After hearing about recent strikes and union drives at Amazon and other companies, the founder of the Drake Student Workers Organizing Committee (Drake SWOC) started trying to form a Drake student union. SWOC has started an Instagram account at @drake.swoc and a Twitter account @Drake_SWOC.
“Last year and the beginning of this year, like last fall, was especially big for strikes and union drives. And I’m, you know, a left wing sort of fellow,” said the founder of Drake SWOC, who asked to remain anonymous. “And so that energized me.”
The founder said he believes that forming a union is a basic right that guarantees better treatment and pay for everyone. He said that the absence of a union sets up a society “to be a place of unfair contracts.”
Drake isn’t the only campus that has seen a student unionization movement. In 2016, NPR reported that the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students working as teaching or research assistants at Columbia University had a right to unionize.
Drake’s executive director of human resources, Maureen De Armond, replied over email to a question about how Drake University would handle a possible unionization.
“Drake will always adhere to the rules under the National Labor Relations Act applicable to any union organizing effort,” De Armond said.
Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, workers in private-sector jobs have “the fundamental right to seek better working conditions and designation of representation without fear of retaliation,” according to the National Labor Relations Board.
Student workers at Drake are paid $7.25 an hour and up with monthly paychecks. Out of 14 on-campus jobs listed on the hiring platform Handshake on Feb. 28, four paid $7.25 per hour, two paid $7.50 per hour, one paid $8.00 per hour, one paid $8.25 per hour, three paid $10.00 per hour, and three did not list their hourly wage.
The job search website Indeed puts the average wage for a receptionist in the Des Moines area at $14.50 an hour, and ‘overnight associates’ wages at $15 an hour. The University of Iowa’s average rate of pay for office workers is $10.51, and Grinnell College pays non-unionized workers $8.24 and up.
The founder called student wages at Drake “abysmal.”
“If Drake were employing normal classes of people, not students, you know, they say, hey, $7.25 for receptionists,” the founder said. “Everybody would say ‘screw them.’”
De Armond said she understands student’s frustrations over not being paid as much as local businesses around the Des Moines area. She said she is working to provide better working opportunities and micro-internships.
“While we may not always be able to offer the same wages as for-profit businesses, we do want to make sure we grow opportunities that match our mission and support the professional preparation of Drake students,” De Armond said.
De Armond stated in her email that “Drake Human Resources initiated an assessment of student wages last fall” and that it could take a year for any potential budget increases to be planned.
According to the founder, Drake SWOC has many goals to improve students’ working conditions as well as increase their hourly pay.
“The goal is to negotiate for the things students want from their jobs,” the founder said. “I’ve heard a number of things: higher pay, higher night pay, more flexible schedules.”
The founder said that Drake SWOC hopes to add a labor senator to Drake’s student senate.
“We want to constantly negotiate for things in general that are better for students, whether that comes from the [Drake] administration agreeing well, that’d be fantastic,” The founder said. “That’d be the easiest way for everybody.”
The founder said that alumni and faculty have also become involved in the movement. Alumni were among the first to reach out to him, and the founder hopes that SWOC “can tap into [alumni enthusiasm] at some point.”
“If faculty want to support us, I welcome them with open arms, and it’s fantastic. But I don’t want to expect it,” The founder said.
Drake SWOC may plan events in the future. The founder said the biggest challenge for recruitment is just getting the conversation started.
“The big first step is just one on one conversations with people,” the founder said. “And that’s where probably the bottleneck at this point is, we just need people to talk to each other about it.”