Wesleyan student staff form first known undergrad union to win voluntary recognition
Residential Life student staff at Wesleyan University formed the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees last week, becoming the first confirmed union of undergraduate student workers in the country to be voluntarily recognized by their university.
No centralized database exists that can confirm that this is the first undergraduate student worker union to achieve voluntary recognition, but organizers say they were unable to find evidence that would point to the contrary.
Student worker unions are rare, said Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) representative Grace Reckers, who assisted organizers with the unionization. According to Reckers, when students do unionize, universities often fight back, dragging the process out for months or years.
“In my experience, you’re much more likely to win voluntarily recognition and have a better working relationship with management if the employees are willing to be very outspoken and public about their desire to have a union,” said Reckers.
Reckers attributes the success of the union, called WesUSE, primarily to their preparation and organization. On the first day the union went public, they had already gotten 84% of ResLife employees to sign up — well above the minimum requirement. WesUSE also filed a petition that received over one thousand signatures from students, alumni, faculty, and elected officials.
COVID-19 further complicates student work
Ruby Clarke, a community advisor who has been working with the union since last year, said that before unionizing, Wesleyan failed to pay proper attention to student workers’ needs.
“In fall of 2020, there was a rise in [COVID] cases on campus, and students were advised to leave early. But ResLife staffers were forced to stay on campus. And over thirty-five student workers signed a petition asking for hazard pay. And the school said ‘No,’ and they gave out fuzzy socks instead,” Clarke said. “I think moments like that, and that insensitivity, really speak to the way administrators haven’t really listened to the concerns of students.”
Now that WesUSE has formed, however, Clarke believes Wesleyan administrators are finally paying attention.
“During our first meeting with the admin and staff, the way they treated us was totally different. Because all [of] the sudden, what we said mattered,” Clarke said. “It felt really powerful.”
Clarke said she hopes that better training will help ResLife staff feel more prepared for the roles they are often unexpectedly required to fill. She pointed to one incident at the beginning of this school year, when a dormitory flooded on the first night freshmen were on campus. In the absence of adult staff, RAs (who had already worked long shifts helping freshmen move in) became de facto caretakers of hundreds of students who had to sleep on the gymnasium floor.
“That was a pretty polarizing experience,” Clarke said. “I think that provided an opportunity really early on for those conversations to start happening on campus.”
She also hopes the union will be able to secure better pay. ResLife staff make anywhere from $2,600 to $11,000 a year for what Clarke described as “hundreds of hours” of work.
Clarke said they are scheduled for between six and eight overnight shifts per semester, but are also the primary point of contact for any student who needs assistance.
They let students in when they’re locked out, facilitate evacuations during fire alarms, interface with physical plant staff when necessary, hold educational events, and even help students during mental health crises — at all hours. Many ResLife employees are low-income students who rely on their pay to afford Wesleyan. Yet the highest-paid ResLife worker earns less than fifty percent of what Wesleyan charges them for room and board.
“I was talking with people who are in charge at the Office of Student Employment, and I let them know that not a single student who works for ResLife is compensated for their full housing allotment, and they were shocked,” Clarke said. “At a lot of colleges, ResLife staff don’t have to pay for housing at all.”
Labor experts say WesUSE is part of new wave of union efforts
Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education and Research at Cornell University, said what’s happening at Wesleyan is part of a larger moment for labor movements.
“We’re seeing that the greatest support for unions right now is among young workers, and we shouldn’t be surprised that that’s happening. Young people are looking at their futures and they’re seeing that the opportunities are much worse for them than they were for their parents,” Bronfenbrenner said. “They’re very disappointed in corporate America, and they’re disappointed in government. And they want to take control of their lives. And one of the things unions offer is a way to take control.”
Bronfenbrenner thinks Wesleyan’s example could encourage student workers at other universities to form their own unions, now that they know it’s both legally and practically possible.
Clarke said she has already heard from students at about ten other universities who have approached her about unionizing at their schools.
Wesleyan officials said they are unable to speak publicly about the specifics of their relationship with WesUSE until negotiations are finished.
Note: Kay Perkins is a student at Wesleyan University.