In April 2022, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), an independent organization representing food service workers at Grinnell College, a private liberal arts institution in Grinnell, Iowa, won an election expanding their jurisdiction to include all hourly student workers across campus. The win—made possible through a politically savvy, multiyear campaign—confirmed UGSDW's place at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to organize undergraduate student workers and young, low-wage service workers more generally.1

In September 2018, I interviewed several UGSDW leaders as part of my work as oral historian for the Iowa Labor History Oral Project.2 They included Cory McCartan, one of the student organizers who had led the formation of the union in 2016, and three student workers who had risen to leadership roles in subsequent years: Quinn Ercolani, Jacob Schneyer, and Sam Xu (see fig. 1). In the interview, which lasted slightly over an hour, we discussed a range of topics, including the union's origins, the importance of campus work to Grinnell students, dining hall working conditions, early organizing struggles, and union relations with supervisors and administrators.3

Now, as UGSDW celebrates its seventh anniversary, the 2018 interview is worth revisiting for several reasons. First, as an interview conducted in the years immediately prior to the disruptions to global capitalism that followed from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a reminder of the deeper roots of the current wave of organizing among campus and low-wage service workers. More substantively, however, it also complicates recent debates regarding the utility of the existing National Labor Relations framework and the ongoing search for effective organizing strategies, especially among young service sector workers.4

By the 2010s, most Grinnell students were also workers, often spending time within the college's large system of dining halls, restaurants, and catering services. While these food service workers were also students at one of the most highly ranked private liberal arts colleges in the United States, they nonetheless shared some important experiences with other such workers, including low wages, short staffing, and high turnover.5 Moreover, by 2016 they had also joined a growing number of similarly situated students who had decided that the most effective way to solve their problems at work was by organizing around their experiences as workers.6

Grinnell's student workers initially benefited from certain structural and cultural advantages inherent to being students on a liberally oriented college campus. Administrators did not target activists for discipline and discharge, and the college could not simply close one or more dining halls to blunt an organizing drive. Over time, however, student workers still faced all-too-common forms of employer resistance, as well as some not-so-common forms that brought them onto the national stage.

In 2018, when UGSDW's members first voted in favor of expanding their jurisdiction to include all workers across campus, college administrators balked, threatening to appeal to a National Labor Relations Board then stacked with antiunion Trump appointees. Worried that a negative decision could undermine student workers’ organizing efforts across the country, UGSDW made the strategic decision to step back from expansion in the hope that shifting political winds would change the board's composition (a decision for which they were rewarded in April 2022).7

Despite the pressure of such high-stakes decisions and the reality of constant turnover among their leaders and membership, Grinnell's student workers succeeded in building an effective, durable, and growing organization. They did so by adapting traditional organizing techniques (especially one-on-one communication) to their own workplaces, sometimes in ways that broke (or at least bent) some of the “rules” of conventional organizing. While such adaptations and breaks were often a consequence of organizing independently and in a nontraditional workplace, they revealed the need for organizers to take account of context and to leave room for creativity.8

Survival and success have also meant a growing and ever broader impact. In addition to serving as an inspiration and resource for all Grinnell students and other undergraduate unions, UGSDW has also experienced the flipside of constant turnover for unions of student workers: the annual dispersal of experienced union leaders and activists. In just the small sample of my four interviewees, all have gone on to some sort of organizing or advocacy work, including, in the case of McCartan and Ercolani, with the Harvard Graduate Students Union–UAW Local 5118.

Overall, without denying the enormous structural challenges faced by any new union organizing effort in the United States, the UGSDW example (like Starbucks Workers United or the Amazon Labor Union) reminds us of the potential power in workers’ self-organization (even when not truly “independent,” as in the case of SEIU's relationship to SBWU). As McCartan said in 2018,

[What we've learned is that] if you have a small workplace and you feel like you want a seat at the table, a union does not [have to] look the same in every workplace. [It] isn't always a big local that represents all of the grocery stores in a region. It can be you and your coworkers in your coffee shop of fifteen in Iowa City or whatever who say, “Hey, we'd like to have a say.” And you can organize yourself. That is possible.

