Undergraduates Are Workers, Too

Undergraduates aren't just students — they're increasingly also workers.

Grinnell College, home to a union of undergraduate student workers. Aureliusxv / Wikimedia Commons

When we think of the labor movement on college campuses, undergraduates rarely feature as workers.

That undergraduates are stalwart allies in the struggles of other campus workers —  facilities workers, graduate workers, contingent faculty — is widely understood, as is undergraduate activism around national and international labor struggles. That undergraduates themselves, however, are an exploited group of workers in need of protections might strike some as an extravagant claim.

Yet between skyrocketing tuition and plummeting higher education funding, employment income is increasingly essential for undergraduates. Nationally, four out of five college students work part-time to help cover their tuition and other expenses. The Federal Work-Study program, various student employment programs, or other off-campus jobs and paid internships are key for supporting students’ educations, livelihoods, and sometimes their families.

Given the centrality of work to today’s students, undergraduate workers at public and private colleges and universities nationwide have begun to do what exploited workers have always done: undertake union drives, workplace occupations, walkouts, and marches on their own behalf. And they have secured many victories over the past year, forcing college administrators to the bargaining table and making concrete gains in wages, job training, safety standards, back pay, and other workplace rights.

The recent explosion in undergraduate worker organizing is unprecedented. An exploration of some recent campaigns shows that undergraduate workers can win when they recognize their own class position within the political economy of the university and organize around it.


Historically, undergraduate workers at the University of California-Berkeley have been excluded from unions and a number of labor protections on campus. Despite working some of the same jobs as certain full-time employees, nonacademic student labor is exempt from the UC system’s $15 minimum wage. With rising tuition, student debt, and some students even facing homelessness, the situation was bound to reach a boiling point.

On March 6, 2017, undergraduate workers in the dining halls at UC-Berkeley announced a campaign to unionize and address “the unsafe working conditions, inadequate compensation, harassment, and blatant exploitation that student workers face every day on the job at the ‘number one public university in the world.’”

Low wages and rampant wage theft quickly became galvanizing issues. Within a month, members of the newly formed Undergraduate Workers Union (UWU) occupied a cafe on campus to demand higher pay and over $60,000 in stolen wages from their employer, CalDining. The five-hour occupation shut down the Cafe for the rest of the day and, according to an estimate on the UWU website, cost CalDining nearly $30,000.

In the following weeks, undergraduate workers declared “you [CalDining] pay us, or we shut down” and staged seven walkouts during some of the busiest shifts at dining halls on campus. Slogans and hashtags like “#NoJusticeNoPizza” accompanied classic labor slogans like “Will Strike if Provoked” on signs, banners, and social media.

Following the occupation and walkouts, twenty-five undergraduate workers had their employment suspended by CalDining. Not only did they lose their jobs, but they were banned from entering the dining halls altogether, despite relying on meal plans to eat. Rather than backing down, the UWU and their supporters organized sizable marches and confronted the executive director of CalDining at a campus event.

By early July, the UWU announced that they had won the rehire of the fired workers, fifteen-minute breaks, hands-on job training, and potential back pay for stolen wages. With the fall semester approaching, UWU has stated that they are prepared to continue fighting for back pay, a living wage, and more.

“Claiming the Voice We Need”

Tired of unpredictable scheduling and low wages, students employed in libraries at the University of Chicago began discussing the possibility of unionizing in November 2016. Anjali Dhillon, a co-coordinator and media lead for the University of Chicago Student Library Employees Union (SLEU), told Library Journal that once they returned from winter break, a core group formed, began building support, and getting authorization cards signed by their undergraduate and graduate student coworkers.

Throughout their campaign, the SLEU highlighted how low pay and turbulent scheduling interferes with their academic pursuits. In an op-ed for the Chicago Maroon, library worker and University of Chicago sophomore Katie McPolin described taking on extra hours to get by and struggling to accommodate sudden schedule changes. Faced with the choice of working to cover her textbooks and day-to-day expenses or going to office hours with teaching assistants, McPolin said that unionization is a key step in “claim[ing] the voice we need to start creating the university we want to attend.”

