Undergraduate Student Workers: We Unionized. You Can, Too.
This spring, undergraduate student workers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut became the US's first known undergrad labor union to win voluntary recognition. With sustained organizing, student workers on campuses across the country can follow suit.
On March 3, student workers at the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) at Wesleyan University announced their intent to unionize. Within four days of taking the campaign public, the union signed a card-check agreement with university administration. On March 22, with 84 percent of the bargaining unit having signed union cards, the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE) became the first known undergraduate labor union in the country to win voluntary recognition.
WesUSE’s victory is only one in a current wave of undergraduate student worker organizing, and follows in the steps of unionization campaigns at UMass Amherst, Grinnell College, Columbia University, Hamilton College, and Kenyon College. As the Wesleyan case shows, these victories are not spontaneous. They’re the fruit of years of sustained and strategic organizing, and their successes can be replicated on campuses across the country.
Conditions on the Ground
Wesleyan labor organizing benefits from a long history of student radicalism at the university. United Student Labor/Action Coalition (USLAC), a group formed out of Wesleyan students in AFL-CIO’s first Union Summer program, has channeled student energy toward labor since the 1990s, playing an instrumental role in unionizing Wesleyan custodial staff in 1999. Since then, USLAC has fought alongside custodial, dining hall, and physical plant workers, as well as the wide array of student workers who keep Wesleyan operational.
Through solidarity organizing over the years, USLAC had built up a strong relationship with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), who represent Wesleyan’s Physical Plant and clerical workers. This prior relationship was important in building trust between OPEIU staff and student workers during the union campaign. USLAC’s solidarity work with OPEIU also familiarized many students with the basics of labor organizing and union function, and cemented campus labor as a mainstay of Wesleyan student activism.
Wesleyan ResLife workers are equivalent to resident advisors (RAs) at other colleges. As the highest paying job on campus, ResLife disproportionately attracts first generation and low-income students and students of color. At the same time, it is one of the harshest workplaces on campus. ResLife represented a fertile ground for campus labor organizing because ResLife workers’ jobs tend to play a larger role in their lives than those of many other student workers. It also held unique challenges, because many workers depend on ResLife to afford attending Wesleyan.
Individual ResLife workers and USLAC members had been researching undergraduate student unions since at least the 2018–19 school year. At this time, only three undergraduate labor unions existed in the United States: resident advisors at UMass Amherst, certified in 2002; dining workers at Grinnell College, certified in 2016; and multiple sectors at Columbia University, who were certified in 2019. Resident advisors at Reed College also won a union election in 2018 but had to dissolve their union after the school appealed the result to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). During the pandemic, student workers at one other college, Kenyon College, had also started a union campaign.
While ResLife workers and USLAC members continued meeting to discuss working conditions and strategies for collective action, we did not commit to a union campaign right away.
Just before the fall 2020 semester ended, a spike in COVID cases on campus led Wesleyan to encourage all students to return home immediately, except for ResLife staff assigned to closing duties. In response, dozens of workers asked university administration for hazard pay: extra compensation for working under what the university acknowledged were dangerous conditions. The administration refused, citing the lack of hazard pay for other workers and arguing that they had discharged their obligations to ResLife staff by distributing a minimal amount of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Frustrated by the response to the petition, ResLife workers and USLAC members formally began a ResLife union Working Group (WG) to organize toward unionization. Outreach conversations brought in a few more ResLife student workers and USLAC members, and USLAC sponsored several events and teach-ins on the topic of unionization, including one with Amazon Labor Union organizer Chris Smalls. Virtual organizing during the pandemic proved difficult, however, and the campaign did not take off in spring 2021.
The Campaign Timeline
On the first day of the fall 2021 semester, a major dorm flooded, forcing ResLife workers to work through the night to ensure first-year students’ safety. Administration provided minimal support throughout the ordeal. Again, ResLife staff did not receive additional compensation for their extraordinary and essential work. The event served as a catalyst for more organizing conversations, through which the WG recruited more ResLife workers. The WG also started mapping out areas of ResLife workers to gain an accurate count of how many employees would be in the bargaining unit (BU).
The WG began communications with OPEIU at the end of the semester, with five or six ResLife workers committed to organizing for a union. In February, OPEIU assigned organizer Grace Reckers to work with the now-formalized organizing committee (OC), helping to draft a timeline to win a union within the semester.
The OC set the campaign’s public launch date for March 4, a week before spring break, which gave the OC ten weeks to file for and win a union election before the semester ended. Thus, the OC had just two weeks to gather union authorization cards from 70 percent of a bargaining unit that contained about a hundred workers. We also decided to gather workers’ signatures for an open letter to administration requesting voluntary recognition, which we would release publicly only if at least 60 percent of the BU signed the letter.
The OC delegated alumni, staff, and faculty outreach to USLAC members. Using the relationships we had built through prior organizing, we wrote a solidarity letter for the Wesleyan and Middletown communities and began confidentially collecting signatures, with the goal of five hundred by launch.
We also reached out to elected officials in Middletown, where Wesleyan is located. Middletown’s mayor and its state senator, both Wesleyan alumni, pledged their public support along with both of the city’s state representatives. All four elected officials agreed to cosign a Letter to the Editor to the Argus, Wesleyan’s campus paper.
A week before the public launch, news of the campaign was accidentally leaked to the leadership of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), the student government. But the OC was able to secure pledges of confidential support or neutrality from the entire WSA leadership. The OC also drafted a resolution for the WSA to endorse the campaign, and started privately collecting support from allied student senators.
