Undergraduate Worker Unions Are Taking Off

At colleges around the US, undergraduate workers are unionizing. The growing movement not only builds worker power on campuses but can help make university students into lifelong trade unionists.

Members and supporters of the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee march on campus. (John Ortiz / K-SWOC)

Labor organizing among undergraduate student workers has taken off in the last two years. This March, student dining workers at Dartmouth unanimously won an election for union recognition, residence life workers at Wesleyan won voluntary union recognition after a card check, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers filed for a union election to expand its union to cover all student workers, and student workers at Kenyon went on strike as part of a yearslong effort to win union recognition for all campus workers.

The movement of undergraduate student-worker organizing has been spurred on by the pandemic, changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under the Biden administration, and leadership from young socialists. This new campus labor organizing can improve college accessibility for working-class students and teach students why and how to rebuild the power of organized labor.

Before the pandemic began, in the spring of 2020, there were only two undergraduate student-worker unions in the country. Residence life workers at UMass Amherst unionized in 2002, as part of the UAW, and Grinnell dining workers formed an independent union in 2016.

Changes in working conditions during the pandemic pushed student workers to take action. The Kenyon Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapter circulated a petition that helped win back pay for undergraduate workers forced off campus in March 2020. The success of the petition inspired other student workers to take action, and laid the groundwork for a union drive.

The drive, supported by United Electrical Workers Local 712, garnered majority support from the student workers on campus, but was stonewalled by the Kenyon administration. In response to the administration’s refusal to recognize the union, the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (K-SWOC) authorized an unfair labor practice strike in March 2021. One year later, K-SWOC is still fighting for recognition, but their campaign has inspired successful efforts elsewhere.

After attending a K-SWOC panel hosted by the YDSA National Labor Committee in April 2021, members of Dartmouth YDSA began to explore the possibility of organizing a union on their campus. As at Kenyon, student workers at Dartmouth were agitated by the risk of COVID exposure, an intense work environment created by understaffing, and stagnant wages. After months of organizing and assistance from K-SWOC, the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth (SWCD) filed for voluntary union recognition in January 2022. Dartmouth rejected the request for voluntary recognition, but the two sides agreed to an NLRB election set in March. SWCD unanimously won the election for union recognition — fifty-two votes to zero.

Residence assistance workers at Wesleyan were also inspired by the union drive at Kenyon. In March 2022, the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees won voluntary recognition after holding multiple rallies and sit-ins, and demonstrating majority support after a card drive.

Recent changes from the NLRB have helped remove some barriers for student-worker unionization. In March 2021, the NLRB withdrew a proposal from the Donald Trump era that would have ruled that students who work at private colleges or universities are not defined as employees under NLRB jurisdiction.

In September 2021, Hamilton admissions life workers won the first NLRB election after the appeal of the rule. The Hamilton workers began organizing after being rushed back to work during the pandemic with low pay.

The Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) was another union affected by NLRB changes. After organizing the first independent undergraduate worker union, consisting of campus dining workers in 2016, UGSDW filed for an NLRB election to represent all student workers on campus in 2018. UGSDW was forced to withdraw the request, however, after the NLRB’s 2018 proposal would have ruled student workers outside of the NLRB’s jurisdiction. Finally, in March 2022, after years of organizing and negotiations with the college, the UGSDW secured an election to cover all student workers, which will take place this month.

The movement of student-worker unionizations is another example of activism from a generation facing the rising costs of education, soaring housing prices, and a social fabric broken by the pandemic. These structural factors have driven youth support for mass movements like Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaigns.

More recently, members of this radicalized, downwardly mobile, educated generation have impacted organized labor. Some of the largest recent unionization drives have come from graduate students, tech workers, journalists, and Starbucks workers; and some of the largest recent strikes have been organized by teachers and nurses, workers who might have previously been considered part of the professional class until their recent proletarianization.

It is essential for socialists to reconnect with the labor movement after decades of distance. Radical student movements in the past often neglected the importance of labor and instead saw students themselves as a revolutionary force. Young socialists today look less likely to make the same mistake.

