St. John’s College Refuses Union Effort

Nascent student workers’ collective bargaining group files formal complaints alleging the administration engaged in union-busting

Over the past few years, unionization efforts from employees in New Mexico have become more prominent, and many have been succeeding despite pushback from the companies they work for—from workers at an Albuquerque Starbucks successfully voting in favor of a union in September 2022 to Meow Wolf employees gaining union recognition in October 2020.

Now, an emergent student workers’ union at St. John’s College in Santa Fe has received opposition from school leaders, putting students at odds with the administration and each other, and the union has filed allegations of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board.

Throughout the fall semester, undergraduate student employees created the Student Workers Coalition at the school in the foothills on the east side of the city. According to Reese Matthews, a senior student in the SWC who works as a music assistant, the organization initially formed as a club.

“I showed up at the first few meetings, basically to support this club project, but then we started hearing about all of these issues that other people were having with their jobs, and I was pretty shocked,” Matthews tells SFR.

Matthews says students reported issues with supervisors where “they felt taken advantage of,” or weren’t being paid for the hours they worked, but what she found most concerning were the efforts individual students had already taken to address these issues.

“They had brought them to the administration and tried to talk about them, to get something done about them, and the admin was always willing to have the conversation,” Matthews says, “but then nothing would happen—it would just be the same that it always was.”

Zane Kelly, another senior student in the SWC, says one of the more immediate benefits from unionizing could be better pay. For example, Kelly earns $12.30 an hour for his job as a math assistant, below the city’s minimum wage of $14.60 an hour. (St. John’s College qualifies for exemption from the City of Santa Fe’s living wage ordinance under Section 28-1.5 A 4.)

“A lot of people that work here use their jobs to at least help pay off student loans that they take on while going to this school. Some people would not be able to go here if they didn’t have a job,” Kelly says. “But, one of the biggest reasons that we started trying to unionize was that there’s not much of a formal structure for grievances at this school. Our school is kind of an amorphous power structure; there’s no clear hierarchy for who’s in charge of certain issues, especially student worker issues.”

Last fall, the students contacted the Communication Workers of America Union for assistance. Milagro Padilla, a representative for the CWA who has worked with previous local unionization efforts such as the Meow Wolf Workers Collective, has been at their sides ever since.

On Dec. 14, St. John’s union representatives met with President Mark Roosevelt to call for the union to be recognized.

Approximately 68% of student workers—116 of 170 workers—signed union authorization cards, Padilla informed Roosevelt. He also provided notice that the college has a 14-day time limit (per an August 2023 ruling by the NLRB) to either recognize the union or challenge the union by calling for a vote. Nearly 90 days later, neither action has been taken.

Roosevelt informed the SWC that he alone did not have the authority to recognize the union and would first need to hear from the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors. He said calling a meeting would be “impossible” before its next scheduled meeting in February since the union had met with them on the day before winter break, which lasted between Dec. 15 and Jan. 14.

“We understand now that the decision places a time limit, but we are not an institution that was capable of abiding by that, " Roosevelt tells SFR, noting he sought to hold discussions with “multiple campus constituencies” such as the faculty, staff and the board.

Roosevelt and the SWC both confirm that the two parties agreed to extend the college’s time to recognize the union until the regularly scheduled Feb. 24 board meeting, and Padilla says the union asked that the college not engage in any union-busting activities prior to said meeting.

However, the SWC later learned Roosevelt had called an emergency meeting with the board on Dec. 21. The president tells SFR the meeting “included no agenda, no action items, no votes, no meeting notes and no extensive conversation as the college had little to no understanding of the situation it faced.” Roosevelt also confirmed to SFR that the union was not invited to participate in said meeting or were informed of its occurrence until after the fact.

“We had plenty of information to share, but it was just to say, ‘Please know, we were presented with this letter on Dec. 14, we’re trying to learn about the law, we’re trying to learn about this situation,’” Roosevelt says. “It’s brand-new to us and totally out of the blue and unexpected. They had questions, but it was not a major event.”

After school resumed for the spring semester, Roosevelt and other administrators met with SWC representatives on Jan. 29 to discuss planning a public conversation with students about unionization efforts. At the beginning of the session, Roosevelt asked the representatives to waive their right to file unfair labor practices against the school for the duration of the private meeting, which the students agreed to and signed. At the end of the meeting, administrators asked to apply a similar waiver to the public meeting.

“After that meeting, we had consulted with our lawyers from the CWA,” Matthews says. “They informed us this was very illegal and that we don’t have to sign these, so we took a vote, decided we didn’t want to sign away our rights and we don’t have to do that. We informed the administration…and their reaction was to cancel the meeting.”

Roosevelt tells SFR he wanted the students to sign waivers because he was concerned about his ability to “speak freely.”

“I’m not allowed to say, for example…how it will change the relationship. We view our students as students first and workers second. We’re very flexible in our work environment. It’s likely all of that will go away in a union environment,” Roosevelt says. “So, we wanted students to be able to consider that, but we wanted to be able to talk about that openly.”