JWM:Why is work such an important part of student life at Grinnell?

Quinn Ercolani: Grinnell College has a pretty robust work-study system in place. The financial aid packages of most Grinnell College students who receive any financial aid include about $2,200 in work-study each year.

However, Grinnell is also very unique in that it doesn't limit its on-campus employment to work-study students. So even if you are not receiving work-study as a part of your financial aid, you are not excluded from working jobs at Grinnell College. And a lot of students do choose to work in order to earn a little bit of extra money here and there.

I mean, Grinnell is a fairly expensive institution. The comprehensive fee is—compared to our peer group, isn't extremely high—but it is relatively high, especially for the state of Iowa, if you look at comparing Grinnell's tuition to even places like Drake [University, a private institution in Des Moines] or Cornell College [a private liberal arts college in Mount Vernon, Iowa].

And so a lot of students use this to literally be able to afford to attend the institution. Like I know I rely on working for $2,200 a year, and then beyond that [when possible]. This year [2018–19] I should earn like the equivalent of two years’ worth of work-study in my job because I need that to be able to afford tuition, and a lot of students here take the same view of their jobs: it's a necessary function of being able to afford Grinnell.

Jacob Schneyer: I think Quinn is right. Definitely there are a lot of people [for] who[m] work-study's essential to them being able to be here, and I think that's generally appreciated. And there also are a lot of people who work and don't absolutely need it. I'm one of those people. I do get work-study, but if I somehow couldn't work, I could pay that without working. But I still work. I still like getting that money, and it's something that's in my schedule.

And, for me, that's kind of one of the things I really like about the union, because I see it as a really good way to kind of bridge that gap between me and some of my fellow students, who, frankly, need this a lot more than I do. By committing to working to make a strong union, I feel like I'm doing what I can to help those fellow students [to] make it easier for them to be here. Because I want them to be here with me. I don't want it to just be people who can afford to not work.

Sam Xu: Yeah, I think student employment is a big part of the reality at Grinnell College. Grinnell College basically relies on student workers who make many services available.

JWM:The union starts in the college's dining hall. What were working conditions like there?

Cory McCartan: The dining hall had been and to some extent is chronically understaffed. And so they assigned the vast majority, maybe 95 percent, of incoming first-years on work-study to the dining hall.

And of those cohorts that come in, the vast majority were looking for other jobs pretty soon. You know, it wasn't a bad job, but compared to a job where you can get paid the same to sit at a desk, answer a couple phones, and do homework in between, it was a bad job.

And so the dining hall keeps you busy, right? There's a lot of different shifts you can work and you have a decent amount of say in what kind of work you're doing. But you're busy the whole time and you're working—[it] used to be longer shifts, now they've sort of split them up, which we've pushed for, and I think that's a good idea.

But it's also the biggest employer of students on campus. Dining services overall employs about 400 students. This is a campus of 1,700–1,750—about 1,500 of which are on campus in a given year and not studying abroad in a given semester—and about, we think, 1,200 or 1,300 or so who work.

So a very substantial portion of the working student body is working in the dining hall. And so it sort of seemed that it's a natural starting point, both in terms of the kind of work that's being done and just the importance and how central it is to working students. Everyone starts there, and that's sort of the reference point, really, for campus employment.

We go around to dorms and sign people up and we say, “Oh, where do you work?”

[People reply] “Oh, I work in the D[ining] hall.” Or “I used to work in the D hall, and now I'm here.”

We can go back and say, “Oh, well, what shift did you work?” “Oh, you did salad bar closing? Oh, that's the worst, ugh. Picking up the tomatoes off the—” We've all sort of been there and done that and know what that's like.

And I think that's helped us organize. Because the vast majority of people we talk to have gone through that and we have that experience in common and for a lot of people it wasn't maybe their best work experience and then that maybe serves an impetus for joining us.

JWM:How and why did union organizing start?

Cory McCartan: So, I arrived on Grinnell's campus in the fall of 2015. And so I think my second time in the state of Iowa, I get to campus and I'm assigned a work-study job in the college's dining hall.

