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  • Mack Carmack

“Berea College Works, Because We Do”

Everything you need to know about the Berea College Labor Union, plus an exclusive interview with an organizing member. 

ON MARCH 18, President Nixon, The Labor Department, and other administrators were notified about an attempt to unionize. That same day, President Cheryl Nixon sent an email out to all students, staff, and faculty about this notice. Due to legal reasons, both Nixon and the Labor Department were unable to make an official statement about the union until recently. 

I reached out directly to both departments on the same day, in which Brittney Ash, the Associate Dean of the Labor Department, responded to my email inquiry “Good Evening Mack, Thank you for your email. I have no comment at this time. I have cc’ed Dean Robinson to this message as well, please feel free to communicate with him as well. Please see campus communications from President Nixon for any additional information.” There was no response from either President Nixon or Collis Robinson. 

Since 2022, a select few of Berea College students have been working towards unionization. From just a few students, the union grew tremendously in two years, leaving over half of the campus to have signed cards. 

These signed cards officially state that a student consents to a union representation, not that they are a part of the union itself. Currently, there is no official Berea College Labor Union. In order for an official union and seat at the bargaining table, a hearing and election must occur. 

THE MISSION STATEMENT, posted online by United Campus Workers, the United Student Workers of Berea (USWB), claims that all students should have:

  • A formal grievance system

  • A livable wage

  • Negotiable job contracts

  • Necessary and in-depth training programs

  • Accommodates for all students as they see fit

  • Enforcing the prohibition of harassment and assault 

  • Regular staff meetings

  • Opportunities for leadership

So, although raising the wages is a popular request of USWB, there are several other requests the union is making. 

Also on their website is a link to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). 

Some of the questions and answers are as listed below:

“When do we start paying dues, and how much are they?

No one pays a penny in dues until we all bargain a union contract, and that contract is voted on by everyone. When we have a union contract we are satisfied with, and only after we vote ‘yes’ for that contract, then dues kick in. Dues are only $1.30 per hundred dollars you earn. That is the total cost. Dues paid by members are the main and only source of funding for our union, and create the infrastructure needed to fight for better working conditions. The union is a non-profit; all money goes back into the membership. 

“Why do we need a union?

Through collective discussion with our fellow workers, we have identified a variety of challenges facing student workers at Berea. These include problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion; unlivable wages; harassment and discrimination; a lack of autonomy or agency in the workplace, few outlets for voicing our concerns; health and safety, and a lack of accountability for Berea’s administration and Board of Trustees. Although workers may see leadership make changes such as listening sessions, slight pay increases, and outsourcing concerns to the Student Government Association, these ad hoc changes are no substitute for the security of a legally binding union contract.

“ Our tuition is paid by donors, what will they think if we form a union?

We are unaware of any non-profit or colleges that lost funding because of unionizing campaigns. In fact, having student workers feel empowered and secure in the workplace could improve their satisfaction, the quality of their work, and the connection they feel to their campus community. These are all things that would make donors happy. At the same time, public opinion is broadly in favor of unionization effects. Unionizing could actually attract donors who see the value of unions. On the other hand, being anti-union is considered detrimental to a progressive institution’s reputation.” 

More information regarding the mission statement, FAQs, and campaign updates can be found on USWB’s website

ON TUESDAY, APRIL 16, President Cheryl Nixon sent an email out to all students, staff, and faculty about this particular hearing. Originally, the hearing was supposed to occur on April 17, however, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) pushed the hearing back to collect information from Berea College. Currently, the hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14. 

Interestingly, this new hearing will take place over a week and a half post-commencement. Meaning, that senior students who helped organize the union will most likely have already left campus. These students will be unable to vote in the case of an election. To attend the hearing, students must either return to campus for the summer or stay for summer housing. President Nixon and other administration members explain that this was a demand held by the NLRB in order to receive all necessary information from students. However, some organizing members believe this was a part of the college’s attempt to push back the election. 

