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Unionizing Information for Student Workers

Smith College recognizes that learning happens in many ways, both in and beyond the classroom. Responsibility, accountability, and collaboration are among the skills that our student employees hone during the work they perform on campus while pursuing their academic careers. Smith students also learn to advocate for themselves, and we continue to support—and are proud of—their thoughtful and purposeful engagement with the world. Smith remains committed to supporting positive work environments and leadership opportunities to enhance the educational experience for student employees. 

The upcoming elections present a learning opportunity for student workers. Each student worker should learn about what it means to be represented by a union, and each student has a right to choose what they believe is best for them. We want student workers to have all the facts, to think through the issues carefully and to make a well-informed, independent decision about whether unionization is the best path forward.

On November 16, 2023, the Smith College Residence Life Collective/UCFW Local 1459 filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking to represent Smith student employees who are staff members in the Office of Residential Life. On November 17, 2023, United Smith Student Workers/OPEIU Local 153 filed a petition with the NLRB seeking to represent all student dining, café, and catering employees. 

The NLRB will now conduct separate elections for each petition through its well-established secret ballot voting procedures. Through this election process, each eligible student worker has the opportunity to consider the potential benefits and costs of unionization, and each employee may vote to decide for themselves whether each group will be represented by a labor union. The election to determine whether student workers in Residence Life will be represented by UCFW Local 1459 has been scheduled for Friday, December 15, 2023 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Conference Center, Oak Room. The election to determine whether student workers in Dining will be represented by OPEIU Local 153 has been scheduled for Thursday, February 1, 2024 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in a location to be determined.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about unions and the NLRB election process.

A labor union is an entity that represents a group of workers (the “bargaining unit”), and bargains with the employer on behalf of those workers with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. The union negotiates collective bargaining agreements with the employer setting forth employment terms, and represents its members with regards to disputes over those terms. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is the main federal law that governs management-labor relations. The NLRA establishes certain employee rights, including the rights to form or join unions, engage in concerted activity for mutual aid or protection regarding their terms and conditions of employment or refrain from engaging in these activities.

The National Labor Relations Board is a federal government agency that enforces and administers the National Labor Relations Act. Among other responsibilities, the NLRB (through its regional offices across the country) receives and processes petitions from labor organizations seeking an election for union representation, and conducts and oversees those elections. The NLRB will be conducting the elections for the two petitions filed to represent Smith student workers. 

The NLRB will schedule elections for the two petitions filed to represent the two groups of student workers.  At the election, each eligible voter will fill out a ballot that will ask whether they wish to be represented for purposes of collective bargaining by the respective union. If the answer is no, the voter casts a “no” vote; if the answer is yes, the voter casts a “yes” vote.  The NLRB will then tally the votes.

Student workers are not required to vote, but Smith strongly encourages all eligible voters to vote.

Union representation is determined by a majority of votes cast, just like a political election. This means that not voting leaves the decision in the hands of those who do vote, potentially allowing a minority opinion to succeed. For instance, if 100 student workers are eligible to vote, but only 25 actually cast their ballot, and 13 of the 25 vote for the union, then those 13 voters have bound all 100 eligible student workers to be unionized. 

Smith College strongly encourages all eligible voters to cast ballots to ensure that all voices are heard and the outcome that best represents the opinions of the student employees is the one that prevails.

No. Eligible student workers must vote in person; there will be no proxy voting allowed at the election. 

No. The NLRB voting process is conducted via secret ballot. The NLRB tallies the votes, and then reports them simply with a total number of “yes” and a total number of “no” votes.

No. Each voting member is free to make their own decision in the election, regardless of whether they signed a union authorization card.

In December 2023, Residence Life student workers voted in favor of representation by UFCW Local 1459 as Smith College Residence Life Collective.

For each election, if a vote in favor of the union is certified by the NLRB, the union would become the exclusive representative regarding terms and conditions for student workers in the bargaining unit. Smith College would no longer be able to legally work directly with individual student employees in those areas (even those who voted against or otherwise do not support the union) with respect to wages, hours, schedule changes, time off and other terms and conditions of employment. Any changes to such terms would need to be taken up as part of collective bargaining with each union.

Collective bargaining is the process by which an employer and the union discuss and negotiate the terms and conditions of employment for the bargaining unit. A bargaining unit is a group of employees that share a community of interest with respect to their terms and conditions of employment, and are grouped together for purposes of collective bargaining. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict the length of negotiations. However, collective bargaining negotiations can be time intensive. It is not uncommon for negotiations of a first collective bargaining agreement to last a year or longer after a union’s certification.

No. Certification of a union effectively “freezes” wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. The college no longer can make unilateral changes for represented workers and all terms and conditions would be subject to bargaining.

Generally not. If a collective bargaining agreement is in place, the college generally has no ability to deviate from or make exceptions to the contract to accommodate the individual circumstances of students, absent agreement from the union. Once the bargaining unit is in place, a collective bargaining agreement between the external labor organization and the college would regulate all future terms of employment. This typically results in a standard set of rules and regulations with limited flexibility for specific or individual circumstances.

The NLRA requires employers and unions to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. These are generally called “mandatory” subjects of bargaining, over which the employer and the union are required to negotiate. Other topics such as faculty employment matters, college governance, tuition and costs of attendance, or academic policies are generally not subject to mandatory negotiation. 

The extent to which each bargaining unit member can express their views and influence the contract depends on the internal procedures and the decision-making process of the particular union and its officers.

It depends on how long the parties have agreed the term of the contract will last, although three years is common. The parties are obligated to negotiate a new contract upon expiration of the previous contract.

Typically, yes. As part of the collective bargaining agreement, unions often negotiate for a union security clause that requires workers in the bargaining unit to join the union and pay dues as a condition of employment. Under such a clause, if a worker in the bargaining unit does not want to join the union, they are generally required to pay an ‘agency fee’ to support the collective bargaining process and, should the worker refuse to pay that fee, the union could insist that the worker be terminated from their job in the bargaining unit. The amount of dues/agency fees varies and depends on the local union’s dues structure. Each union can provide that information to students. The college does not set dues or have information about dues. 

No. Both Smith and the union have a duty to bargain in good faith towards an agreement, and both Smith and the union will put forth proposals. Neither Smith nor the union, however, are required to agree to any demand regarding terms or conditions of employment, including wage increases.

No. Once a union is certified as the collective bargaining representative for a unit of employees, everyone employed within the bargaining unit is represented solely by the union.

Eventually, but not for some time and it is rarely done. The NLRB does not accept decertification petitions for one calendar year following a union’s certification. In addition, the NLRB generally will not process a petition to decertify a union for the first three years of a valid collective bargaining agreement.

The most important thing is to vote in the upcoming elections. The election to determine whether student workers in Dining will be represented by OPEIU Local 153 has been scheduled for Thursday, February 1, 2024 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Conference Center, Oak Room.

Yes. If you would like to speak with the College about these issues, please contact Hannah Durrant, Director of Residence Life, or Andy Cox, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services.