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labor ‘We’re Not Slowing Down,’ Student Workers Say

Undergraduate workers are winning collective bargaining rights, making student unions increasingly common. They’re driven by the pandemic, pro-union sentiment and each other.

Sam Thomas

Campus labor activism and union organizing have exploded in recent years, engaging everyone from graduate students and adjunct faculty to academic department staffers and librarians. In the past few months, bold strikes at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of California system won significant gains for workers; at Temple University, a pitched battle between the graduate student union and university administration helped lead to the president’s resignation.

Now another group of campus workers is ramping up their union activity: undergraduates. In the past three years, the number of recognized undergraduate unions went from one—the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s 20-year-old union of Resident Assistants and Peer Mentors—to over a dozen. Resident assistants at Mount Holyoke and Barnard Colleges, as well as Fordham, Wesleyan and Tufts Universities, all won their elections, as did student dining workers at Dartmouth College. And at Grinnell College in Iowa, a union for student dining hall workers was expanded to include all undergraduate workers.

About a dozen more campaigns are currently underway. This month, student workers at the University of Oregon and the California State University system formally petitioned for union elections. If either succeeds, it will instantly become the largest undergraduate bargaining unit in the country, and only the second at a public institution.

William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and Professions at Hunter College, said the rise of undergraduate unions is tied to the resurgence of a larger nationwide interest in organized labor among young workers.

“This is all stemming from an explosion of post-pandemic labor activism, particularly by a new generation who understands that representation has strong advantages,” he said. “There’s a relationship between these filings on campuses and what’s transpiring off campus at places like Starbucks and REI, in which a new generation of employees is leading the charge.”

Catherine Hutchinson, president of the California State University Employees Union—which represents staff at CSU and would fold undergraduate workers into an independent unit if their campaign is successful—said the student assistants she employs in her biology lab at CSU Channel Islands deserve the kind of pay and protections that other staff receive.

“The student workers help me do my job. I couldn’t do it without them,” she said. “And they share the same common issues as us, only they have no protection.”

A spokesperson for CSU wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the university was “not involved in this organizing effort” but “acknowledges all workers’ rights to organize.”

“In the event student employees are formally recognized by the California Public Employment Relations Board, we look forward to engaging with them as we do with all of our other union partners,” the email continued.

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An Oregon spokesperson shared a similar statement with Inside Higher Ed, saying the university isn’t involved in unionization efforts per state law but “strives to provide a positive employee experience for all, including our student workers, and make a concerted effort to address employee needs through collaboration and creative problem solving.”

Historically, administrators and higher ed lobbyists have argued that the relationship of student workers to their institutions is primarily educational, therefore superseding the employer-employee relationship that drives unionization.

“We think that, at their heart, these are students, not employees,” said Steven Bloom, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Council on Education. “[Unionizing] is a troubling intrusion into the relationship of the student to their institution, and brings into that relationship a third party that complicates it in ways that aren’t helpful to achieving the academic mission.”

Meanwhile, many students say that at their jobs, work-study or not, they are treated as workers and should qualify for the same protections as any other.

Pushed by the Pandemic

The spread of the COVID-19 virus in 2020 and 2021 seemed to spur undergraduate workers to unionize.

“Like with graduate student unions, there’s been movements for undergraduate worker organizing in the past. But since the pandemic, there’s been an enormous amount of interest,” Herbert said. “In terms of the number of petitions [for union representation] and the pace, we’re in a really unique moment.”

Ella Meloy, a senior at the University of Oregon who has been involved in the union drive, said the experience of working during the pandemic made many of her peers realize the value of union protection—especially for those required to work in person after campus reopened.

“COVID definitely showed disparities among the working conditions across campus, and the need for things like paid sick days and more protections against workplace harassment,” she said. “Plus, generally students have become more sympathetic to unions, and that ideological component has been key in this process.”

One of the first campuses to see an undergraduate union drive during the pandemic was Grinnell, where what began as a student dining workers’ unit in 2020 gradually expanded over the past two years to become the first wall-to-wall undergraduate union in the country; that process was completed last April, when they successfully folded in Community Advisers, Grinnell’s term for RAs.