And I worked there for a semester and it becomes pretty clear to me right away that there's sort of this problem of understaffing that's actually been around for awhile. And it means that we're all working later, and that there's service venues that are closed on a regular basis and that our supervisors are having to stay late and fill in in places and just work a good bit above and beyond. It's sort of causing a lot of problems.

And in talking to people—my coworkers—we all agreed that the best way to address this understaffing problem was to raise wages, because students would, like me, get assigned to the dining hall, would work there for a semester or two, and then they would leave for a job that paid the exact same but did not involve making lasagnas by the dozens.

And at the same time, wages hadn't actually been raised since the [Great] Recession, so it'd been about seven or eight years since they actually raised wages and they were hovering just a little bit above the federal minimum wage [of $7.25 an hour]. I think we were at $8.50 an hour for the vast majority of staff positions at that time.

So, we had these problems and it seemed like the solution was obvious, but how to get there wasn't maybe quite so obvious, because we're at this college and everything goes to the administration and there's no sort of clear channels, or there weren't any at the time, for enacting this sort of change, short of just saying, “Hey, have you considered paying us more?” And, especially since the wage scale was campuswide, it didn't seem like a conversation we could have just within dining services.

So, I got to thinking about this as we rounded into second semester—this would've been winter of 2016—I forget exactly when, but I think it maybe just came up in conversation with some coworkers as sort of a—it started as a joke: “Hey, what if we had a union? Then they'd have to listen to us, wouldn't they?”

And I think we all laughed, but then, you know, I went home and I did some research and I realized that this could be something that we actually could do. And I learned right away that Iowa's a right-to-work state, and so we couldn't require that members pay dues or a fair share fee, and so that meant that our part-time workforce would probably be pretty afraid or unwilling to join a union if they had to pay a lot of money every month to keep it running.

So I started exploring what would it look like to set up an independent union where we would have complete control over our affairs, and we could keep the overhead low enough to mean that we wouldn't have to have any dues. And at the same time, I was researching the process of setting up a union, and what that looks like in terms of getting an election and the mechanics of all that.

So I think we sort of got the ball rolling in March of 2016. A coworker, Rachel Bass, and I set up a constitution and bylaws and signed those, and the organization of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers was formed. And right after that, we drew up some authorization cards to start getting signatures toward our first election and talking to people we know to get those signed.

We tracked down the email addresses of everyone in the dining hall from their scheduling system and sent out an email on behalf of both of us sort of introducing this idea of a union to our coworkers, and let them know that we would be with the cards outside of the workplace the next day.

And we didn't get any sort of immediate response. We talked to a couple people the next day. A couple people were pretty excited to join. One of those was Alec Doss, who sort of became an integral leader of the union from then on.

And so that was our team of three that got us through the recognition stage. Took us about a month and a half to sign up enough cards to get to 30 percent of our workforce, which is about 220 people. It was just the dining hall component of dining services. There was spring break in the middle, but I sort of just—mostly me, I think—waited outside of the workplace every night after the dinner shifts let out and just caught people on the way out and said, “Hey, you heard about the union we're trying to start? What do you think about that?”

And most people were pretty receptive. I think I talked to maybe a couple people who just were opposed to the very idea, but pretty much everyone thought this was a good thing, had no problem signing up right away. I think a lot of that derives from Grinnell's pretty liberal political climate overall.

So by early April 2016, we had about ninety-two signatures, and decided to move forward with filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. So, we did that on April 14, 2016. And, you know, the board calls back right away and assigns an agent and so the process is sort of begun.

At that point, we hadn't really thought much about this issue of whether students even had a right to unionize. I'd called the board agent back in March and sort of explained, you know, we had W2s and we got paid wages, and we both agreed that it seemed like we were employees, so I didn't really give it much thought after that.

But then the board agent calls and says, “Well, we don't generally allow students to unionize,” and asked me to submit a statement of position on that subject, which I did. And, in consultation with the college, the college agreed really not to challenge us. I mean, this is what I've gleaned since. I got a call from a very surprised board agent within the next week saying, “The college [has] basically stipulated [or voluntarily agreed] to your bargaining unit and our jurisdiction and we're not going to have to have a hearing.” And so we drew up the paperwork for a stipulated election agreement and set the election date for May 5. So it was a pretty smooth first process with the recognition petition—something which I didn't really fully appreciate until later, as we start our campaign of bringing representation to the rest of campus.

