Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Three months later, St. John’s College refusing to recognize student workers’ union • Source New Mexico

St. John’s College senior Alex Finch is a member of the school’s gardening club and the Student Workers Coalition, the undergraduate student workers union formed late last year.

Many St. John’s students in Santa Fe may graduate before they get to enjoy the tomatoes planted by the gardening club. They may also not reap the benefits of the union.

But the point of the organization effort is not for personal gratification, Finch said. It’s to help students in the future be treated fairly and adequately compensated.

“I’m leaving, but I’m still going to plant the seeds,” Finch said. “Doing something for the better health and benefit of the community just seems obvious to me.”

The students ran a successful membership drive last year, convincing 116 of 170 student workers to sign cards supporting the union. But since the Student Workers Coalition approached the college’s administration on Dec. 14, the two sides have been at an impasse. 

Student workers are explicitly exempt from Santa Fe’s living wage ordinance. They’re asking their bosses to still raise their wages to $14.60 an hour just like all other workers in the city.

More than three months later, the union still has not been recognized and no election has taken place. The college maintains its initial position that the union does not have support from the majority of student workers.

They’re afraid of losing even the tiniest amount of power over their workers.

– Milagro Padilla, Communications Workers of America

St. John’s procedural bid to challenge the union’s majority was rejected on March 25 by the National Labor Relations Board. The school filed a request for an election, which is usually done when an employer believes the union does not have enough support.

The college said that it was blindsided by the union, resulting in a chilling of speech. It continues to push for an election to test the union’s majority. 

“We entered a new legal landscape in which we could no longer ask what workplace issues they hoped to address nor make any offers of redress,” St. John’s College spokeswoman Sara Luell wrote in a statement. “This inability to have an open conversation, where all parties can air their concerns and share their opinions, as is done daily at St. John’s College, has changed our campus culture.”

In an email to students sent on March 22, St. John’s College president Mark Roosevelet upheld the college’s stance on holding an election. Roosevelt said the college did not call for an election in December when it first learned of the union because it happened the day before winter break when most faculty and all its board weren’t aware of the union effort.

Student workers who spoke with Source New Mexico refuted that their organizing damaged the campus culture. Instead, they say, the union is a natural extension of the college’s unique learning environment where thoughtful discussion and equality among peers and teachers take precedence.

“We’re supposed to have a sense that we’re all sitting at the same table,” said junior Emma Malinasky who worked as an ancient Greek tutor for the college. “It’s very disappointing that the school has not continued that ethos with our workforce.”

Meanwhile, St. John’s College is embroiled in an unfair labor practice filing that says the college failed to recognize or challenge the union by calling for a vote in a timely fashion. National Labor Relations Board rules give employers 14 days to act.

The second allegation stems from a private meeting between students, administrators and Roosevelt on Jan. 29 where he asked students to sign a waiver barring them from filing unfair labor practices against the school for the duration of the meeting.

While students signed the waiver for the private meeting, the administration asked students at the end of the meeting to apply the same waiver to an upcoming public meeting between the administration and students.

Roosevelt told the Santa Fe Reporter that students were asked to sign the waivers out of concern that he could not speak freely.

The unfair labor practice case remains open. Student organizers said they’ve offered a settlement agreement in which the Student Workers Coalition would drop the unfair labor practice if the school voluntarily recognizes the union.

Organizers like Milagro Padilla with the Communications Workers of America, which is representing the St. John’s students, said while some of the college’s arguments against the union are unconventional, the reaction to the union is not.

“We see this across the country,” Padilla said. “They’re afraid of losing even the tiniest amount of power over their workers.”

St. John’s College students join dozens of colleges and universities in organizing themselves in recent years. Since 2020, the number of recognized unions on college campuses went from one to more than a dozen, with at least a dozen more campaigns underway, according to Inside Higher Education.

In the first half of 2023, more than 58,000 workers, many of them students, voted to organize, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.

The statement from St. John’s College reiterated its belief that its students are students first. It said student jobs are often a part of financial aid packages and exist “as a means of augmenting a student’s ability to afford college attendance with the least financial worry that we can provide them.”

That echoes a similar argument from Duke University made to the National Labor Relations Board that claimed its relationship with student workers was “fundamentally different from that of employer to employee” because campus jobs were centered on education, training and mentorship.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled against Duke last year, affirming a 2016 decision that student workers are employees and have the right to form a union.

“For too long, employers have been allowed to invalidate workers’ rights,” Padilla said, “Work is work. Period.”

Finch, the senior at St. John’s College, said that “nothing is irreparable” and said the conversation could get on the right track if the college accepted the settlement agreement to voluntarily recognize the union.

Finch and Malinasky said they joined the union because they love their school and want to help their community be compensated for their work that benefits the campus.

“I need (my job) to live,” Malinasky said. “It’s not volunteer work and it felt to me like (the administration) were not taking my jobs or the jobs of others seriously. I’ve been on campus and I’ve lived off campus. It’s equally as expensive living on or off campus.”

Correction March 29 at 1:48 p.m.: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect who is included in the proposed bargaining unit.

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