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Berea College student body, administration prepare for vote on potential student workers’ labor union

Pro-union stduents at Berea College organized a rally in front of Fairchild Hall on campus Thursday.
Shepherd Snyder
Pro-union students at Berea College organized a rally in front of Fairchild Hall on campus earlier this month.

Updated on Thursday, April 11, 2024 at 11:45 a.m.

Last month, student workers at Berea College announced their plans to organize a labor union — the first at any Work College in the country.

Members of the United Student Workers of Berea are organizing for a number of reasons, including higher wages, negotiable job contracts and a formal grievance system.

The group filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in mid-March to hold a unionization vote. More than 1,300 undergraduate students would be represented.

If the vote passes, they will be able to start negotiations with the school’s administration. Maggie Neal is a junior at Berea College and union organizer.

“Having a union campaign on campus will give us a voice and have the college be legally obligated to work with us, so that we can sit with them at the bargaining table and negotiate a fair contract that works for students and works for the administration of the college,” Neal said.

Berea is a Work College, which means students are required to work 10 hours on campus each week as part of their service-based curriculum. Freshmen are normally put into areas with the highest need, like facilities management or dining.

Neal says that can cause problems depending on students’ physical limitations, or their class schedules. She’d like students to have more of a say in their work placement.

“Because of the position that I was in, I was on the verge of failing one of my classes,” Neal said. “I ended up having to drop it because I just wasn't able to make it, and I was so tired, I couldn't get the homework done.”

Other students say they want workplace safety concerns to be addressed, and better job training. Andi Mellon is a student manager at the Berea College Farm, which requires work with heavy machinery.

“I've seen my co-workers get injured on the job pretty seriously,” Mellon said. “I myself have been injured on the job. And I have seen my supervisors do things that make me feel really concerned for them, especially their long term health.”

Mellon says plans for a student labor union have been talked about since at least 2021, and that it’s become a popular movement on campus.

Berea’s student government unanimously voted to support the campaign, contacting the Communications Workers of America after.

“It was a small group of us at first, and we weren't really sure what to do,” Mellon said. “And interestingly enough, there was another small group of students who were talking about the same thing. And these students happened to be part of the Student Government Association.”

Berea leadership opposes the idea. Soon after the initial filing, the school requested to postpone the election hearing indefinitely, saying it would conflict with a federal student privacy act.

It also argues that because its students are paid through federal financial aid money instead of taxable wages, they can’t be classified as workers. It pays students around $34 an hour, with most of that going towards their tuition. Of that money, students get six to ten dollars per hour as their payroll, which is meant to help with living expenses.

School President Cheryl Nixon says a union is incompatible with the Work College model.

“Federal money through the work college program comes to us that we're able to use to help pay for their tuition,” Nixon said. “So it's a financial aid model that we are very uncertain about unionizing.”

That opinion is shared by Mark Estepp, a Berea graduate and former higher ed administrator who also opposes unionization.

“I know a lot about the crushing debt that exists,” Estepp said. “And a labor program is an answer to that, it's a way around that where you can get 100 percent available aid and graduate debt free.”

Other Berea community members, like college faculty member and Appalachian Studies department chair Bobby Starnes, are in support.

“I want to allow an election this semester, I want the college to allow an election this semester,” Starnes said. “Vote up or vote down. I have no dog in that fight. That's the students choice. But treat them with respect and allow them their legal right to vote.”

Both sides express a love for Berea College, and both say they want to improve campus in some way. That was expressed by Maggie Neal, who spoke to her fellow students at a campus rally last week.

“I came here because of the labor program,” Neal said. “This push for a union campaign on campus wouldn't be happening if we didn't care about Berea and if we didn't want to change it for the better.”

The NLRB has scheduled the students' hearing to begin April 17. It was initially scheduled to begin March 27, but was pushed back three weeks after the request for postponement from Berea College.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the status of the NLRB hearing April 17. An original version of the piece reported the vote would take place that day.

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Shepherd joined WEKU in June 2023 as a staff reporter. He most recently worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting as General Assignment Reporter. In that role, he collected interviews and captured photos in the northern region of West Virginia. Shepherd holds a master’s degree in Digital Marketing Communication and a bachelor’s in music from West Virginia University.
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