So [the] election was set for May 5. We got the Excelsior list [a list of employees eligible to vote in a union election]. We did some door knocking to get out the vote. And the election was held. I didn't check the voter eligibility formula closely enough and so accidentally excluded a good chunk of our workforce who worked less than four hours a week. And so there weren't actually that many eligible voters at the time, and not very many of them showed up, which was sort of sad, given how excited and ready we were for this thing, but it was the week before finals and people were very busy, and the election was held in a little tiny conference room up in the corner of the building. And so, I think about twenty-three people voted out of maybe a hundred eligible voters, and twenty-two of them voted yes.

So, the union was official and we got our certification, and, at that point, we started bargaining with the college over our first contract.

JWM:What have you been able to accomplish through collective bargaining?

Cory McCartan: Yeah, we have negotiated two contracts, the second [of] which expires this spring. So that'll be the start of our third contract negotiations.

We started negotiating our first contract the summer after my first year, so summer 2016. And the big thing was wages. There [were] various union security things we wanted, and, you know, just sort of the groundwork for our first union contract. I think we proposed a $10.12 wage. That would've been up from $8.50. We eventually ended up agreeing on $9.25. But we also increased the premium for student supervisors. And we built in a bonus system whereby if you work 110 hours a semester, you get an extra 25 cents an hour bonus retroactively applied to all your wages. So that was to sort of encourage people to stick around and commit to working. And in fact the amount of that bonus increased. So, if you qualified a second time for that bonus, the bonus was doubled, and if you qualified a third time, it was triple. So that's been a big area of progress. In our second contract, we pushed that base wage up to $9.50, and extended the bonus system one tier further.

But those gains have not been necessarily easily won. There's been sort of a lot of back-and-forth and some pushback there, and I think that was still going on in the fall of 2016, when I met Quinn and Sam.

Sam Xu: I think the first contract fight was pretty easy to me. My first meeting at the union, we were voting on that contract. So I thought a wage increase was good. The bonus structure was good. So I just voted yes, without thinking too much about it. But then, I think my basic moment of realization was the second contract fight, in which I was a bargaining representative. So I was the point person for rest break policy. So there was really not much talked about. It's one of the first things we agreed on.

But, luckily, I had a chance to spend much time listening and other things. I heard things like, “If tuition increases and wages [do] not increase, the financial burden for students will not increase,” which did not—and does not—make any sense to me. And I heard things like, “Students hurt themselves at jobs because they lack common sense.” And I heard things like, “If students are having a hard time putting food on their table, why don't they just eat in the dining hall?” And all kinds of absurd things like that.

And I realized: this is why student workers should have a right to get together, so that we have a structure or framework or the power to change these things. And bad things could happen if we don't have that power.

Quinn Ercolani: So, Sam mentioned his first meeting, which was the contract ratification. That was also my first meeting—and I was kind of a dick. Because I was one of the few students who was interested in the union but didn't actually—okay, this requires slightly more background.

Within dining services, there are three separate areas. There's the dining hall. There's catering. And then there's the Spencer Grill, which is a little location slightly adjacent to the main dining hall where you can spend “real-world” money (laughs) and get things. And so I worked at the Spencer Grill my first year. But it's generally considered to be within dining like a step above the Marketplace [dining hall], because students used to be able to do homework while they were working and it was a much cushier job, if you want to call it that. Many people do. At that point, catering and the Spencer Grill were not part of the bargaining unit because when Cory and Alec and Rachel first unionized, they solely remained within the Marketplace because that's where all three of them worked.

However, I had heard about the union the summer before I arrived on campus and I got a mailer from them when I arrived because I was supposed to be working in the Marketplace. And so before their first meeting I read up on their constitution and bylaws and there was nothing in there that—they were written in such a way that they didn't preclude me from joining the union, even though I wasn't actually represented by the union.