In Tuesday’s email, President Nixon states the main reason for the delay is to “allow compliance” with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). This law protects Berea College students’ private information from being released from the public. In her email, Nixon shows concerns towards FERPA and the privacy of Berea College students, “While we are participating in the NLRB process, we will not violate our responsibilities under the law or our commitment to protect our students’ privacy.” She ends the paragraph by stating that Berea College students will receive a notice from FERPA sometime soon. As of now, all Berea students should have received a copy of the subpoena in the mailbox. 

Some of the information requested from the NLRB for the hearing on May 14th includes:

  • Students’ home and email addresses 

  • Students’ labor classification and wages 

  • Any documents portraying termination of an employee

  • Student employment policies since March of 2022

  • Berea financial aid packages and information

Other requests sent by the NLRB, the subpoena, and updates can be found on their website

Students may also contact Keith Sherman, a third-party neutral. He can answer any questions about the legal process or speak on behalf of a student to the NLRB. 

He can be accessed through email at or phone at (502) 212-8201. 

APRIL 23 AND 24, President Nixon held info sessions regarding the NLRB’s subpoena request in the Alumni Activities room. During this info session, Nixon briefly explained what UCW was, what information the NLRB was requesting, and the next steps regarding the hearing. After the info session, the floor was opened for questions. I asked two questions during the sessions. First, “Because an election may or may not happen, what are the circumstances in which an election would not be held.” To which President Nixon explained that she was unable to answer the question. Secondly, “Will the election apply to seniors who are graduating or incoming freshmen?” President Nixon was unable to answer this question, as well. 

Understandably, Nixon’s language is protected by the law and she is restricted on things she is allowed to say. During another student’s question, “Isn’t Berea the reason the hearing was pushed back,” President Nixon stated that Berea College was completely “ready” for the original hearing scheduled in April. However, the next evening Nixon stated that Berea is still collecting information for the hearing. This was because the NLRB sent out the subpoena just in the last two weeks requesting new information.

Notably, over 80% of the students attending the first info session were members of USWB. After Nixon was unable to answer several questions, there was a mass walk out amongst USWB members. These students wore red, wristbands and pins in solidarity during the walkout. 

BECAUSE THIS STORY IS ONGOING, there is not a lot of other information to cover. As of now, the hearing is scheduled for mid-May, although that may change. 

President Nixon, Collis Robinson and other administration requests to access Berea College’s website for more information. 

WE INTERVIEWED ANDI MELLON, an organizing member on the history of the union’s construction.

Read below for the full interview. 

Note: The interview was recorded in early April, so some information regarding timelines may be inaccurate.

M: Tell me about your contribution to the organization of the union. 

A: Okay, well in 2022 we started talking about unionizing. It was really just me and a few of my friends, and we were a little paranoid, and we were meeting in the middle of lawns [where there were no cameras]. And knowing what I know now, it’s a little silly. 

Each of us had first-year labor positions that were causing us issues in our academics, in our health, and I had known people who were experiencing problems with workplace safety. 

I came here to Berea specifically because of the labor program. I still think it’s a really really great thing, and I love what I do. I love working for the college. I think it’s a really good learning experience. But the working conditions, and the things that some of my friends were experiencing, I was just thinking “This is not okay, and we need to do something about it.”

My group of friends had sort of experienced through other student organizing efforts that the proper channels of getting our voices heard were not listening to us. 

So, I took a Peace and Social Justice class called “Community Organizing” where I started a petition to get paid more. I said, “Every student should be making the federal minimum wage, at least.” 

There are a lot of reasons why I think this is feasible and possible. I did a lot of research into it. And that petition got more than 800 signatures, it went through the SGA, they put it up for a referendum vote. A huge number of students voted “yes,” they want to be paid more. It went straight to administration, and then nothing happened. It disappeared. I mean I was even insulted, personally, by a staff member because I dared to try and make things better for student workers. 

