Student Dining Hall Workers at Smith Vote to Unionize

Workers overwhelmingly voted to form the union, which is affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Organizers hope for safer working conditions, training for new workers, and better pay.

Student Dining Hall Workers at Smith Vote to Unionize
Workers approved the union by a final vote of 66-1. Photo courtesy of United Smith Student Workers.

The dining hall student workers at Smith College successfully unionized on Feb. 1 after an effort spanning several semesters. In a 66-1 vote, 99 percent of the eligible employees voted in favor of forming the union, the United Smith Student Workers (USSW), which is affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

The Smith administration could have voluntarily recognized the union in the 2022-2023 academic year, but refused to do so, forcing the vote. Of the over 400 student dining workers, only 136 were eligible to vote in the special election based on the number of hours they had worked in the previous semester, and many of those workers were studying abroad or had graduated by the time of the election.

The USSW is hopeful that their organization can successfully demand safer working conditions, official training for new workers, better pay, and fixed tuition. The move follows a wave of nearly a dozen student worker unions that have formed across the country in recent years.

The Five College Consortium has a long tradition of trailblazing student unions. UMass’ more than 20-year-old Residents Assistance/Peer Mentors Unit became the first union of its kind in the country in 2002. Now, as one of the first dining workers’ unions, USSW embarks on largely unmapped territory as it prepares to start negotiations with the administration.

Unlike Amherst College, Smith’s 15 dining halls largely employ student workers. Dining hall workers have long complained about bad working conditions as well as poor communication between workers and employers.

“The floors are constantly flooded with water,” reports Amina Castronovo, a sophomore dining worker. “And Smith does not give us proper shoe wear or anything … there have been a lot of slips and falls that are dangerous.”

She noted that her full-time coworkers were given money to buy shoes suited for working in such conditions, but that students are left to fend for themselves. The students are also given little to no training on protocol or safety procedures while working in a fast-paced environment with knives, scalding water and pans, and cleaning chemicals.

Along with these immediate concerns, students in the union are looking forward to addressing the perception and treatment of student workers more generally.

“In an attempt to kind of dissuade students from unionizing, [universities] constantly refer to them as students and not workers,” said Sam Heyne, a union organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union. “Of course, they are both because they are providing labor that is contributing so much to the quality of life on these campuses.”

Smith and other colleges see student workers as earning pocket money, when in reality these wages are often contributed towards the high cost of tuition and other necessities, she said. As a result, a number of  students at Smith work four to five jobs to stay afloat, Heyne said, and the hours dedicated to their temporary jobs can interfere with their heavy academic workloads.

Castronovo and Heyne believe that student workers should be paid more, with some union members suggesting that they should be paid similar to the $22 per hour wage that full-time workers on campus receive. Besides a better wage, the USSW also hopes to get better sick-leave options, as well as a guarantee of fixed tuition for all student workers.

“The workers [want to make] sure that they’re able to earn more, but that it won't negatively impact their financial aid,” explained Heyne.

To reach their goals, the United Smith Student Workers union now braces for negotiations with the administration. Former Smith College President Kathleen McCartney was perceived by many students as anti-union. Her administration postponed responses to USSW campaigns for several months, refusing to voluntarily recognize the union and forcing the vote. The union is hopeful that President Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who took office in 2023, will be more welcoming.

“Smith is trying to be outwardly okay with everything … but internally, they’re still gonna push us back on a lot of things,” Castronovo said. “They’re also worried that a lot of other students are unionizing, so this is going to be a big fight for them.”

Besides the steps that the union can take for its members, USSW is hopeful that it can organize on behalf of the wider college community. Union members hope that they can inspire other student workers to come together and demand similar agreements for the benefit of the entire school.

“In high school, I experienced political organizing, targeted towards policy … It’s very different [from union organization]. I think it’s really powerful to be able to make those decisions with your other co-workers in the moment, knowing that it impacts you directly,” Castronovo said.