And so I came in and just started citing chapter and verse [from] the constitution and bylaws to the board at that time and like demanded that they let me be a member. And then that really kicked off our first—because [the 2018 expansion campaign] is technically our second expansion campaign. Our first expansion campaign was expanding to the grill and catering, and that's the discussion that kind of kicked that off a little bit.

JWM:Why was the college administration slow to react to the initial organizing only to change its position when the union started to expand outside of the dining hall?

Cory McCartan: Last fall, 2017, I had my first one-on-one meeting with the president about our expansion campaign and he comes in and he sits down and he asks me how I got started and I tell him the story I've told here.

And then he says, “Well, I'm in general very supportive of unions. Now, they've had some problems with racism in the past and things like that. But, on the whole, I think unions are great.”

And then he immediately pivots to spend the next forty-five minutes sort of attacking our union for how it's not great. So there's a lot of that.

It's a pretty liberal political environment on campus. Professors, of course, by and large lean left. And I think a lot of people in administration even have sort of progressive sympathies.

But, at the end of the day, their job and their ultimate responsibility is to keep the college financially afloat, and, unfortunately, a lot of them see our organization as sort of a threat to that, and that manifests itself in their approach to us.

So, I was, again, in retrospect, more surprised about the ease in which they acquiesced to our first organizing campaign. Because they're very strategic. And they're thinking long term and you'd think that they might worry this would be a slippery slope.

So, I don't know exactly what caused them to sort of relent, and not fight us initially. Maybe they thought they didn't have a very strong legal case or maybe they thought this was in line with Grinnell's tradition of social responsibility, or maybe they thought we wouldn't keep trying to expand beyond the confines of dining services. I don't know what it was.

I think in our last meeting with the president, just last week, we heard that he received a bunch of angry phone calls from other administrators and presidents at liberal arts colleges around the country, after they let us unionize, chewing him out for setting a bad precedent and giving us students all the wrong ideas. “What if that spread?” So that was pretty interesting to hear.

And so, it's encouraging in one sense to see how Grinnell's willing to step beyond the pack, and, we think, do the right thing. But also concerning to see just the level of, dare I say, collusion among sort of the higher ed administrative liberal arts world just [to] keep student workers in their place, and how quickly opinions can change against us, from two and a half years ago when we organized the first union, to a year ago when we tried expanding it.

Sam Xu: I think the attitudes really changed after Donald Trump got elected and appointed more pro-employer appointees to the National Labor Relations Board. Because now, as Cory said, the higher liberal arts world has more sympathy with these appointees and board members on the National Labor Relations Board that will decide the future of student unions in the higher ed world in general, whereas before that, it's unlikely that these more liberal, progressive members on the board will deny student workers their right to unionize.

So thinking of that and their liberal arts, progressive tradition, it made more sense for them not to fight unions as hard. But now they have a better playing field, legally, so it makes more sense for them to oppose us more harshly now.

JWM:How does the union approach the relationship between collective bargaining and other forms of protest or ways of addressing the needs of members, students more generally, community members, and allies?

Jacob Schneyer: Protesting and other public actions aren't like an “extra thing” we add on in addition to collective bargaining.

Because this is a college campus and a very progressive one, there are student protests against the administration all the time. And so for me, actually, it's the collective bargaining process that is kind of the extra thing that we bring.

And this is something that I'm really excited about with our expansion. I'm fairly interested in using the union just as a straightforward means to make the administration listen to the students, even on things that are not unrelated to labor but maybe not obviously related.

So my go-to example: Like a lot of colleges, we have a lot of issues with student mental health. And the resources the college provides are not adequate. It's hard in Iowa, in Grinnell, a small town like Grinnell, to get that. But, you know, we believe the college has a lot of money. They can do things like get an actual practicing psychiatrist or something like that.

And so, you know, the main reason we need that is not for workers, but it is a labor issue because that's a reason students could miss work. Work can also negatively impact their mental health. And so, if we covered all student workers, that could be either something we could bargain for or something we could apply pressure for if there was a larger student movement for it at the time.

And we've definitely seen in various things over the past year or few years that the college is very good at kind of listening to what students have to say and then ignoring it or then not making meaningful change. So that's kind of the hope: this will get them to listen and then they actually have to follow it up with action.

