is in the fourth year of a six-year program to earn her doctorate in microbiology, told me.

Chris Peck, president of Local 560 of the Service Employees’ International Union, which represents the college’s blue-collar workers, isn’t surprised that Dartmouth is trying to keep students off balance

“The college wants to muddy up the waters,” he said. “It’s looking to save money for as long as it can.”

Dartmouth “remains committed to following NLRB procedures for determining who is and is not eligible to vote,” Diana Lawrence, the college’s spokeswoman, said via email. “If the vote results in the creation of a union, we look forward to engaging with the representatives of the bargaining unit.”

In 2016, the NLRB ruled that graduate students who conduct research and help teach classes at private colleges and universities are employees and have the right to unionize. It gives students the ability to collectively negotiate salaries and benefits.

Currently, Dartmouth’s graduate students receive an annual stipend of $35,196. On July 1, the stipend is expected to increase to $40,000, which students say the college only offered to ward off union talk.

Even with the pay raise, students argue many of them will still have a difficult time paying for housing, if they want to live anywhere in the Upper Valley that’s close to campus.

Recognizing the status quo gave them little to no control over pay, benefits and working conditions, Dartmouth grad students voted last year to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or UE for short. Roughly 70% of students signed union pledge cards.

If Dartmouth officials and their outside lawyers can’t fend off the union drive, they’re undoubtedly hoping to put a significant dent in membership by preventing hundreds of graduate student “fellows” from joining the bargaining unit.

The college is taking a page from the playbook used at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the NLRB ruled last month that fellows were not employees of the school under federal labor law.

The students receive “fellowship funding solely to support their academic pursuits — not in exchange for employment services to MIT,” the university said in statement issued after the NLRB’s decision.

Dartmouth and its graduate students are now employing dueling election strategies.

On its website, the college advises all students to vote and allow the NLRB to “determine whether they would influence the outcome of the election.”

Graduate students leading the union drive are asking fellows not to vote, giving the college fewer ballots to challenge. Providing the union is approved by a simple majority, graduate students will be in a better position to argue who should be allowed to join.

Some people say the graduate students aren’t a sympathetic bunch. They work part time in academia and leave with advanced degrees that boost their earning power.

Still that doesn’t mean Dartmouth couldn’t do better by its students. The college knows that with the Upper Valley’s severe housing shortage, $40,000 a year doesn’t go far.

After growing up in northern Maine, Genevieve Goebel, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the Ecology, Evolution, Environment and Society program, suffered sticker shock when she started hunting for apartments in the Hanover area. She considers herself fortunate to be paying $800 a month for an apartment she shares with two other people in Wilder.

The union drive is “not just about pay,” Goebel said, pointing out the college’s health insurance coverage doesn’t include dental or eye care.

She’s among the fellows that Dartmouth is arguing shouldn’t be part of the union. Yet she teaches two terms a year. Last fall, she ran a weekly four-hour lab for a class of 40 or so undergraduates in introduction to ecology. She led field trips outside of Hanover and graded assignments and midterm exams.

But Dartmouth insists she’s not an employee?

“It’s not a question of whether they can afford to give us what we’re asking for,” Goebel said. “They really don’t want us to have leverage that we’ve never had before.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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