So, we’ve seen the SGA can only do so much. And that’s sort of where the union started, was actually in the SGA. There were two members who were like “We want to change things,” and were not really able to do that with the amount of power we have in this structure [because SGA is overseen by the administration]. So, if the administration doesn’t want to listen, they don’t really have to. So, it was actually the SGA who voted “Yeah, let’s unionize.” They put it to a vote, and it was unanimous. 

And that was actually separate from me and my friends. And so we found out what each other were doing and we started pulling our resources. We reached out to United Campus Workers of Kentucky, where they sent an organizer here to train us up and teach us how to be real organizers. Up until that point, we were like “I don’t know, what do we do? How can we be successful?” And we had found out that there were students in the past who tried to do the same, and Lyle Roleofs personally told them to stop. So, we were a little scared, too. Getting linked up with United Campus Workers was our first move, and it was a small group of us, and we slowly expanded. We learned how to talk one-on-one with our co-workers. But yeah, I’ve been involved for about two years. 

M: Now that you guys are public, what are the next steps?

A: We got a majority of campus to sign on to cards, which is a legal documentation that says “Yes, I want to be represented by a union.” We filed those cards with the National Labor Relations Board. The following Monday, we went public. We went public so that we could sort of take control of the narrative around our organization early. We have seen that there are counter-narratives. There are other opinions and ideas about who we are and what we do. So, I think it was really important for us to go big… 

Everyone’s wearing their wristbands every day. Wearing red on Thursdays. Wearing your pin to show support. We’ve got fliers, FAQs everywhere, so that people can actually understand who we are. The next step… Well, we were supposed to have a hearing. 

You file your cards with the NLRB. They set a date for a hearing. So, that means the college hires their lawyer, we hire our lawyers. It’s a very normal part of unionizing. It’s by no means an attack on either side. It’s something that has to happen. Then, we meet at the hearing. They make their arguments, we make ours. We knew it was likely that the college was not going to support unionization. So, we have been anticipating that sort of argument. We feel confident that we will win at the NLRB. We feel confident that the NLRB in fact, believe that we are legally workers and that we have the right to organize. 

However, the hearing was delayed because the college tried to say that they could not give certain information to the NLRB because of FERPA [which is a federal law that prevents colleges from sharing information about their students to third parties]. So, they delayed the hearing by quite a bit, now it’s not happening until later this month. And the NLRB actually said, “No Berea College, you can’t claim FERPA for this, you actually have to give us the information we need.” 

Really, I think that the delaying of the hearing is actually an attempt to delay our election, because the NLRB has been doing really great things for other undergraduate unions. There are undergrads organizing all over the countries, and they are getting their contracts. And they are winning better workplaces. They are getting their bargaining and their needs met. So, it is really important for us to have our election this semester, that’s what’s really important here. And I think the college is actively trying to delay that by pulling out what few resources they have. 

The other important thing to note is that the college doesn’t really need to do that. It’s a choice that they’re making to make it more difficult for us to win our union. And I just want to say too, we are not at odds with the college’s mission. The same values that led Berea College into existence are the values that led the union into existence. Cheryl said it herself, she said that unionization aligns with the college’s mission in many ways. She’s right about that. So I think if Cheryl, and the administration, and the board, would like to continue aligning with the mission, the best thing for them to do is to start working with us now, and collaborating with us, and to let us have the election this semester so that we can win our union. Because all we want is a seat at the table. We want a seat at the table as legal equals to the college, basically. 

M: So, why don’t you tell me about some of the, I wouldn’t say demands, the requests the union is making?

A: Yeah, so it’s interesting, it does get misconstrued as demands. It sort of seems that way. A union can’t make demands. What we do is we bargain. So, say for example a lot of students here really do want to be paid more. A lot of students here want to make at least minimum wage. 

