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US Undergrads Are Getting an Extracurricular Crash Course in Labor Organizing

Eleven new labor unions for undergraduate student-workers entered the fray in 2023 alone, and more are organizing.

Indiana University undergraduate students in Bloomington support members of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition during their strike for union recognition, on April 14, 2022.

When Grinnell College wanted to begin compensating community advisors (CA), who work to provide students living in residence halls with programming and support for personal and academic issues, on an hourly basis, undergraduates at the private liberal arts school in Iowa took collective action. They went on strike at the end of the spring semester in 2023.

Hannah Sweet, a third-year student at the school who works as a CA, opposed the change because it would have amounted to a substantial pay cut given the 24/7 nature of the job.

“One of the main things we did was we performed ‘structure tests’ leading up to the strike date,” said Sweet, who’s now co-president of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), which now represents all undergrad labor on campus. “What a structure test is, is [to] kind of like make sure that you can get your membership mobilized and coordinated — see what your organizing can really handle.”

Prior to the strike, she said student-workers organized what the union framed as an “evening without student work.” Undergrad employees walked off the job around 5 pm that day. “We actually got some movement at the [bargaining] table when we did it,” Sweet told Truthout.

The assessment provided a learning experience for the young adults on one of the many campuses hit by an extant student-worker unionization wave. According to a report from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, the number of combined graduate and undergraduate student-worker bargaining units doubled between 2013 and 2023, and 11 new undergrad unions entered the fray in 2023 alone. Coast to coast, undergrads are both seeking and offering an extracurricular education in labor organizing.

The number of combined graduate and undergraduate student-worker bargaining units doubled between 2013 and 2023.

For example, UGSDW members picketed in front of the dining hall last year for strategic reasons. Dining service employees were still under contract, Sweet said, but the agreement contained a provision permitting workers to refuse to cross a primary picket line. That gave them extra protection to do what they did: strike in solidarity.

Undergrad organizers at an Ivy League institution in New Hampshire demonstrated similar resolve that year. When the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth (SWCD) held a strike authorization vote in early 2023, members overwhelmingly indicated their willingness to withhold dining service labor to secure, among other demands, a $21-per-hour base wage, an annual wage increase tied to the cost of enrollment, as well as mental health and sick pay.

According to Ian Scott, a senior at Dartmouth College and a SWCD co-founder, his school conceded to the union’s demands almost immediately after the union authorized the strike.

The administration agreed to a clause in the new contract stipulating that if any group of workers carries out an action at their work locations, members are not obligated to cross the picket line. The provision gives them “the ability to conduct solidarity strikes,” said Scott, who previously worked as a dishwasher at the Class of 1953 Commons, which the school describes as an “all-you-care-to-eat dining facility” on campus “featuring nine distinct dining stations.”

The shared struggle baked into the contract the union negotiated with Dartmouth — where men’s basketball players also formed the first unionized team in college sports in early March — has helped animate an ongoing organizing wave in which student-workers are learning, and teaching each other, how to ride.

Undergrad labor organizing is not, however, entirely new. Select student-workers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst voted to join the United Auto Workers circa 2002. But the new unionization wave started to grow when a group of undergrad employees at Kenyon College in Ohio went public with a campaign in 2020. Organizers at different schools, including Dartmouth, reached out to the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) soon after.

Nathan Geesing, who attended Kenyon and later worked as an organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the labor union with which K-SWOC is affiliated, said that, to his knowledge, no college has resisted the right of undergraduate workers to unionize as adamantly as his alma mater.

Kenyon’s anti-union efforts reportedly forced the student-worker committee to consider how they could function as a union sans legal recognition. K-SWOC members took inspiration from those at Dartmouth, who refused to accept less than the $21-per-hour dining worker wage floor and turned out a supermajority to authorize a strike, Geesing told Truthout.

The K-SWOC experience also illustrates what can be gained by going beyond time-tested approaches. When learning to organize, you’re often taught to focus on individual conversations with natural leaders in a workplace who are trusted by co-workers, and the aim is typically to get them on board with forming a union as a way of cultivating collective power, said Geesing.

