In Iowa, a union’s report uncovers discrimination at Grinnell College

A new report by the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers uncovers evidence of racial discrimination against Spencer Grill employees. (

The Spencer Grill, located on campus, is the college’s second largest employer in dining services, with 90 student workers, four staff members, three supervisors and an assistant director acting as chief supervisor.

Some members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers gather on the Grinnell College grounds, Dec. 7, 2018.

On Jan. 21, UGSDW released its report, “Racial Discrimination at the Spencer Grill.” Commissioned last November, the study found “strong evidence of racial discrimination in discipline decisions.”

According to the report, “This discrimination is borne primarily by African-American employees and ‘non-resident alien’ (i.e., international student) employees, the vast majority of whom are from Asia.”

The report studied 162 student workers employed at the Grill over the past four semesters. The data provided go back to 2017, but UGSDW conversations with past employees suggest discriminatory trends potentially occurred as early as 2014. 

The study was authored by Grinnell student Cory McCartan, a math major pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics, who served as UGSDW president in 2016-17 and now works as an advisor to the union. 

McCartan told Workers World, “We’d heard from several Spencer Grill employees in the past about discrimination, and so the results of the analysis were not as surprising as they perhaps should have been, given Grinnell’s institutional values and history.”

In response, the Grinnell administration circulated a Jan. 25 memo that read, in part: “[T]he College takes the concerns raised in UGSDW’s report very seriously, and we are committed to investigating the matter thoroughly.” (

However, UGSDW members are concerned the administration will try to sweep these concerns under the rug. 

“UGSDW will push the administration to take serious corrective action, including new training, more oversight and possible personnel changes,” McCartan said. “We will not accept a ‘task force’ or other attempt to bury the issue.”

Given the Grinnell administration’s hostile relationship with UGSDW, that is a legitimate concern. 

Student workers organizing for justice at Grinnell

UGSDW was founded in 2016 to represent students working in the dining hall. Seeking to expand membership, the union held a Nov. 27 campuswide election where student workers voted 274-54 in favor of joining.

The Grinnell administration challenged the election, threatening to take the matter up with the Trump-influenced National Board of Labor Relations. Since the board’s decision could endanger future organizing efforts, UGSDW withdrew its petition on Dec.14.

“We are continuing to organize toward higher wages, fair workplace treatment and a union for all of campus,” McCartan said.

When WW contacted Grinnell College for comment, the response from Vice President of Communications Debra Lukehart was a perfunctory repetition of the school’s Jan. 25 memo.

UGSDW advisor McCartan emphasized, “We are working to broaden and deepen support in the campus and town community, and especially are working to engage with all of our members about a potential large-scale action later in the semester.”

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