That’s a complicated issue. We can’t demand higher wages. That’s something that we have to be in conversation with the college about. So, when we do get our seat at the bargaining table, you know, we’ll be saying what our needs are, and what we would like to do. They’ll tell us what is possible, and together we’ll come up with a solution that works for everybody. And it’s impossible to tell people what that solution is right because what we need to do right now is to have our election, win the union so that we can actually get to the bargaining table and start solving these problems. I think if that doesn’t happen, we will have these issues forever, maybe. I think that students need to have that say. Students need to be on equal footing with their employers, you know. When there’s a power differential, and we’re asking for change, there’s nothing binding them to make those changes. 

Can you repeat your question?

M: Just, want are some of the requests the union is asking?

A: So you can see all the issues that we are concerned about in our mission statement, which is on our website. One of them is fair and equal pay. One of them is proper training for both student workers and staff and supervisors. We would like to see our workplaces be better staffed full-time so that student workers can be supported in the learning that they're doing. We would like to see safer workplaces. 

I know for me, I work on the farm. I don’t know if this factoid is true, but the farm director told us that we have the highest rate of injuries in the labor program. I think there’s a culture around workplace safety in places like forestry, farm, grounds, that safety doesn’t really come first. Same in dining. So workplace safety is a real big one. And the other thing that’s interesting is that students work in every department on campus, so our issues are very diverse. So, some of these may speak to people, and some may not. I don’t really think you’re worried about workplace injuries when you’re working at a desk. There’s a request for a better process for complaints around DEI [if someone experiences discrimination, a lot of people feel that there isn’t really a way for people to get those grievances checked]. And we also don’t really feel like that grievance system in place, is adequate or effective. We didn’t really have one at all until recently. I don’t know anyone who’s used it that’s seen tangible results. So, those are just some of the issues we are concerned about. There’s a full list on the mission statement, and probably many more. 

M: So, Andi, you may not have an opinion on this, but something I thought was interesting, is that the labor office is starting a new initiative where all freshmen or sophomores are required at least one semester in a “necessary” labor position. 

A: Yeah, and I heard they’re gonna call it cornerstone labor. I am not opposed to that. I remember when they first started talking about the pilot, everyone on the farm was like “No!” And everyone showed up to the forum and was like “This is gonna be bad for everyone on the farm.” That’s because at the time students were only going to be working four hours a week. So in places like the farm, and I’m sure it’s true in other workplaces, if you want to get the most out of your labor position, you actually need to spend a substantial time there. To get trained, and to learn how to do stuff. So if we had freshmen four hours a week, we wouldn’t be able to teach them how to do anything, so they wouldn’t be allowed to do anything, cause it wouldn’t be safe. So, they wouldn’t get to work with animals, they wouldn't get to learn how to use machinery. They would just be trimming tree limbs all day. And then we’d have no workforce, basically, there really aren’t that many upperclassmen. So, I know that they’ve changed some things, and I don’t know what the most recent pilot is. 

My opinion is that workers should have a choice about where they work. I do understand that there are areas on campus that need a certain amount of staffing. I don’t really feel like the solution to any workplace issues is to impose more [I don’t want to say force], but I don’t think the solution to workplace issues is to take autonomy away from workers. So that’s all I have to say about that. 

M: There’s definitely a mix of opinions on campus about the administration’s reaction to the union. So, why don’t we talk about the administration’s initial reaction? 

A: It was disappointing. I was optimistic for a while. I think Cheryl is an amazing president, honestly. And I’m not trying to flatter anyone. But she’s done a lot for the students. Everything that I see her doing I think is really great, like I wish she was president the whole time I was here. And she was a member of the union at her previous workplace. So, we were optimistic. We thought maybe they’ll just be like “Cool, we’ll work with you.” 

But we also knew that Cheryl is not the person in charge, really. She may be the president, but there is a structure that Berea operates under, that Cheryl is just a part of. So, we knew that the most likely thing that would happen would be a negative response. We knew that they would be spreading misinformation. We knew they would be trying to scare students away from supporting the union. 