Dartmouth College’s Student Worker Collective, which represents student dining hall workers, began a campaign last May and won its election in November. Sheen Kim, the collective’s vice chair and a Dartmouth senior, said the pandemic played a major role in fueling their movement, and that the Grinnell students’ success gave them confidence.

“We saw the dining workforce … really be put at the front lines of the virus once we came back to campus” in fall 2021, Kim said. “It was clear we needed to build power, and seeing that done at other campuses was our first jolt of inspiration.”

As an international Dartmouth student from Ukraine, Polly Chesnokova is not eligible for most traditional off-campus jobs. Chesnokova said that before they and their fellow Dartmouth students won the union election in November, they had to work three jobs to make ends meet, including positions at two of the on-campus cafes; since winning a raise to $21 an hour, they’ve been able to comfortably get by on two.

For Chesnokova, as for many of the student workers who spoke with Inside Higher Ed, the fight to win union recognition has been synonymous with a fight for respect. The next step, Chesnokova said, is maintaining the momentum among younger students for the next round of contract negotiation in a few years—and helping their peers at campuses across the country win their own elections.

“We’re celebrating this victory,” they said. “At the same time, we’re aware of the work ahead of us.”

Building ‘a Network of Solidarity’

Beyond a shared sense of exploitation, undergraduate workers active in unionization efforts said they share an ideological and political vision that has helped them support each other and build a network of aligned organizing movements across the country.

“Coalition building has been essential,” Kim said. “This has always been bigger than individual campuses. It’s always been more of a movement … we’ve never strayed from that.”

On April 14, many of these student organizers—including four of the students interviewed for this article—attended the Young Democratic Socialists of America conference in Chicago, where they said collective bargaining on campus was a marquee issue.

“Student labor was huge at the [YDSA] conference this year. I would say it was the biggest issue there,” Kim said. “We got to meet many of the other organizers and share experiences and resources, and just the support from all over was amazing.”

Meloy said that throughout their union push, student organizers at Oregon have been in touch with their peers at Dartmouth and other unionized campuses to share advice and resources. That’s been especially helpful, she said, in navigating some of the obstacles to securing a union vote, such as how to ask for union card signatures without violating fellow students’ FERPA rights.

“We’ve been in day-to-day contact with a lot of the other organizers across the country,” she said. “It really is kind of a network of solidarity.”

Challenges on the Horizon

The National Labor Relations Board, which only has jurisdiction over private institutions, has gone back and forth on the eligibility of student worker unions over the years, but its landmark 2016 ruling classifying Columbia University graduate and undergraduate students as employees has largely gone unchallenged since. Herbert said that stability has helped propel the student labor movement.

“This is the longest period we’ve had a consistent ruling from the NLRB on this issue,” he said.

That might not last. In March, Duke University announced its intention to challenge the Columbia ruling and attempt to trigger a court-ordered dissolution of student collective bargaining units at private colleges, a potential catastrophe for the campus labor movement.

Organizing an undergraduate union can be an uphill battle even without legal challenges. At Kenyon College in Ohio, where student workers first pushed for unionization three years ago, the campaign has been stalled for almost two years. More than 500 days after first filing for representation with the NLRB office in Cleveland, student organizers are still awaiting a decision.

In the meantime, the Kenyon Student Workers Organizing Committee (or KSWOC) has set up a small health-care plan for about a dozen student workers, filed three unfair labor practice complaints against Kenyon with the NLRB and gone on four strikes.

Michelle Hannah, a former student worker who graduated last spring, is still involved in the campaign. But many of her peers who helped kick-start the unionization efforts have graduated and moved, which she said has threatened to deflate the initial surge of energy.

“It’s definitely a deliberate strategy to take steam out of the movement, to wait it out,” Hannah said. “There aren’t many people left who would remember the first strike we went on.”

Meloy, at Oregon, said the possibility of such a protracted fight is daunting, and despite the growing list of successful undergraduate campaigns, she knows the chances of a fast and friction-free process—like Wesleyan’s voluntary recognition of its RA union—are slim. But she said she and her peers at UO and across the country have been inspired by the grad students and staff organizing on their campuses and are dedicated to sticking it out.

“I have never seen a group so committed to a cause,” she said. “I have no doubts that we’ll keep fighting. We’re not slowing down.”