While the SLEU received support from the student body and other campus workers, the university began hosting town halls that have been characterized as “fear mongering.” In response, the union hosted their own events with other student library workers. In May, they rallied on campus alongside Graduate Students United to challenge the University of Chicago’s anti-union campaigns.

Next, the university sought to delay the unionization vote until the beginning of the 2017 fall semester. They argued that the vote, which was during finals, would interfere with students’ ability to study.  (For some reason, the administration was unconcerned with the impact that working during finals would have on students’ studying.)

Eventually, both undergraduate and graduate workers employed in libraries at the University of Chicago overwhelmingly voted to join Teamsters Local 743 in June 2017. The university is challenging votes cast by graduate library workers due to “potential overlap with the separate graduate student unionization process.

With or without the graduate library workers’ votes, the majority of undergraduate workers who voted supported joining the union. Now the University of Chicago is faced with the likely imminent legal obligation to bargain with the SLEU.

“No Worker Left Behind”

These developments at UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago are significant.  However, the first union of undergraduate workers at a private college wasn’t founded at a prestigious research university on one of the coasts. Rather, it formed at a small liberal arts college in rural Iowa.

The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW), which was organized during the 2016 spring semester, faced a number of challenges both as an independent union and as a union in a right-to-work state. As Evan Burger detailed in Dissent, the founding members of the UGSDW largely relied on their own research on the workings of the NLRB, dues structures, and the legal processes surrounding unionization. When the students called for a union election, the college remained neutral, and in May 2016 students won with a yes vote of 91 percent.

Their first contract, signed just a few months later, included a 9 percent wage increase, tiered bonuses for students who work at least 110 hours a semester, a grievance procedure, and paid breaks. But when the college quietly excluded local high school students who also work in the dining halls from the pay increase negotiated by the undergraduate union, the undergraduates responded.

After a grievance with the college and a complaint to the NLRB didn’t translate into immediate results, union members and other student supporters marched outside one of Grinnell’s dining halls and delivered a petition to the college’s president to demand equal pay for high school student workers. Not long afterwards, Grinnell agreed to pay the high school workers the wage agreed to in the contract. They also received back pay for the time that they weren’t paid an equal wage for their work.

While the UGSDW’s first victories took place over the past few months, their next contract battle has already begun. A unique challenge faced by these workers is that their contracts are yearly, since students are constantly enrolling or graduating. Grinnell’s final offer for the next school year was already unanimously rejected by members.

The UGSDW is now campaigning for another pay increase, one that matches the cost-of-living adjustment tied to the school’s increased comprehensive fee. Additionally, they’ve highlighted the need to address understaffing, increase food and health safety training, and more.

Building Student and Worker Power

These stories are not just isolated examples. In 2016, the United Students Against Sweatshops Student Worker Organizing Committee (USAS SWOC) launched a national campaign for a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers, including undergraduate workers. From the University of Washington-Seattle to Columbia University, they have seen some victories. Additionally, organizations like Pay Our Interns have recently picked up traction for exposing the exploitation of unpaid intern labor and the systematic exclusion of students from working-class backgrounds from many internships.

These developments can shift the meaning of student organizing. Far from the type of issue-based mobilizations or reading groups one might associate with the “Campus Left,” students can and should also organize on the basis of their dual position as workers. Taking on the corporatization of higher education requires building real power and collective action, and unions are a vital part of that.

While student activism isn’t enough on its own to rebuild the Left, let alone the labor movement, the burgeoning organizing efforts among undergraduate workers reflect a broader development of class consciousness among students and youth. From survey data showing millennials are more likely to see themselves as working class to the popularity of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn among young people, there is a tremendous opportunity in front of us to bring young people into left organizing.

By waging these battles on their campuses, undergraduate workers are acquiring invaluable organizing skills and learning important lessons that are applicable far beyond the realm of their jobs on campus. In a generation whose main understanding of the benefits of union membership are largely memories passed down by parents or grandparents, imagine what undergraduate workers, with the firsthand experience and knowledge gained during these struggles, can bring to their post-graduation workplaces.

The kids know they’re workers, and they’re alright. Let college administrators and corporate bosses alike tremble at what this will mean in the near future.