Opinion: In the Trump Era, Reed College Attacks Student Labor Rights

In April of 2018, Reed College pushed for a total repeal of all basic labor rights for students workers at all private colleges — on both graduate and undergraduate levels — nationally. The college asked a federal labor board to “reconsider and reverse” a legal precedent recognizing the basic labor rights of student workers, the Obama-era Columbia precedent. The college tried to take away this precedent and bring our country back to a time when a Bush-era Brown decision barred student workers from forming a union. According to the college, “Columbia should be reversed, and Brown should be reinstated.”

The college began this attack on student labor rights after the Reed House Advisors (HAs) successfully voted in favor of forming a union of their peers in March last semester. With a 92% participation rate, 71% of the HAs voted in favor of unionization. After this vote, the HAs were meant to become a certified union, equipped with legal documents that protected their benefits and ordered the college to negotiate over general working conditions. For example, HAs wanted to have real medical amnesty that wouldn’t be subject to job-related discipline. However, the college remained unwavering in its refusal to listen to its HAs. Aside from listening, the only option left to the college was to make a federal appeal. So the college proceeded to throw its weight behind a federal labor board dominated by Trump-appointees.

Historically, the college has not taken the voices of its HAs seriously. In 2015, the college slashed effective HA pay just as hiring decisions were sent out. To deal with the resulting discontent, the college set up an HA working group — and proceeded to reject the very modest proposals the HAs put forward.

The college came dangerously close to achieving a major national rollback of student worker labor rights. The Trumpian, anti-worker majority on the federal labor board surely would have been eager to administer the college’s requests to wind back the clock and reinstate an anti-worker, Bush-era precedent. Had the college succeeded, it would have hurt working students at Reed, and all across the country, as well as Reed alumni in grad school. For the college to actively legitimize the Trump administration’s broad assault on labor rights would have been a terrible disgrace for the Reed community.

After the administration abandoned their moral integrity in the case, HAs could not follow suit. They had to grit their teeth and let go of their hard-won union. The HAs had to dissolve the union and drop the whole case in order to stop the Reed/Trump administrations from repurposing the HA case in order to attack student workers all across the country. This was a tragic development. And yet, perhaps, it wasn’t such a big surprise. The college fought hard to prevent the unionization vote from ever happening in the first place. Long before the college made its fateful appeal to the federal labor court, Reed administrators, including Mike Brody and Bruce Smith, testified at the local, regional labor court that oversees Oregon and Washington. These Reed administrators, along with Barron Leibman (a prestigious union-busting law firm hired by the college), did their best to support the argument that HAs weren’t employees and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Administrators claimed that the whole HA position was a special educational opportunity, like a class, and that the eight-day-long HA training was actually its own form of compensation.

I was in that courtroom. As an HA, I got up on the stand, took the oath, and testified. I told the truth. Along with me was another HA who did the same. We didn’t have money or even a lawyer. We had Seth Douglas, who worked in the mailroom. (In his extended time at Reed, Seth Douglas was a persistent gadfly upon the administration. A dedicated architect of the labor movement at Reed, Seth was also once among a group of students who historically pushed the Reed administration to get Reed’s Discriminatory Harassment and Sexual Misconduct (DHSM) procedures in compliance with federal Title IX law, despite significant pushback. This article is dedicated to Seth.) Together, our little trio of students supported the argument that HAs are employees and should have at least some say in the labor contracts HAs sign and abide by. At a disadvantage in terms of money, legal support, and organizational resources, remarkably, none of that mattered. The board’s regional director issued a decision several weeks later, and, rejecting all of the college’s arguments, siding overwhelmingly with us. We had finally won the right to vote!

The college then tried to obstruct the vote. The college filed a federal appeal to suspend the vote or get the ballots impounded, so no one could see the results. This appeal ultimately got struck down. In the meantime, the college told HAs that their appeal was for the sole purpose of letting the new, incoming HAs vote as well, for they too should have a say, and we should all consider the impacts on the new HAs, the college said. (New HAs would have had a major say in how the new union was run.) This was a noteworthy messaging strategy. At the time, the administration thought it was okay to argue in favor of voting rights for the incoming HAs — right after they argued against voting rights for any HA — and right before they turned around again to attack the voting rights of every student worker in the country.

When it comes to upholding the values of the Reed community, consistency wasn’t a big issue. Democracy? Only if people vote how they’re supposed to … Open Mind? Not when it comes to treating student workers as equals … Generous Heart? Not when it comes to giving up just a single ounce of power … Honor? Can people honor case you, oh dearest administration? Absolutely not … Honor cases (and economic value, apparently) flow from the college to the students, and not the other way around.

Over this summer, I was able to stop by Reed to canvass for the union cause at Alumni Reunions. (This was before we pulled the case.) An elderly alum, a lifetime organizer for a big union, the Service Employees International Union, in fact, had a message that really stuck with me. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Walmart or Reed College — they will waste a lot of resources, and even risk bad press, just to try and hold on to every last bit of power.”

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