Jim Kenyon: Dartmouth not about to give up fight against basketball team’s unionization effort

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 03-05-2024 6:16 PM

For everyone who thinks college athletes deserve to get paid for the work they do on behalf of their schools, the 13-2 vote by Dartmouth men’s basketball players to unionize Tuesday was cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock and Co. don’t see the players’ historic vote as a step forward.

Within minutes of the National Labor Relations Board announcing the election results, Dartmouth jumped into full-court press mode to thwart the will of its student-athletes.

“Classifying these students as employees simply because they play basketball is as unprecedented as it is inaccurate,” Jana Barnello, a college spokeswoman, said in an email. “We, therefore, do not believe unionization is appropriate.”

Even before the ballots were cast, Dartmouth officials had begun gearing up for a long and costly battle to stop the players from becoming the first collegiate athletic team in the country to unionize.

To take on its own players, Dartmouth recently turned to one of the most powerful anti-union law firms in the country. Morgan Lewis, which has more 2,000 lawyers worldwide, has joined Dartmouth’s in-house attorneys and a Boston firm, Morgan, Brown and Joy, on the college’s legal team.

With Morgan Lewis leading the point of attack, Dartmouth started maneuvering last week to get the NLRB, as the federal agency is known, to postpone the election, or least impound the ballots. The requests were denied.

Dartmouth’s lawyers also made an unsuccessful bid to block the team’s four seniors from voting.

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With their careers ending after Tuesday night’s final game of the season, the four seniors will “not be impacted by the vote whatsoever” and they “should not be permitted to make this considerable choice on the behalf of others who will (be) faced with the long-lasting implications of a union representative they did not choose,” Dartmouth argued.

The players have been working since September to join Local 560 of the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, for short. The SEIU, which has represented the college’s blue-collar workers since 1966, is picking up the players’ legal costs.

“We’ve never had the college push back like it’s doing now,” said Local 560 President Chris Peck, a longtime painter at the college. “I think the college will fight this for as long as it can.”

In an interview after the vote, Peck said there’s “no doubt that Dartmouth is getting pressure from other Ivy League schools and the NCAA” to keep the fight going.

Dartmouth will almost certainly appeal the vote to the NLRB in Washington. Depending on what happens there, the case could well up in federal court and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court.

As far as this case goes, Dartmouth probably wouldn’t mind seeing Donald Trump return to the White House. A Trump administration could lead to a much more business-friendly NLRB, increasing Dartmouth’s odds of killing any current and future union drives.

In the meantime, players graduate and move on.

Eleven of this season’s 15 players receive financial aid that covers all or much of the $85,000 it costs to attend Dartmouth this year. But they still need money to pay for expenses, such as trips home and incidentals while living in Hanover.

Along with basketball and their studies, many players have to take on part-time jobs to make ends meet.

They simply want to get paid for the basketball-related work they perform on behalf of the college. They’re not asking for much, looking to earn about $20 an hour, which would put them on par with Dartmouth’s student dining hall workers who unionized a few years ago. For each basketball player, that would come to roughly $10,000 a year.

They have also talked about asking the college to pay for medical insurance deductibles, if they’re injured.

Last week, the college sent each player a one-page letter, warning that if a “union is established,” it could result in Dartmouth being “unable to participate” in the Ivy League and NCAA.

The letter from Executive Associate Athletic Director Taurian Houston didn’t sway the players, or at least a vast majority of them.

“We haven’t broken any rules,” said junior Cade Haskins, who was picked by the players to speak on union issues. “We’re just glad to have our voices heard.”

Recent NLRB filings indicate that five Morgan Lewis attorneys, including three partners in Los Angeles and Washington, are now representing Dartmouth.

By bringing in Morgan Lewis, the college is showing it will spare no expense to keep the basketball players in line.

Morgan Lewis’ clients include Amazon, the second-largest private employer in the U.S. behind Walmart. With Morgan Lewis’ help, the e-commerce giant was able to fend off a unionization effort by 5,800 of its warehouse workers in Alabama three years ago.

In 2021, an organization called the Labor and Working-Class History Association wrote about the work that Morgan Lewis performed Amazon.

John Logan, a professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, said Morgan Lewis is one of nation’s “most influential firms specializing in so-called union avoidance activities.”

Logan quoted an unnamed legal expert who said Amazon’s decision to hire Morgan Lewis during the union drive “shows it’s digging in for a fight. That is not a hire you make if you’re playing nice.”

I only bring this up to give people an idea what the Dartmouth players are up against.

Dartmouth declined to say why it saw the need to enlist Morgan Lewis.

I also emailed Morgan Lewis’ office in Los Angeles, but didn’t hear back.

I hope the players had an opportunity to savor their off-the-court victory Tuesday, even as their college proved to be a sore loser.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.