Student Activists Are Turning Their Attention to the Labor Movement

Last year, the Young Democratic Socialists of America’s Red Hot Summer program trained hundreds of young people to organize their workplaces and helped launch union drives representing thousands. This year’s program hopes to be even bigger, writes YDSA’s cochair.

Columbia University RA Collective members and supporters rally for recognition in front of Columbia president Lee Bollinger's house in February 2023. Columbia RAs participated in Red Hot Summer 2022. (Courtesy of Alexandra Chan)

Student workers across the country are engaged in an unprecedented wave of labor organization. Spurred on by the support of organizations like the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), of which I am cochair, undergraduate student workers have launched union drives on nearly thirty public and private campuses in the United States. These workers are fighting for increased pay, improvements to scheduling and hours, sick pay, and better health care. They are also fighting for issues that go beyond bread and butter, like removing Israeli products from dining halls.

This organizing isn’t restricted to the campus, either. In the past eighteen months, young workers at Starbucks, Chipotle, and Amazon — many of them students — have organized and won unions despite the union-busting efforts of their employers. The ongoing Writers Guild of America strike has drawn support from young people on social media, who have turned out to picket lines and organized actions on their campuses to support the union.

A potential strike at the United Parcel Service (UPS) this summer, which was authorized by 97 percent of UPS Teamsters last week, is indicative of the renewed militancy of the American labor movement. Young people, historically one of the most active political blocs in American life, are refusing to sit this moment out.

This wave of labor militancy and successful youth organizing campaigns did not arise out of nowhere. For years, young workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic as essential workers in warehouses, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and hospitals. Student workers have had to contend with housing insecurity when dormitories shut down, shifting job responsibilities, and working in person without access to proper personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, or sick pay.

Dangerous and uncertain working conditions, along with pandemic and post-pandemic economic factors, have pushed workers to organize. Rampant inflation has eaten into paychecks, putting pressure on workers who are already exploited and underpaid. At the same time, a tight labor market has made it difficult for employers to fill vacancies in key industries, giving workers greater bargaining power.

Organizational support has also been crucial to building this wave of labor organizing. In the fall of 2020, YDSA members at Kenyon College formed the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee (KSWOC). The wall-to-wall undergraduate student worker unionization drive was met with opposition from administrators (KSWOC is still fighting for recognition) and inspired YDSA leaders to begin strategizing around campus labor organizing. Organizers from KSWOC helped design and lead YDSA’s labor cohort, which trains YDSA members to organize their workplaces. Over the past two years, YDSA members at schools like Dartmouth College, Columbia University, and Wesleyan University have successfully organized new unions. These unions are winning at the bargaining table, too. The Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth won all of their contract demands last winter, including a starting wage of $21 per hour.

YDSA members and leaders, alongside other student workers, helped create the Student Worker Alliance Network (SWAN), a coalition of undergraduate student worker unions and union drives. SWAN has grown rapidly over the past year and includes both unions organized by YDSA members and unions unconnected to the organization. As the undergraduate student worker movement grapples with the intricacies of bargaining and contract enforcement, SWAN hopes to build connections and institutional knowledge for generations of student worker organizers.

Red Hot Summer

To reach the millions of young workers across the country, YDSA organized a national labor organizing outreach and training series last summer.

Red Hot Summer is the largest program of its kind in the United States. In 2022, nearly one thousand young workers signed up to learn how to organize their workplace. Over six weeks they learned how to have an organizing conversation, identify a workplace issue, and map their workplaces. Red Hot Summer participants took those skills to win improvements in their workplaces. Program participants also helped form five undergraduate student worker union drives at the University of Oregon, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, and Brown University, collectively representing more than four thousand workers.

More than four hundred fifty young workers have signed up well in advance of the program’s launch this year. Those who are working or will be working on campus in the fall are encouraged to join the labor organizing track, where they will be partnered with a facilitator who has experience organizing in their respective industries, from dining hall workers to baristas to retail. Those who are not working or otherwise cannot organize are encouraged to participate in the political education track. The track will feature sessions discussing labor and reproductive justice, Palestinian solidarity, and more, as well as plug participants into solidarity efforts for the potential strike at UPS this August.

Red Hot Summer kicks off June 21 with a launch call hosted by Jacobin’s Alex Press. Association of Flight Attendants–Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA) president Sara Nelson, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement cofounder Omar Barghouti, UPS Teamster organizer Anthony Rosario, and student worker organizers will also address the assembly. The program is still taking sign-ups. If past experience is any indicator, it will have a significant impact on participants and the classmates and coworkers they go on to organize.