JWM:Has being involved in the union changed you, and, if so, how?

Quinn Ercolani: It's really, for me, opened my eyes a little bit, both on my own personal, family history, but also like the history of labor in the United States and the places it can go.

I have always wanted to be involved in public service and government of some sort. Because I feel like that is something that's essential to the functioning of our democracy in the United States.

But really now I've started to—like being a part of this organization has put me in contact with student workers and graduate student workers from across the country. I mean, I went to the Labor Notes conference this past spring in Chicago and got to meet these wonderful people from Rutgers who have the contingent faculty union and the grad students at Rutgers who have just been really waging an incredible campaign.

And meeting these people for whom labor unions have been so beneficial and critical to their lives is not something that I would have otherwise understood. Especially as a college student who is at a school that doesn't have a labor history or a labor studies program. This has just been so eye-opening in terms of these avenues that can be taken to actually better and further the public good for people that need it the most.

Like, it's easy to look at like a Wall Street banker or a stock trader and be like, “Oh, yeah, that person, they get a lot of money.” And like they're essential to the functioning of society because, if the NASDAQ drops, then everything's bad. But I think a lot of especially young people, especially in an academic setting, don't get that exposure to labor unions and to the real net positives that labor unions can bring.

And like, if nothing else, we are a resource of information. We bring the knowledge of this to the student body. Even if we hadn't been winning wage increases and expanded, we would still be something that was getting this new crop of students involved, potentially going into the future, and that's something that I've gratefully admired the graduate student unions for—just getting these people involved at an early step in their careers.

Sam Xu: Yeah, I think it's a really powerful experience for me to be able to see how joining together workers and student workers in this case can have great powers in changing things. And I think it's also a great experience to bring the labor movement to the younger generation, because we college students don't necessarily see, you know, the labor movement as sexy.

But now they have, like, firsthand experience with the labor movement. I think many of the student workers and students in general are very excited about the role Grinnell College and its students play in the broader labor movement, which is under attack on a national level.

And furthermore, I think [that] despite all the positive and powerful feedback we get, the union also has a lot of pushback and opposition from students. We got some really offensive and insulting comments in our surveys.

But I think this experience does help us to clarify what we are fighting for and where we're going, despite these negative comments. You know, at the end, hundreds and hundreds of student workers think a union's a good thing. They want to be involved in the labor movement to push for meaningful changes. I think that's what makes us keep fighting for—fighting alongside—them.

Jacob Schneyer: I think for me, the biggest thing has just been kind of seeing in more practical terms how powerful it can be to have a union.

And, when I joined, I really had no knowledge of any of the procedures or the terminology. Like, okay, we're going to file a ULP [Unfair Labor Practice]. What does that mean?

But, as I started to get into it, I realized there's really a lot of power there. And I think just pragmatically, workers, students—just people who don't have power—should be grabbing it every chance they can. And labor is a good way to do that. Unions are a good way to do that.

And also, practically, as well, on a smaller scale, I think all of us have learned a lot about just how to organize, and what it means to every night or most nights a week, just [to] go out and knock doors and talk to people.

JWM:How useful is the UGSDW model for other workers?

Jacob Schneyer: A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a good friend of mine who goes to Michigan State University who's kind of in the very most exploratory stages of talking about a union. And I was thinking about what advice I would have, and I realized none of it is applicable because we're in such a unique situation. Probably 80 percent of our people live within a two-block radius. And we can just walk down the dorms and knock doors. And everyone eats in the same dining hall. So we can sit outside the dining hall.

So that makes it so much easier for us, but just showing all the steps to go through, and when you do those steps and do the work, you get results, that's been really powerful for me. Just seeing how, yeah, when you start organizing, when you talk to people, when you knock those doors, it just starts happening. And politics and such things can be very discouraging, but this is kind of the opposite of that, because it's working. It's kind of amazing.

Cory McCartan: I think also that our model is—as Jacob mentioned, it's unique in some regards—but I think it also is not unique in other regards. So, the traditional organizing model works, has been refined, and for the most part works very well. But sometimes there's ways that it's different.

