Historic union takes shape at Bennington College

Bennington College in Vermont is known as an unconventional campus where students live together in houses rather than in dorms, volunteer on the college’s Purple Carrot Farm, and lean heavily toward visual and performing arts. In February, faculty and staff maintained that tradition by taking an unusual path to unionization: They formed Bennington College United despite the fact that—due to the 1980 Supreme Court NLRB v. Yeshiva University ruling—unions are rare at small, private colleges like Bennington. They did it with voluntary recognition from administrators rather than the more common National Labor Relations Board edict. And in an unusual configuration, members include longtime faculty as well as staff and campus safety workers.

group of diverse adults pose for picture beneath digital banner that reads "recognize our union"

Despite these differences, the reason the union at Bennington came together is a universal one: College faculty and staff want to have a voice in what goes on at their workplace.

Summarizing its goals, the union says it wants to “bargain collectively with management, as equals, to make real, meaningful improvements on the workplace issues that unite us.”

While leadership is polling members for top concerns, the following issues have already surfaced and were enumerated in an early outline to membership as follows:

  • Workload, turnover and compensation, especially its disproportionate impacts on BCU members of color and first-gen, low-income and working-class BCU members.
  • Pay equity across departments, cost-of-living adjustments that actually keep up with inflation, and a stepped salary scale to ensure those who have made long-term commitments to Bennington College are compensated for their commitment.
  • Healthcare that actually meets our needs with a wider network of coverage and reduced employee contribution.
  • A rock-solid recruitment plan to address the key institutional issue—the institutional issue that directly affects all of the above—enrollment.

BCU became official through a third-party process: The college and the union agreed to abide by the American Arbitration Association’s decision regarding viability. On Feb. 20, after a card-check process, the AAA found the majority of eligible employees had signed up for the union and certified the union. BCU says 70 percent of eligible members signed on.

“It’s amazing to be a part of such a major historic moment at Bennington,” Lua Piovano-Marcotte, a library acquisitions coordinator and BCU bargaining team member, told BCU members in a memo. “But this does not mean we are done. Let’s build on this energy and stay mobilized to fight for the issues.”

The union has about 150 members, including full-time and visiting faculty, hourly and salaried staff, and campus safety workers. It is affiliated with AFT Vermont, which represents nearly 10,000 healthcare and higher education workers in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Bennington College, which is located on a 440-acre campus in western Vermont, enrolled 866 students in fall 2023.

[Virginia Myers]