Across the country, undergraduate student workers are unionizing and taking action to demand better pay and working conditions. On March 15, residential advisors at the University of Pennsylvania announced supermajority support for their new union, becoming the 18th undergraduate union effort in the U.S. Young workers at Boston University, Dartmouth, RPI, Wesleyan, Harvard, Tufts, Fordham, and many other campuses have rallied for recognition, won landslide elections, and successfully negotiated first contracts. What explains this uptick in undergraduate labor organizing?
Undergrad workers are essential, but underpaid and overworked
Many undergraduate student workers fill key roles in their universites’ daily operations such as dining and residential services. One RA at Boston University has reported to have supported 42 undergraduate students in their college transition along with executing community events, employing crisis intervention measures, and applying conflict mediation tactics. On top of this, they held the responsibility of ensuring the safety of more than 1,800 residents during 24-hour shifts.
Despite how essential undergrad workers are, compensation for many student workers has stagnated, while tuition and cost of living skyrocket. At Temple University, where some campus jobs still pay $7.25 an hour, undergraduate organizers are demanding a $15 minimum wage, overtime pay, and an end to the gender pay gap.
At a number of universities, RAs either receive no pay for their work beyond a housing credit, or their wages are deducted from their financial aid. “I know RAs that receive little to no compensation for working because they lost most of their aid. We believe that everyone should be compensated for working, that is why we decided to unionize to make this work better for students who have financial need,” shared Tarchithaa Chandra Sekharan, a resident attendant with the Fordham RA Union.
According to David Whittingham, a first-year RA at Tufts, “the biggest concern on people’s minds has been compensation. RA’s don’t receive wages beyond the housing credit and we don’t receive any other sort of fringe benefits like a meal plan.” He added, “the compensation structure I think is exploitative. It allows the university to get away with essentially free labor from students that they know have little other recourse, who can’t afford to live in the area, particularly here in Boston where rent is so exorbitant.”
Overwhelming job responsibilities and mandatory unpaid hours are recurring issues for RAs in particular. In a press release about the recently formed United RAs at UPenn, OPEIU Local 153 noted that RAs face an overwhelming, around-the-clock workload. “To maintain their jobs, RAs are required to stay on campus through weekends and holidays, attend weekly mandatory staff meetings, hold 1-on-1 counseling sessions with each of their residents, design and create monthly bulletin boards, respond to emergencies, organize weekly hall events, and work overnight shifts in addition to their academic responsibilities.”
Economic insecurity and union support among young workers fueling organizing wave
A combination of growing economic insecurity and a more favorable outlook on unions among young workers has fueled undergraduate worker organizing across the United States.
Over the past few years, surveys have consistently shown that young people in the U.S. have especially high levels of union support compared to the 71% of the overall U.S. population who support unions., Given this higher level of consciousness and that undergrads have been involved In recent high-profile examples of labor organizing such as Starbucks Workers United, it’s no surprise that young workers on college campuses would start organizing their workplaces, even in the face of retaliation from the bosses and hostile U.S. labor laws. For example, despite Boston University promising that RA Spencer Hart-Thompson would be “fully accommodated” by his supervisors for his medical condition, he was repeatedly denied such accommodations and was even restricted from relocating to a better housing situation.
Growing economic insecurity for student workers is fueling organizing efforts even further. At Northeastern University, the “No Hungry Husky” campaign reported that 1 in 4 Northeastern students are food insecure. Meanwhile, Northeastern charges more than double the average cost for a student meal plan.
The cost of higher education is far greater than what it used to be. Undergrads, once able to work part-time to cover the majority of expenses, now graduate with tremendous student debt. Over the past 20 years, tuition and fees have jumped 134% at private universities, and 175% in-state at public universities.
These exorbitant hikes are taking place alongside skyrocketing endowments and record revenues for university dining contractors. “The fact is, these universities have been so heavily financialized where money is funneled into paying endless amounts of bureaucratic managers, investing in hedge funds, investing millions of dollars into real estate,” said Sheen Kim, Vice Chair of the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth. “[The College is] forgetting that it is and must be the students and the folks who are actually doing the labor of academia, of service, of research, that actually gives Dartmouth its standing.”
Undergraduate organizers have cited victories at other campuses as inspiration to take matters into their own hands. “Undergraduate workers are raising consciousness and the movement is only growing. With first contracts coming down the pike, I think we’re going to continue to see more and more undergrad workers organizing for even the most fundamental rights,” said Grace Reckers, lead organizer for OPEIU Local 153. With graduate labor organizing reaching new heights, as shown by recent prominent strikes at Temple, Columbia, and the University of California system, along with undergrads leading their own organizing efforts with Starbucks Workers United and organizing RA unions on their own campuses, it should not be a surprise that undergrad workers are getting organized!
Organizing with optimism
Through these campaigns and more, undergraduate student organizing has realized several collective wins. On February 19, student dining workers unionized with the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth won a $21 minimum wage just two days after authorizing a strike with 99% support. At Northeastern University, Huskies Organizing with Labor united with Local 26 organizers rallied to achieve a historic victory that led to an unprecedented contract that raised wages by $9.32 per hour and ensured the best possible health plan offered by Chartwells, among other achievements.
At the University of Oregon, organizers are uniting student tutors, daycare workers, residence hall advisers and other student workers across campus to fight for pay raises, a shorter pay period, anti-harassment policies, and others. In a statement attached to their solidarity and relief fund, the UO Student Workers Union said, “The UO administration claims to care about its students and workers but this isn’t reflected in our compensation or our working conditions. We are overworked, underpaid, and told it’s for our own benefit.” Since going public in October 2022, the campaign has signed on 1,300 of the approximately 3,000 student workers as of February despite retaliation from the University including firing a lead organizer.
These organizing efforts point the way forward for students and workers who are confronted by the contradictions of the U.S. education system. As long as education is treated as a source of profit instead of a human right, student-workers will be subjected to precarity and exploitative work environments. Undergraduate unions are proving that when these student-workers come together to demand fair compensation and reasonable working conditions, they can and do win.