“But I think what gets lost in some of that emphasis is the need to form really strong groups, really strong group dynamics,” he said. “And I think what’s kept K-SWOC alive through all of these legal challenges [the union has faced from Kenyon] … is a really firm commitment to group discussion — and being able to sit down with a group of comrades that you trust, people who want the same thing you do, and say, ‘Look, I don’t know if the traditional pathway to getting legal recognition is going to work out for us. What else can we do?’”

The ability to discuss together how to best “push the envelope” in order to win what’s needed helped K-SWOC pull off not just one, but multiple, strike actions, Geesing explained.

Learning From Each Other and From Experienced Organizers

At St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, undergrad-workers participate in an app-based group chat with student-workers elsewhere, according to Soli Augsperger, a sophomore and environmental studies major there.

The St. Olaf Student Union of Workers (ST.U.W.) has had relative success getting people to sign union authorization cards, but Augsberger also spoke to the importance of building a dedicated base through training too. “I think one of the things that we think is important is to be able to work towards change, not just in working conditions but also to be able to have more power over things that don’t necessarily have to do with work,” she said.

Housing, food accessibility and divestment are all potential targets for ST.U.W., and organizers intend to hold student-worker training with increasing holistic, high-stakes participation in mind.

ST.U.W. also received advice from undergrad workers at Macalester College in nearby Saint Paul, whose Undergraduate Workers’ Union (MUWU) went public with a union campaign in March. Augsberger said ST.U.W. considered going public around that time, but after talking to MUWU organizers, student-workers at St. Olaf decided they weren’t quite ready. They waited until April, which, in hindsight, was the right decision, Augsperger said.

Henna Schecter, a geology and English double major in her junior year at Macalester, said she and fellow unionists jumped on Zoom video calls with ST.U.W. after a UNITE HERE Local 17 organizer assisting employees of campus catering company Bon Appétit put them in touch with each other.

In the nascent stages of their own organizing drive, about five student-workers at Macalester got introduced to organizing methods later shared with ST.U.W. — like how to do one-on-one conversations with fellow workers, how to build contact lists and how to lay the groundwork for “underground organizing” — after they reached out to the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), Schecter explained.

EWOC put them in touch with a carpenter who facilitated one-on-one training and taught the degree-seeking college employees how to talk to coworkers. The MUWU crew has since corresponded with members from K-SWOC and the University of Oregon Student Workers Union, officially established last November following a successful unionization vote.

Turning Crises Into Opportunities to Co-Organize and Reenvision Labor

Bryce Merry, a history and geography double major at Bucknell University, a private institution in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, learned that management-created crises can present organizing opportunities.

At Bucknell, he and fellow resident advisers (RAs), who work in dorms to foster supportive and enriching living communities, receive a housing stipend but no meal plan or monetary compensation. Merry said they “were paddling along … completely upstream,” trying to form a union, when those student-workers suddenly had to take on additional responsibilities. Without providing answers to employee questions, he said Bucknell suddenly expected them to inspect every room on campus within a week.

“We had this large group meeting where all the RAs were asking questions and voicing their anger and concern, and that moment there got us 30 percent of signers to 60 percent of signers in a single day.”

“We had this large group meeting where all the RAs were asking questions and voicing their anger and concern, and that moment there got us 30 percent of signers to 60 percent of signers in a single day,” Merry told Truthout. “So without that moment, and I truly mean it, we would not have unionized.”

They submitted a petition to the National Labor Relations Board in March and won their union election with a 74-2 vote a month later. They’re affiliated with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153, which now represents RAs and dining hall workers at multiple schools. Merry said an OPEIU organizer explained to them what’s worked in other places, what strategies to use and how to cold-call people. Throughout the whole process, Merry said he also learned the value of persistence.

“People will say no the first time you ask them,” he said. “They’ll say no the second time, maybe. But the third or fourth time.… They’re starting to look at the problems around them and what they want changed.”