In a 2021 interview, Nick Becker, an active member of Kenyon YDSA and K-SWOC, explained the difference between the student-worker union and more traditional student activism:

Normally, as a student group, you are basically an advocacy group that might pass a petition around and maybe attend a rally in order to put pressure on the school to change its behavior. That can be fine and good, but it’s working fundamentally within the system of the university. On the other hand, with something like K-SWOC, you are . . . “organizing at the point of production” and engaging students as workers rather than consumers, which is very powerful.

I had a similar experience as a student organizer at Columbia. In January 2021, Columbia YDSA organized 1,100 students to withhold tuition payments until the university made concessions regarding college affordability and other radical demands. Although this action, the largest tuition strike in American history, forced some small concessions from Columbia, the university administration never officially recognized the tuition strike. They were able to avoid bargaining with students because we lacked sufficient leverage as “consumers” of the university. One year later, the thousands of students who supported the strike have dissipated without an organization.

One year after the tuition strike, the Student Workers of Columbia won significant concessions on all three of their major demands after a twelve-week strike. The union of student workers had the structural leverage that the tuition strike lacked. The university cannot function without its workers, and Columbia was ultimately forced to concede after the lengthy strike threatened the university’s ability to award credit to thousands of students in classes which lacked the legally required hours of instruction from striking teaching assistants.

The Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth demonstrates in front of the administration building. (SWCD)

These different outcomes should be instructive for organizers looking to forge an American student movement capable of winning significant concessions on college affordability, as the cost of education continues to rise astronomically. So far, the student movement has been unable to win major concessions due to its lack of structural leverage, lack of continuity, and lack of national coordination. Student-worker unionizations can begin to address all three of these issues.

In the immediate term, student-worker unionizing can help make higher education more accessible for workingclass students. Students from wealthier backgrounds do not have to work to support themselves during college, so they have more time to dedicate toward their classes and socializing. By increasing the wages for student workers, unions can allow students to work fewer hours and afford rent, living expenses, and their education. But student-worker unions can do more than this.

Even with better wages and working conditions, students will still struggle with the exorbitant price of higher education. If the student-worker union movement can continue to spread and coordinate at the national level, it could begin to cohere a social base in key positions that could pressure universities to make meaningful concessions on affordability. Participating in unions can politicize students and teach them the importance of collective action, thus bringing more working-class students into the student movement, who will most benefit from changes in college affordability and who are best located within the university to win these changes.

Another benefit of student-worker unions is that their structure provides continuity that other student groups struggle with, as campaigns dissolve when leaders graduate. An organized base like a student-worker union can play an essential role in leading mass actions on campus, and if student-worker unions begin to collaborate across campuses, they could provide national coordination to the student movement.

If hundreds of dining workers at Dartmouth go on strike, they could win better wages and working conditions. But if thousands of student workers at dozens of universities go on strike, with solidarity rallies and sit-ins by other students demanding an affordable education, it could be possible to begin to win meaningful concessions regarding college affordability.

This is an ambitious vision. But student-worker leaders from these unions are already working to spread the unionization movement to other campuses as part of the YDSA Labor Cohort. Student workers from dozens of other universities are also in the process of organizing unions on their campuses.

Student-worker union leaders could also eventually coordinate more formally as part of a national movement. Starbucks workers do not have enough leverage to bargain with Starbucks as a union at a single franchise, so the union drive has been forced to quickly expand and coordinate nationally. Although colleges are not part of a larger corporation like Starbucks franchises are, the same logic to national union coordination still applies. Colleges set tuition prices and wages in response to each other. For example, after Columbia student workers won wage increases after their strike last winter, Princeton announced a 25 percent increase in graduate student payment.

Campus labor organizing has its limitations. Addressing college affordability and working conditions are important steps toward creating a more just society, but we will not win socialism on the campus. Campuses are often siloed from the rest of society. One of the exciting parts about the student-worker unionization movement is that it will give thousands of young people experience organizing and participating in a union. These skills and appreciation of collective action will be with students for the rest of their lives — hopefully in rebuilding the labor movement at workplaces far beyond their campuses.