And actually, interestingly enough, we spent quite a bit of time in our organizing meetings looking at fake emails that were written by one of our alums who continues to work with us. And, these emails were sort of modeled after union-busting emails that other undergraduate unions had received. So we were looking at these emails, and it was sort of edited to look like it was from Berea. And we would read over them and recognize the talking points. Like they’re saying one thing, but what they really mean is this. So we spent quite a bit of time practicing for when we would get these emails, and it was really funny when we did get them. ‘Cause it was exactly what we had prepared for - every single talking point right in there. So, I think a lot of people don’t know this, but there’s an anti-union playbook, and to be honest, employers are not super creative when it comes to union busting. It’ll probably be the same thing every time. 

So, yeah we’re seeing a lot of “third-partying” the union. You may have noticed that in the emails we’ve gotten from Cheryl, she has never addressed United Student Workers of Berea by name, she’s only addressing Communication Workers of America, which is our parent union. Every union has a parent union, that’s normal. However, by saying CWA instead of USWB, people are like “Who is that?” “It’s somebody else from outside.” “Oh their office in Atlanta, it’s far away.” “It’s not us.” So, that’s what you call “third-partying” the union. The reality is that we are the union. We, the student workers of Berea, are the union. CWA is a larger union that helps us do the work that we do. There is no third party. There are no outsiders. It’s just us. 

Another thing we saw and one that really grinds my gears is saying that the union is “at odds” with Berea College’s mission. We sort of expected that. And the narrative that we are really trying to push is that, it is pro-Berea to be pro-union. None of us got involved because we wanted to tear the college down. We want to make the college a better place. People here care so deeply about this place. And that’s why there’s so many opinions about unionization. A lot of people are gonna be worried. And some people are super supportive because everyone has really strong feelings about this place and our community. And that’s amazing. That’s what we want. But, all that is just to say, we’re doing this because we want to make Berea better. And it would be nice if the administration would collaborate with us to make that happen. 

M: You broke down that email (Nixon’s initial email) pretty well. 

A: Yes, “Unions are great. We love them, but not here.'' 

Every worker has the right to a union, and every workplace should have a union, in my opinion. And then as far as the student’s side, I think people have been impacted by those emails going out. You have to admit that the rhetoric in those emails has been somewhat frightening. I think they’ll really focusing a lot on financial aid and pay. When one, the union has absolutely no control over your financial aid. We can’t do anything about that. As far as pay goes, that’s just something we have to work out at the bargaining table. So, it’s interesting that the only reason they don't want us to have a union they’re saying is “It’ll affect your financial aid, we can’t pay you more.” When we are actually asking for all kinds of things like workplace safety, training, a grievance system, a seat at the table, a democratic workplace - these are the things we’re asking for. And I think the emails really scared people. 

Here’s the thing that bothers me, is that people here are in dire financial straits. So to send an email almost threatening your financial security, I think is just not okay. So, it’s just been kind of a thing where we have our one-on-one conversations. We talk to people. They tell us what they’re worried about. We give them the facts. We empathize with their fear. I can definitely empathize with that fear. I don’t want my financial aid to go away. If it really was true that the college couldn’t pay us more, and it would make us worse off if they did, then I wouldn’t support that. But, I don’t think that that’s true. I think there’s many possible solutions here. 

But yeah, in terms of alumni who are a little worried and students who are worried, we are just having one-on-one conversations, building relationships with people. I think generally students here want a union. Like, it is a majority of campus who have signed on supporting documents. Anyone you talk to has something that they would like to see changed. So, that’s just another reason why it’s so important for us to have our election this semester ,so that we can take advantage of that majority support, and move forward.

M: Is there anything else you would like to include?

A: I’ve said a lot. I’ve probably talked way too much. Yes. Berea works because we do, first of all. Second, it is not anti-Berea to be pro-union. Don’t forget to wear red on Thursday, and wear your wristband and your button.

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