Editorial: Towards a Collective Labor Movement at Amherst

In light of the recent unionization of Smith College’s student dining workers, The Editorial Board urges the Amherst community to organize towards a collective labor movement with the capacity to effect change.

In November 2023, Smith College’s student dining workers petitioned to unionize. Instead of voluntarily recognizing their union, Smith College administration forced a vote. This drawn out process resulted in a decrease in the number of workers eligible to vote for union recognition. Still, those who were eligible overwhelmingly voted in favor of unionizing on Feb. 1.

A November statement on the union’s Instagram account cited “the lack of comprehensive training, inconsistent and unclear communication, safety issues, and inadequate compensation” as driving forces in the students’ decision to unionize.

Amherst students, along with campus organizations such as the Amherst Labor Alliance (ALA), have long called for unionization to address concerns about working conditions.

The college, for example, relies heavily on casual employment, a type of employment that does not include benefits like health care and paid vacation time. Casual employees have frequently been asked to work in capacities beyond their job descriptions and to work overtime.

The college has been slow to acknowledge students as workers entitled to workers’ rights. In May 2021, a group of community advisors (CAs) launched the Union of Student Workers at Amherst College (USWAC) in response to disorganized scheduling and low compensation for CAs. The USWAC campaign ended with an increase in compensation and clarification of on-call shift policy for CAs, but the goal of a union has still not been realized.

Unfortunately, the ALA’s organizing has been largely characterized by bursts of action, such as a Fall 2022 protest at a board of trustees dinner, followed by long periods of dormancy. While there have been a number of initiatives aimed at addressing the political apathy of the community in the past several semesters, none seem to have spurred student workers to action. In addition, the four-year graduation cycle can frustrate long-term efforts at building collective power.

Amherst has also lagged behind the rest of the Five College Consortium in its organizing. “Until Hampshire College cynically replaced unionized staff with student workers after their latest dining contract closed in 2019, Amherst College was the only member of the Five College Consortium without a unionized worker presence,” Scott Brasesco ’22 wrote in this newspaper in 2021.

The unionization of Smith’s student dining workers is a victory for workers’ rights across Western Massachusetts. Coalitional organizing between student and non-student staff as well as among workers across the Five Colleges is a powerful tool that can be used to achieve equitable working conditions. In fact, building collectively across boundaries that are created by the elite classes that benefit from denying workers their rights is the key to unleashing the power of the masses. Such boundaries may be those between student and non-student workers and those artificially placed between students on different college campuses, despite their common subjugation under the will of their employers.

The Editorial Board hopes that this momentous victory for workers’ rights at Smith can be a starting point for a far-reaching and long-lasting collective labor movement that not only maintains and builds the power of United Smith Student Workers, but re-awakens the Amherst community to their organizing potential and capacity to effect change.

Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 16; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0).