The Labor Movement on College Campuses: Student Workers Forming Unions Nationwide
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What has been so impactful about the resurgence of the labor movement over the past three years is the diversity of industries that have seen an increase in worker unionization. Technology, journalism, music, and cannabis are just a handful of traditionally nonunion industries where workers are forming unions.
Another industry that has been interesting to follow in terms of organizing activity is higher education. According to a 2023 study by Professor Ruth Milkman and research analyst Joseph van der Naald at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, 30 new student-worker bargaining units were formed between January 2022 and June 2023. That’s a nearly 50 percent increase over the total number of student-worker units formed between 2013 and 2019.
What makes this growth so interesting is that, in the past, graduate workers led the charge to unionize on college campuses. Now, undergraduate student workers are also forming unions.
“There has been a vast acceleration of unionization by student workers, in particular, graduate assistants but also undergraduate student workers,” explains William Herbert, executive director of Hunter’s National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining and coauthor of the study.
The biggest reasons for this increase, according to the study, include:
- The increase in public awareness of labor issues and support for unions.
- The importance of social justice issues to student workers.
- The change in working conditions during and after the pandemic.
- The support from industrial unions.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the most recent examples of graduate and undergraduate student organizing and why those workers felt compelled to organize in an industry that hasn’t historically embraced unions.
Graduate Students Win Historic Union Victories
Graduate students have long been in limbo in regards to their rights to organize.
Grad students at public universities have traditionally been considered employees and have had the right to unionize based on the labor laws of their individual states. Their counterparts at private universities, however, have not always had that protected right.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has flip-flopped multiple times over the years on graduate students’ employment classification and right to unionize, leaving many to be overworked and underpaid at private higher education institutions.
At the mercy of the NLRB, grad students at private universities “have been completely at the mercy of the whims of administrators and profiteers, who seek to exploit the inherent transience of the labor market to drive down costs (pay their workers less than they are owed) and shirk responsibilities, like providing adequate accommodations and benefits for their employees,” writes William Balmer, a graduate research assistant at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) once again granted graduate students at private universities the right to unionize. In its Columbia University decision, the board ruled 3-1 that student assistants are classified as employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and therefore have the right to form a union and collectively bargain.
Students are exercising that right in droves.
After 30 years, Yale Grad Students Finally Win Union
In a 1,860-79 vote in January 2023, UNITE HERE Local 33, the Yale graduate student union, finally won a union election after three decades of campaigning. “Yale’s is one of academe’s longest-running graduate student organizing campaigns, dating back to the 1990s,” writes Colleen Flaherty, an editor at Inside Higher Ed.
“When we were forming our union, Yale said we didn’t need one,” says Barbara Vereen, organizing director and chief steward at Local 34. “But what we were fighting for was respect and equal pay for equal work.” Now, they have the right to bargain for those issues most important to them.
Duke University Graduate Students Win Union Election
On August 24, 2023, Duke Graduate Students Union members voted 1,000 to 31 in favor of organizing with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Workers United Southern Region. It was a notable victory because it occurred at a private university in a right-to-work state in the south.
“This is a historic victory not just for our university and our ability as graduate workers to improve our working conditions here, but also for the labor movement in North Carolina and for the graduate student labor movement,” says Kerry Eller, a co-secretary of the Duke Graduate Student Union.
It’s a movement that has swelled nationwide over the past year. Graduate students at Northwestern University, Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and many others, have all recently formed unions.
“In a space of just a few months, graduate employee unions across the country have won tremendous victories, by margins that would be the envy of dictators holding sham elections,” writes Dave Kamper, senior state policy coordinator at the Economic Policy Institute.
But that’s not where the story of unionizing in higher education ends.
Undergraduate Student Workers Make Their Voices Heard
Undergraduate workers have also been forming more unions.
In 2016, the first undergraduate student worker union was formed at Grinnell College when student dining hall workers organized. There wasn’t much success for a few years after that thanks to the political game played by presidents with the NLRB.
But, over the last three years under President Biden’s pro-union National Labor Relations Board, more than a dozen undergraduate student unions have been formed with a dozen or more unionization campaigns currently underway, says Inside Higher Ed Reporter Liam Knox.
This increase in unionization is “a reflection of what’s happening in society,” notes Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
What is happening in society is that workers are recognizing the inequities they suffer in the workplace and finding their voices to stand together and say “enough.” Undergrad student workers, like all workers, want to be fairly compensated for the work they do and be provided benefits that befit their jobs on college campuses.
“Every student worker deserves the protections and the voice that comes with a union,” said Keir Hichens, then-president of Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) during their unionization campaign. “[I]t’s past time for every student worker to have a say in their workplace’s policies.”
Workers at these universities, and others, are winning that right.
Harvard Undergraduate Workers Join the UAW
Nonacademic student workers at Harvard University voted 153-1 in favor of joining the United Auto Workers (UAW). More than 400 students who work in libraries, cafes, and other areas of the university are now represented by the Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union.
“Undergrads deserve to know if they’ll be employed year to year, if worksites will reopen, if they’ll be able to live off the wages they’re provided because not everyone at Harvard is rich,” says Koby Ljunggren, UAW staff organizer.
Undergrads at University of Oregon Form Union
Undergraduate students at the University of Oregon formed the nation’s largest undergraduate union (almost 4,000 students) at a public university by a 97 percent margin. It was a battle that took nearly two years to win.
“We knew from the start when we set the groundwork for unionizing two years ago that this was avant garde, that this was something people hadn’t done before,” says Noah Thompson, an organizer with the UO Student Workers Union. “We knew the task was something we were ready to take on.”
“This is an absolutely surreal spot to be in, especially after how long this has been for all of us,” says union organizer Carolyn Roderique of the victory.
More undergraduate workers, like those at Cal State, hope to join the growing list of undergrad student workers who have formed unions to gain a collective voice in the workplace.
As they and other graduate students continue their unionization campaigns, union leaders can use a tool like UnionTrack® ENGAGE® to connect with organizers and coordinate union drives and elections. The more students engaged in the process, the higher the odds are of winning those elections.
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