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Commentary: Student Workers of the World, Unite!

Photo courtesy of Ahsanjaya | Pexels

Drake couldn’t run without student workers. We touch every aspect of the University, and we’re a large part of the reason academics, sports, dining, residence halls, student media, university fundraising and events don’t grind to a halt. But we sure aren’t compensated like it. We’re paid far less than our counterparts at entry-level jobs in Des Moines ($12-$14). Most of us get $7.25/hour, paid monthly. This is simply unacceptable, and it is insulting to be paid so little for doing so much to keep Drake running. It has become clear: our needs will not be met by hoping into the void for improvement. We need a union.

Why? Employment without a union is an unfair deal — employers have huge leverage over their workers because they pay them (however little it may be), while workers who aren’t organized have very little to counterbalance their employer’s interest. That’s where a union comes in. A union is nothing more than a group of workers acting together to get the things they deserve, like better wages and working conditions. A union exists and a union works for us the moment we act like it, regardless of its recognition by the university. A union does what Drake has not: guarantees that our wages and conditions continually improve. If the Drake administration could be trusted to do this, they already would have.

The average Des Moines hourly wage is $16 per hour according to ZipRecruiter, almost ten dollars above what many students are paid. Though this number takes all reported Des Moines jobs together, a quick look through Indeed.com’s listings shows wages starting at $10, $12 or more for entry-level jobs like ones offered at Drake. Plus, student workers don’t get time-and-a-half night pay like at many other workplaces, which means that residence hall front desk workers, many of whom are up as late as 4 a.m. on a school night, are still only paid a measly $7.25/hr.

Nearby Grinnell College has a student union, and their unionized workers are guaranteed at least $10.40/hr (which will increase to $10.75/hr in the fall), breaks during shifts, a bonus system, and a grievance procedure. Their student workers collectively bargain for these things, which means they are in a process of continual betterment. All of this is without any mandatory dues. Change does not come from above; workers improve their own conditions by organizing together.

Our goal at Drake Student Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) is to do similar things for us.

In a recent Times-Delphic article on the topic, HR director Maureen De Armond said that “Drake Human Resources initiated an assessment of student wages last fall,” but despite this alleged assessment, wages and conditions have not changed. It is insulting for working- and middle-class students to be told that the money they earn in their campus jobs is “spending money,” when they likely earned much more in their jobs back home. Dignity is lost or gained based on how much someone is paid — dignity that Drake is denying its student workers. The price of everything is rising, driven both by companies price-gouging their products and services as well as record inflation, and the minimum wage has not increased in almost fifteen years. But even without the inflation, $7.25 would not be enough, and it never has been in our lifetimes. Our problems will not be solved by a mere one-time raise in response to inflation, but by a union that can guarantee continuous negotiation and improvement.

Drake’s “core values” (per the University’s website) include “promot[ing] social equity and encourag[ing] economic vitality.” For over two hundred years, unions have been a vital part of increasing America’s social equity and economic vitality. We encourage Marty Martin and the Drake administration to voluntarily recognize and negotiate with the student union as a part of fulfilling Drake’s mission and values. But even if they are not willing, we are not done. We are prepared to do what it takes to get workers what they need and deserve.

De Armond also said that Drake, as a non-profit, “may not always be able to offer the same wages as for-profit businesses.” Frankly, we know this isn’t true, and non-profit status does not give an organization license to underpay its workers. We know that the university administration can afford to treat us better. Drake has a multimillion-dollar budget and a strong, generous alumni donor network. “The Ones” campaign demonstrated the capacity to raise over two hundred million dollars for a variety of campus-wide efforts including an expanded Olmsted Center. So, we are sure that a student workers union will help them to even more vigorously pursue the fulfillment of a large part of their core values: promoting social equity and economic vitality within their student body. We are the brave and the bold who Drake talks about.

         We are deeply grateful for the overwhelming support we have received from students, alumni, faculty and others at Drake over the past several months. We are also inspired by the nationwide wave of organization and unionization efforts which have gained steam over the past year. Though at this point our union is geared toward student workers, we also encourage Drake faculty and staff to unionize because you all deserve so much more. Students, in the coming months, there will be an increasing number of opportunities to get involved. Soon, we intend to hold our first general meeting for student workers. To get information about that, visit our social media profiles on Instagram and Twitter (@drake.swoc on both sites) and fill out the Google form in the bio to get on our email list (we promise we won’t send very many). For now, please show your support by encouraging the student workers in your life, including yourself. You deserve more, and more is coming.


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