Valley News – Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth manages to pick on managers in student worker union

In Dartmouth College’s better-late-than-never campaign to improve racial and class diversity, Mariana Penaloza Morales checks all the boxes.

She’s a high-achieving Latinx student from South Florida. Her mother is a cashier at Target. Her father works seven days a week, delivering the Miami Herald.

“My parents only speak Spanish,” she told me.

In higher education parlance, Penaloza Morales is known as a FGLI student — first-generation, low-income.

Three years ago, Dartmouth announced an expansion of its program to prepare these students for the “academic and social challenges of college life,” thanks to $13 million in private gifts.

Now, if the college gets its way, some of those same students stand to suffer financially.

I’m referring to the administration’s response to the successful union drive by students who work in the college’s dining halls and snack bars.

Many of the 150 student-workers, which includes about 10 managers, fall into the FGLI cohort. The jobs generally attract students for economic reasons. They tend to pay better than most part-time work on campus. International students also make up a good share of the student workforce at the college’s 11 dining locations.

Last month, the workers voted, 52-0, to unionize.

The college, however, has been less than gracious in defeat. It’s disputing three votes cast by students who work as dining service managers, Kaya Colakoglu, a member of the union’s organizing committee, told Valley News staff writer Liz Sauchelli.

“This issue was identified in the stipulated election agreement, and we anticipate addressing it directly with the students during the next phase of the negotiations,” Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence told me via email.

Dartmouth is apparently arguing that student managers are ineligible for union membership — and any negotiated benefits that may come with it — because they do more than run cash registers. Although they do that, too.

Penaloza Morales, 22, was one of the managers who voted in favor of the union.

The unionizing effort was rooted in students’ dissatisfaction with working conditions exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to the union drive, Dartmouth offered students 1½ times their regular rate of pay, bringing hourly wages to $20 or more. But with reported COVID-19 cases declining on campus, the college is expected to soon halt the so-called hazard pay.

Penaloza Morales, who graduates in June, won’t benefit from concessions the union is able to squeeze out of the college.

She shared her story during an interview outside the Hopkins Center last week so people might better understand what the union means to student workers whom she characterized as “often exploited by the college.”

Penaloza Morales recalled working shifts at the snack bars until 2 am, and then starting her first class the next morning before 9 am. “It’s exhausting,” she said.

With the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth behind them, students can negotiate for higher pay, better benefits and paid sick leave, she said. “Hopefully, it will last,” she added.

Penaloza Morales’ tuition and room and board — Dartmouth charged about $75,000 this year alone — is covered by scholarships. (She received a federal Pell Grant — need-based financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.)

Nearly helped of Dartmouth’s 4,600 undergraduates received at least partial scholarships last year. Still, college is hardly free for Penaloza Morales and other FGLI students. She has worked in dining services since shortly after arriving at Dartmouth in 2018.

“It was a job I definitely needed,” she said.

She uses her paychecks to buy shampoo, toothpaste and other essentials. Laundry is another expense that “adds up,” she said.

Then there’s the cost of flying home at the end of academic terms, which is in the hundreds, plus a $60 round-trip bus ticket to and from Boston’s Logan Airport.

I’m not sure what Dartmouth expects to gain by playing hardball with the new union on student managers — particularly if it comes at the expense of low-income students who are breaking new ground in their families.

(According to the 2021 “fact card” on Dartmouth’s website, 10% of the college’s students were Hispanic or Latino. Half of the 4,600 undergraduates were white.)

I think Tim Belcher, a Barre, Vt., union attorney who is representing student-workers pro bono through the nonprofit National Lawyers Guild, has a handle on Dartmouth’s strategy.

“They’re using these students as leverage,” he told me.

For an elite college with an $8.5 billion endowment, it comes across as small-minded. The starting pay — before the temporary COVID-19 bonus money kicked in — for student managers was $15 to $17 an hour.

Giving needy students a few more bucks to help with living expenses is not something Dartmouth should have to think twice about.

But Dartmouth officials aren’t messing around.

They’ve hired a Boston law firm, Morgan, Brown & Joy, to do their bidding. According to its website, the firm is in the business of “helping employers prevail, in and out of the courtroom.”

Meanwhile, Penaloza Morales will soon leave Hanover. The geography major is headed to graduate school at the University of Minnesota. She’s interested in studying urban geography, which looks at the historical, cultural and socioeconomic dynamics that shapes today’s cities.

Her mother and sister plan to be on hand when she receives her Dartmouth diploma at commencement in June. Her father can’t make it. He’ll be working that weekend.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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