Padilla, however, says the parameters of how employers can respond to union activity have been well-established under Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.

“When the school says it infringes on [its] speech, they mean to unfairly surveil, make promises to, intimidate or threaten—and they don’t like that,” Padilla says. “We asked that they commit to not union busting, they then committed union-busting activities.”

Roosevelt says the college’s legal counsel did not see an issue with the waivers, but Padilla says these actions by the administration spurred the SWC to file the two charges of unfair labor practices against the school—one for failing to recognize the union or file a petition for a vote within the two-week time frame required by the NLRB, and the other for asking students to sign away their rights to file an unfair labor practice against the college. A third charge the SWC later filed alleges Roosevelt made comments suggesting he was surveilling union activity.

Padilla described the administration’s response to union efforts as “poisoning the well,” actions which he says are designed to chill union activity by convincing students to abandon their support for the union.

If the NLRB substantiates the union’s claims, the organization will issue the college a bargaining order, granting formal recognition to the union.

“That’s the crux of the ULP charges,” Padilla says. “We’re unable to accurately count support once they engage in union busting.”

Despite the administration canceling the meeting, the union decided to hold its own open meeting anyway on Jan. 31—mostly to give union members an update and to answer questions.

Every account of the meeting SFR has received from those interviewed differs except in one respect: the meeting was disastrous.

“Administration ended up attending anyways, and it was just a very aggressive environment,” Matthews says.

Aidan Shannon, student government president and a former member of the SWC, says he joined and helped the SWC communicate with administration because the original club reminded him of a previous student initiative from two years ago where students protested the college’s COVID-19 policies. But he ultimately withdrew from the union after the public meeting, saying he felt “it became clear that no efforts would be made to survey the broader body of workers.”

Roosevelt says “a lot of students in that meeting got extremely upset with [the SWC].”

From Padilla’s perspective, “It just became a heated back-and-forth, and we decided not to hold big public events like that since.” Sophomore student Jack Norman, who describes himself as skeptical of unionization efforts, says “regardless of what transpired, our campus chiefly is concerned with free speech.” He noted the administration’s request that union negotiators sign waivers was about officials “trying to keep us safe, and trying to keep our school safe.”

Roosevelt and several students tell SFR they believe the union has lost support and may no longer represent a majority of student workers.

However, Roosevelt refuses call for an election on the matter.

“When we were confronted with the possibility of calling for it, we spoke to a lot of other colleges who said it is such a scarring event for a campus, that it leaves so many wounds, so many injuries, so much pain, so we’re not at a point now for wanting to call for an election,” Roosevelt says. “What we’re hoping is that it becomes clear that the students do not support this—that either the [NLRB] recognizes that or the union recognizes that.”

After hearing concern from administration and faculty that fighting the unfair labor practice charges could cost the school financially, the SWC submitted a settlement to Roosevelt stating the union would drop the charges if the the college agreed to “sign a recognition agreement for the union with CWA as the exclusive bargaining agent for all undergraduate student workers of the College and begin bargaining a contract in good faith,” and to “publicly post an acknowledgement of workers’ rights to freely choose a representative of their choice without interference or coercion from management, administration or the board.”

After the college declined the offer, the SWC sent the board a letter to encourage the college that the offer was still on the table.

At the Feb. 24 meeting, the board voted unanimously to send a letter to students declaring its position.

“We have full faith in our Santa Fe leadership. And agree with them that it would be a tremendous error to recognize a union that lacks community support. It has been volunteered to us that the SWC/CWA has far less than a majority of student workers on their side,” the board’s letter reads. “We do not consider it anti-union activity to desire an open conversation about the impact of a potential union on student workers and the campus as a whole. Nor do we consider it anti-union activity to give the campus community the time needed to wrestle with the pros and cons of such a substantial decision.”

Roosevelt says the board agreeing to recognize the union or call for an election was “an impossibility…Nobody thought that it was a good idea, nobody thinks this is good for the college.”

Shannon says that since leaving the union, he’s continued trying to solicit more input from student workers.

“One thing that has come up a lot is a sentiment of people feeling like they’re put in a hard place, because they ideologically and as workers would really like a real labor union,” Shannon says. “They want to be pro-union and at the same time, aren’t being represented by the people who they should be represented by.”

SWC members have expressed disappointment with the school’s response thus far, and hope to see it resolved by the NLRB.

“It’s a pretty emotional time, especially as a senior. I’ve spent four years going here, and my sister went here before I did, so I’ve had a near decade-long relationship with this school, and to see it turn its back on student workers feels hurtful,” Kelly says.

Matthews says she thought “hearing the word ‘union’” would require administrators to take concerns seriously, “which even now I don’t think is the case. It’s really upsetting, the lengths the school seems willing to go to, to not have to do anything about student concerns.”

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