On April 29, 2002, fifteen demonstrators at the University of Massachusetts Amherst occupied the office of the vice chancellor for student affairs while resident assistants (RAs) shouted through the walls of the university administration building: “We’re students, we’re workers, our voices must be heard.” The RAs demanded that UMass Amherst bargain with the first-ever independent undergraduate worker union, the Resident Assistant Union. The university flatly refused to bargain with the RAU despite the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations’ orders to do so. Those fifteen demonstrators were arrested along with twenty others, who had spontaneously blockaded the police bus from leaving the administration building.
This demonstration almost two decades ago was one of the first actions undertaken by a small but growing student worker movement. Since then, as the US higher education system has forced students to take on massive amounts of debt and work more hours — often for the universities that are impoverishing them — just to survive, student workers have begun to push back. Their struggle to unionize is now at a crossroads and offers important lessons for the labor movement.
Undergraduates work on almost every campus and in almost every campus sector across the country. They are usually underpaid and frequently asked to take on challenging and dangerous jobs. In some states, including New York and Virginia, undergraduates are legally allowed to be paid less than the state minimum wage. Despite their transient and precarious positions, undergraduates are fighting back against exploitation by organizing. Across the country, from UMass Amherst to Reed College, undergraduate workers in the dining halls, Residential Life offices, libraries, and classrooms have formed or attempted to form student worker unions.
But universities have fought off student worker organizing efforts for decades, and the Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is trying to make it easier for universities to do so.
The NLRB and Student Workers
On January 15 the comment period to weigh in on the NLRB’s proposed rule change to strip collective bargaining rights from student workers will close. Since 2000, the NLRB has flip-flopped, alternately ruling that student workers are workers and then reversing the decision, thereby excluding them from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In the 2016 Columbia decision, the Obama administration’s NLRB overruled the 2004 Brown decision and granted collective bargaining rights to student workers.
But this summer, Trump’s new NLRB proposed rules changes that would once again exclude student workers at private colleges from being classified as workers with collective bargaining rights. And this time they are trying to set a precedent that would make it harder to overturn in the future. Most of the coverage of the ruling has focused on private-sector graduate workers, but private-sector undergraduate workers will be affected by these new rules as well, and public-sector workers may also be affected if their state labor boards follow the decision.
If the NLRB rules against student workers, they will not have a formal way of gaining union recognition. This has not stopped student workers yet, such as the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, which is currently undertaking a massive expansion campaign, or the Harvard Graduate Student Union (which actually organizes both graduate and undergraduate students) campaign. Nevertheless, it will take an immense amount of worker power and improved political conditions to force a university to voluntarily recognize a student worker union. They will therefore have to be able to win not just a card check, but a strike.
The model for student worker organizing has begun to emerge at private schools over the last several years. Student workers at private schools without access to legal recognition have organized issue-based campaigns and even contract fights to win concessions from administration. Working without legal protection has and will force student workers to be more militant if they wish to continue organizing.
The effects of losing legal protection are already being felt at Grinnell. Unwilling to risk overturning the NLRB’s Columbia precedent that gave student workers collective bargaining rights, the UGSDW pulled their petition to expand from a few dozen dining workers to all undergraduate workers in the school a year ago. That hasn’t stopped the student workers from organizing. After winning votes to expand with huge majorities, UGSDW organizers have continued to work with student workers outside their legally defined unit. They have redoubled worker outreach and internal training and education, launched a massive comment campaign, and have been vocal about putting pressure on the administration to recognize the new members of their union.
“Narrowly avoiding being forced into Trump’s NLRB and the courts and trying to preserve the rights of student workers — that further cemented the idea that the law is never your greatest tool. It’s a tool, but it’s only one. Folks were organizing before the NLRA, and the greatest organizing is happening in the labor movement in places that were originally neglected: farm work, care work, gig economy workers, and student workers,” explained Paige Oamek a member of UGSDW’s executive board.
UGSDW leaders have recognized that building power outside the courts will take time. But they, along with student workers at schools like Brown and Wesleyan, are slowly forming organizing committees and sharing resources to create unions that can withstand legal attack. They are training new members to have the anger and strategic thinking necessary to leverage the power their work gives them. “We’re working on building class consciousness in a space that is supposed to emphasize academic individualism,” Oamek said.
Union Support and Learning From Student Workers
Undergraduate student workers are not just up against the NLRB — they are facing resistance from the established labor movement. There is no doubt that we need better legal protections for student workers, and the NLRB should recognize all student workers as employees, but we also need labor unions to be more willing to organize undergraduate student workers, which includes being willing to support voluntary recognition campaigns for workers at private universities.
Former co-chairs of the RAPMU at UMass Amherst explained that they often hear the same thing from undergraduate workers who reach out: all the unions the undergraduate workers have already contacted don’t think it makes sense to organize students. A group of RAs at a public university asked three separate unions to help them in their organizing campaign but were turned down by all of them. Major unions, seeing the legal challenges facing undergraduate workers (and low return-on-investment) have pulled out of supporting new organizing efforts — most notably, the failed 2016 SEIU George Washington University RA campaign. In the absence of any formal support from the labor movement, student workers have to organize for themselves. Already student workers have started the next stage of organizing, forming a loose consortium of unions coming together across campuses to teach and learn from each other to build a rank-and-file-led movement.
On November 15 and 16, undergraduate workers met on their own in the first annual Northeast Undergraduate Worker Convention hosted by the Resident Assistant and Peer Mentor Union. The two-day training and convention will be one of the first organized events solely targeting undergraduates, and will feature a training by Barbara Madeloni, whose reform-oriented rank-and-file led structure is one that undergraduates want to emulate.
At a time when union membership is declining, the labor movement is looking at new industries to organize and is reshaping the question of who can or should be in a union. Devoting resources to undergraduate organizing should be part of revitalizing and growing the labor movement. If undergraduates are involved in labor activism during the formative years of their lives and careers, they may be more likely to unionize their workplaces down the line and be more politically engaged with the labor movement and worker issues.
But undergraduates aren’t waiting for favorable NLRB conditions or even support from within the labor movement to get started organizing. On their own they are finding new ways to build power and developing strong unions that can withstand legal attacks. They are working across schools to form industry-wide solidarity and inventing new models of support for emergent unions outside of the international. In these harsh conditions, undergraduates are returning to the basics of organizing, building power in their own units and across their industry. Their struggle has become something the whole labor left can learn from.
Of course, labor law should respect and protect student workers. The labor movement should step up and support the emergent undergraduate movement. But as we wait for these institutions to get on board with this emergent unionism, we can only hope that they also take the time to learn from all the lessons student workers have to offer.