In California, a mistake by management also helped create a committed organizer who helped form a student-worker union in the largest public university system in the United States.

Last April, Cameron Macedonio, a fourth-year journalism major and campus radio station manager at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), was told CSUF’s Titan Radio had a budget shortfall and couldn’t pay workers for the final month of the semester.

“At the time, that was my only job,” Macedonio told Truthout. “I have to pay for my car. I have to pay for a bunch of different things. So I, like, panic-[direct messaged], the [CSU Employees Union] Instagram account.”

Soon after, he received a call from an organizer with the CSU Employees Union, which represents staff across the CSU system. The undergrad unionization campaign was still at a card-collecting stage then, but the union plugged him in, and a few days later he spoke at a press conference to promote the union drive.

Afterward, he got involved in organizing, much of which he said took place over the summer, when many students were off campus. Much of it was also done digitally — an approach Macedonio thinks gave the Gen Z crowd populating the bargaining unit “a home field advantage.”

“People could interact with us on their time and speak with us when they were ready and not be afraid to ask questions.… A lot of people don’t like talking to people face to face,” he said. “So talking and organizing people from their emails, or social media or text messaging — it was just very familiar for our target demographic.”

They used Hustle, the peer-to-peer texting platform, to reach massive numbers of people. Macedonio messaged 900 individuals in a few minutes at one point, he estimates. Recipients of texts sent by the organizers could reply, and SMS conversations could ensue.

In February, thanks to 97 percent of the 7,252 who voted, some 20,000 students joined CSUEU / Service Employees International Union Local 2579, thereby forming the largest undergrad labor union in the country.

CSUEU member Utkarsh Mheta, a senior at CSU Sacramento who works as a student interviewer at the university’s Population Research Center, said undergrads are realizing that what they do in the nation’s largest university network has a nationwide effect.

“I think the most important thing is that we are actually really the future, being [a union in] the most diverse university system, and we are shaping the future,” Mheta said. “Learning our lessons at the beginning and learning from this can have a widespread impact as to how higher education is dealt with nationally, and we are at the forefront of that.”

On the opposite coast, undergrad labor organizers at New York University (NYU) got advice about filing independently from the Columbia University Resident Advisor Collective (CURAC), ostensibly the first independent RA union in the U.S., following a successful union formation election in spring 2023, and from the Student Workers Union at the University of Oregon.

Student Workers at NYU (SWAN), who intend to hold a union election to gain formal recognition next fall, also received help from the pro bono lawyer who’s assisted CURAC, per Mickey Morandante, a junior on the SWAN organizing committee. “I think the organizing committee right now is pretty horizontal…. Everybody contributes and so no official officers or whatever,” she added.

Seamus McDevitt, a fellow RA and co-organizer, said much of what they’re trying to do “hinges on relationship building,” in addition to intentional education about labor power.

“This isn’t like a fun after-school project. Making a union is hard work.”

Another SWAN organizer, senior Nora Dillon, called “horizontal leadership” intrinsic to the kind of union they want the university to formally recognize. “Because of what we’re trying to achieve, that horizontal leadership and equal authority in every member is going to be inherent because we’re trying to create a union where everyone has equal importance,” Dillon said. “We also know, coming from these unbalanced structures of [the different RA positions] in dorms — where … they’re not standardized in their guidelines and rules and things — we understand that horizontal leadership is better, because we experience vertical leadership, and we don’t like what that looks like.”

Moreover, a not-so-novel realization — that organizing is difficult — provided Dillon a lesson that undergrads elsewhere are learning. “Honestly, you can’t do this alone,” she said. “I think that’s obvious when you think of a union, but I think so many of us are type-A, go-getter, perfectionist people who have always relied on themselves and so … horizontal teamwork [isn’t] easy, and we have to work on it. Rely on your teammates and also trust in them that they’re going to do the work, and that you also have to do the work. This isn’t like a fun after-school project. Making a union is hard work.”

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