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In Connecticut and across the U.S., undergraduate student employees are forming unions

Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, including UGSDW president Keir Hichens (middle with arms raised), react after winning the April 26, 2022, NLRB election that allowed the expansion of the union to all hourly student workers on campus.
Maddi Shinall, Grinnell College '23
The Scarlet & Black
Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, including UGSDW president Keir Hichens (middle with arms raised), react after winning the April 26, 2022, NLRB election that allowed the expansion of the union to all hourly student workers on campus.

It’s been a banner for year student worker organizing.

Several new unions representing undergraduate student employees have formed in the past few months, including at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which became the first confirmed union of undergraduate student workers at a private college to be voluntarily recognized.

And these student organizers are training student workers at other schools to follow their lead.

COVID-19 affects student work

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, student workers struggled with financial insecurity — those who had relied on their on-campus employment to help pay for living expenses and tuition were now out of work.

Even after returning to campus, student employees struggled.

Esmeralda Abreu-Jerez, a student dining worker at Dartmouth College, said most of her co-workers contracted COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic, and it was up to other employees to pick up the slack. She said shifts at the campus cafe where she works can be grueling, especially when they’re short-staffed.

“There’s no time to breathe. It’s back and forth, standing up, bending down, carrying heavy boxes, dealing with the most impatient people,” Abreu-Jerez said. “I would get home from my shift and I would go to bed at 10:30, and I would wake up at 8 and still be exhausted.”

According to Abreu-Jerez, some dining workers at Dartmouth regularly work up to 40 hours per week, on top of their Ivy-League course load.

At Wesleyan, Ruby Clarke, a student organizer for Wesleyan’s Union of Student Employees (WesUSE), said residential life employees were suddenly expected to be on the front lines of enforcing the university’s COVID prevention policies, like mask mandates and visitation bans. They were also required to stay on campus during a spike in COVID cases in the fall 2020 semester, when other students were asked to leave.

“Over 35 student workers signed a petition asking for [$250 in] 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.”

In response to these student complaints, Wesleyan pointed out that it had provided personal protective equipment and additional training to student staff. The college said it was not able to spend additional non-budgeted funds during the semester — and that permanent staff were not receiving hazard pay either.

The rise in undergraduate organizing isn’t surprising, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University.

“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.”

The path to unionization

Undergraduate student unionizing at private colleges didn’t start with the pandemic; the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) at Grinnell College in Iowa formed in 2016.

But representatives from several student unions that have formed since say they were hesitant to file for unionization during the Trump administration over concerns that an unfavorable ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) might set a precedent that could prevent other schools from unionizing. Student groups say the election of President Joe Biden and the continuing pandemic encouraged them to refocus on unionization.

Student workers at Grinnell resumed efforts to expand UGSDW to cover all hourly student employees on campus, and they won their election earlier this year. UGSDW says it is the first campus-wide undergraduate union to win legal recognition.

Earlier this year, Wesleyan became the first known private college to voluntarily recognize a union of undergraduate student workers after WesUSE gained overwhelming support among employees. The administration and the union are negotiating next year’s contract.

Student workers at Dartmouth College and Hamilton College in New York have also successfully formed unions in the past year and are in negotiations with their respective administrations. Dartmouth’s student union negotiated sick pay for students forced to miss shifts after contracting COVID-19 and time-and-a-half hazard pay for working during the pandemic.

The legal fight

Kenyon College in Ohio is spearheading a legal fight against undergraduate student unions on campus. The Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) has been attempting to gain legal recognition for several years.

Representatives from the college declined to be interviewed but did send an emailed statement.

“Kenyon respects the roles that unions play in traditional workplaces. We simply believe that we can best fulfill our educational mission by working directly with students rather than through a union,” the statement reads. “With a union, relationships between supervisors and workers are less direct, and K-SWOC seeks to have a single labor contract dictate the terms for all — from faculty research assistants to gallery associates to lifeguards — regardless of how different their work is.”

Kenyon’s argument mirrors an open letter to the NLRB sent by the American Council on Education (ACE) in January 2020 and sponsored by several other organizations representing colleges and universities. (Kenyon, Dartmouth, Wesleyan, Hamilton and Grinnell are all members of ACE.)

Union activists, for their part, have rejected Kenyon’s argument, pointing out that student unions have been able to successfully coexist with college administrations at public colleges and universities since 2002. (Because public universities are state-funded organizations, they follow state law rather than the policy set by the NLRB, which governs private organizations.)

Kenyon’s student union has responded to the college’s position with multiple strikes, the latest of which lasted nearly a month and involved around 150 student workers.

Sally Smith, a union member, said the strike demonstrated just how vital student workers can be to a campus.

“The college depends heavily on very underpaid student workers,” Smith said. “Community advisers being on strike means that they’re not doing any check-ins, which is a huge liability for the college. Our campus safety officers, who are unionized, have to do these duty rounds, which means that the college has to pay them [a] significant amount of overtime. And a significant number of classes are taught by teaching assistants within our modern languages and literatures and classics departments. So that means that those classes aren’t happening, because nobody can fill in for them.”

And William B. Gould IV, a former chair of the NLRB, argues that student employees should be treated like any other workers.

“Universities are businesses,” Gould said. “Student employees are treated as employees: The employer has to adhere to the minimum wage legislation, they have to adhere to health and safety, fair employment practices — and they have to adhere to labor law regarding the right of workers to join into unions.”

So far, the Biden administration’s NLRB seems to agree. In 2021, the board scrapped a Trump-era proposal that would have effectively made undergraduate students ineligible to unionize, citing rationale similar to that put forward by ACE. However, the NLRB has agreed to a full hearing to consider Kenyon’s argument, though it has not set a date yet.

The summer of organizing

In the meantime, student activists are pressing ahead on unionization efforts. Organizers at several schools have been communicating among themselves for months and have been providing advice and support to up-and-coming student unions.

“We get an email almost every week from a student worker asking, ‘How do we do what you did?’” said Keir Hichens, who served as president of Grinnell’s student union during the 2021-22 school year. “And now it really feels like we’re going to have the tools to tell them how to organize to win.”

Many student union organizers were already involved with the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), and the YDSA has formalized student-led training into a six-week summer curriculum.

Willem Morris, co-chair of the YDSA’s national labor committee, said students from at least 25 schools have attended training.

“Unions give students a unique amount of leverage, where they don't have to wait for politicians to help them stand up to their bosses and to the administrations," he said. "Students and workers in unions organize themselves and allow themselves to have a voice that they haven't really had before."

That resonates with Ruby Clarke, the student organizer at Wesleyan.

“[During negotiations], I know most of the administration who are in that room, having been [in student government] for two years. And the way in which they treated us was just totally different,” Clarke said. “Because all of a sudden, what we said was important and what we said mattered.”

Kay Perkins is a student at Wesleyan University.

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