It seemed increasingly likely that the administration had already found out about the union effort, and we were concerned that they would use an upcoming ResLife staff meeting to engage in union busting. Grace advised the OC to inoculate all BU members who had been contacted throughout the campaign.
The night of March 3, about a hundred students and staff came to the prelaunch meeting. Attendees made rally signs and materials, planned rally chants, canvassed dorms, and did last-minute outreach to the remaining BU members who haven’t been contacted or were on the fence. A reporter from the Connecticut Examiner also attended to interview OC members.
OC members remained until the next morning. They made phone calls to BU members, ending the night with 80 percent of cards signed and exactly the 60 percent of the signatures required on the letter for voluntary recognition.
An OC delegation emailed and hand delivered the letter for voluntary recognition to administration at 9 AM on March 4. News of the campaign spread rapidly across campus, and the day was spent collecting more signed cards and mobilizing people for the rally. An allied student group offered a Venmo to crowdfund supplies for the sit-in.
At 1 PM on March 5, more than two hundred people gathered outside administration offices, including students, staff, and OPEIU members from Physical Plant, as well as elected officials and representatives from the Connecticut Building Trades Council (BTC), who were invited to speak alongside OC members. (BTC separately took issue with Wesleyan’s refusal to grant them a seat at the table regarding major campus renovations, and supplied a massive inflatable pig for the rally.) The OC led a march around campus and ended the rally with a rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”
That night, more than a hundred people attended the sit-in to learn more about unions and the unionization process. They also wrote messages of solidarity for ResLife staff.
On March 6, at the last regular student government meeting before break, the OC arranged for the introduction of and emergency vote on the union resolution. Multiple generations of WSA and ResLife alumni testified in support. The resolution passed with near unanimous approval.
On March 8, the university signed a card-check agreement that resulted in WesUSE’s voluntary recognition on March 22. Student workers had won their union.
What Made the Campaign Work
WesUSE’s campaign would not have been successful without creative tactics and adaptable organizers. Throughout the process, organizers were highly intentional about how information was accessed and circulated. This limited the amount of time the administration had to respond to and retaliate against organizing efforts. We communicated through non-university emails and only shared information within the OC. In order to keep track of the hundred-person bargaining unit, the OC created a collaborative spreadsheet that mapped the workplace by area, worker’s position, assigned organizer, and an “assessment” of their organizing commitment, among other categories.
These communication channels were essential to obtaining a high card count before going public with the union campaign. Workers felt fear about organizing in such an insecure work environment, but reminding them of their collective strength was powerful and moving. Organizers were prepared for a possible decrease in card count, in the event that the administration learned about the union and retaliated with anti-union talking points and/or threats to job security. Luckily, this was not something that we encountered.
WesUSE’s ability to put public pressure on the university was also crucial. We reached out to local news outlets for coverage before, during, and after the campaign took off, and we asked trusted local politicians to sign a letter in support of the union and to speak at the first rally. We also pursued ways to assert public pressure on the employer that are unique to a university context. Importantly, WesUSE organizers leveraged our power as students, calling on Wesleyan alumni and the rest of the student body to put the reputation of the university and its funding on the line.
Other organizers have highlighted what undergraduate unionism means for the future of student organizing and the labor movement. A less discussed aspect, however, is the potential to forge community and strategic alliances with working-class segments of college towns. WesUSE’s campaign brought students into class conflict with a university administration that has neither our nor the community’s best interests at heart. In this way, it helped student organizers like us find common ground with local working-class formations.
That unions like the BTC aligned with WesUSE was not merely a moment of convenient solidarity, but rather a sign of the socioeconomic contradictions generated by the immense wealth hoarding of private universities. Enthusiastic solidarity from Connecticut unions and the Middletown community has sown the seeds for a wider fight against the neoliberal university.
Toward a Socialist University
If there is one lesson we believe student workers, socialists, and members of the labor movement ought to take from WesUSE’s campaign, it’s to be ambitious. Students like us can organize and win more than we previously thought possible.
The explosion of undergrad unionization is encouraging, but we shouldn’t stop there. This movement can be much bigger, which will require more undergrad worker organizing — including at schools that are not selective private colleges like Wesleyan, Grinnell, Dartmouth, and Kenyon. Organizers at different schools should coordinate as closely as they can, and we’re excited that some efforts are already being made in this direction.
The most basic reason to support undergraduate unionization is obvious: every worker deserves a union because every worker deserves fair wages and working conditions, respect from management, and the ability to assert collective power in the workplace.
But there are two important reasons why it is also strategic for campus left organizations to take on campaigns like ours. First, it helps our organizations gain new members, engage existing ones, and win greater credibility with the campus community. The WesUSE campaign has certainly done this, opening up new space for left organizing at Wesleyan. It has created a virtuous cycle of new organizing opportunities that grow the capacity of groups like USLAC and our YDSA chapter to take on increasingly ambitious fights.
Second, the union campaign provides an opportunity to politicize college students’ experience — to show them that even in college (and, in our case, at a self-consciously liberal institution like Wesleyan), their lives are structured by class conflict. Campus left organizations should help wage union campaigns and tie them to a socialist vision of the university as well as a broader socialist political analysis, with the aim of facilitating union members’ further participation in campaigns that uplift the working class as a whole.
WesUSE is joining other undergraduate unions and YDSA’s National Labor Committee to organize Red Hot Summer, a six-week program open to any young worker interested in organizing their workplace, starting on June 21. Join the student labor movement today, and we hope to see you there!