So here there's really less of a sell of the union itself. Most people we talk to take for granted this would be a good thing, and they have their entire lives supported the idea of unions. So, you know, a lot of places, that's not the case. But especially a lot of, like, young professional workforces these days, we're seeing a lot of unionization at, like, the journalism sector right now, with these sorts of young millennials who take for granted that unions would be great. So that's one way we're different.

And then the other way is, I think, what struck me has always been just how friendly and how well the Labor Relations Act is set up for basically unions like us. It was written in a time when even the AFL-CIO wasn't quite as—well, it wasn't even the AFL-CIO then.

But like there wasn't that sort of—it wasn't as pushed from the national level, and it wasn't—I don't want to say commercialized unionism. But it's really set up—the fact that I was able to go through this with no legal training, no background, right? It's a process that can work for small groups of employees who want to independently do this themselves.

So I think there's organizing challenges that a lot of people face that we don't at this campus, but I think the model of independent unionism is something that really can work elsewhere, especially in right-to-work states and especially in small units that just don't maybe fit in to the traditional, you know, labor union local model.

And so, for me, I think I'd like ways we can sort of crystallize what we've learned in that regard and make that available and try to sort of maybe spread the word there that if you have a small workplace and you feel like you want a seat at the table, a union does not [have to] look the same in every workplace. [It] isn't always, you know, a big local that represents all of the grocery stores in a region.

It can be you and your coworkers in your coffee shop of fifteen in Iowa City or whatever who say, “Hey, we'd like to have a say.” And you can organize yourself. That is possible.

And I think, frankly, given the challenges organized labor is facing, a model like ours, where we're not as reliant on paid staffers and paid organizing campaigns—which are so crucial for a lot of organizing—but there's places where it's not and you can still make progress there, and no matter how many right-to-work laws are passed, no one can stop your momentum in that direction.

So, that's sort of I think the third front in which we're trying to really see how we can take these lessons bigger.

I would like to thank Jennifer Sherer and Cory McCartan for their comments on early drafts.



For a complete transcript of the interview, see Ercolani, Quinn et al. (Grinnell), interview by John W. McKerley, September 22, 2018, Iowa Labor History Oral Project, University of Iowa (UI) Labor Center and Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, records held jointly by State Historical Society of Iowa (Iowa City) and UI Libraries. Regarding the Iowa Labor History Oral Project, see also ILHOP: Iowa History as Told by the Workers Who Made It,


Ercolani, Quinn et al. (Grinnell), interview by John W. McKerley, September 22, 2018, Iowa Labor History Oral Project, University of Iowa (UI) Labor Center and Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, records held jointly by State Historical Society of Iowa (Iowa City) and UI Libraries.


Regarding the NLRA, see, for example, McCartin, “ ‘As Long as There Survives,’ ” and the responses by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Craig Becker, and Katherine V. W. Stone, in Labor 14, no. 2 (2017): 21–67. For recent works on organizing, see McAlevey, No Shortcuts; and Pitkin, On the Line.


In 2021, US News and World Report ranked Grinnell College fifteenth out of 210 institutions identified as National Liberal Arts Colleges. This placed them slightly behind Smith and Vassar Colleges (tied for thirteen) and tied with Davidson and Hamilton Colleges. US News and World Report, “National Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings.” Each entry included undergraduate enrollment for fall of 2021.


Regarding student worker organizing during this period, see Strauss, “The Fight for $15 Goes to College.” 


Associated Press
. “
Board OKs Request by Grinnell Students to Drop Union Effort
Brooks, Chris. “
How Amazon and Starbucks Workers Are Upending the Organizing Rules
In These Times
McAlevey, Jane F.
No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age
New York
Oxford University Press
McCartin, Joseph A.
 ‘As Long as There Survives’: Contemplating the Wagner Act after Eighty Years
, no.
Pitkin, Daisy.
On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women's Epic Fight to Build a Union
Chapel Hill, NC
Algonquin Books
Strauss, Mariya. “
The Fight for $15 Goes to College
New Labor Forum
, no.
UGSDW (Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers)
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UGSDW Wins Historic Union Election
” (press release).
US News and World Report
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National Liberal Arts Colleges Rankings
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