By Jo Constantz | Bloomberg
Over 20,000 student workers across 23 California State University campuses will begin voting Thursday on whether to form what would be the largest undergraduate union in the US.
A win would further galvanize a labor movement that has taken hold on college campuses in recent years. Around 8 million American undergraduates work their way through school. As the cost-of-living and tuition have increased, more are demanding raises and better benefits — much like others in the labor market.
“There’s this idea that it’s just supposed to be a fun college job to get some extra spending money,” said Elisa Mendez-Pintado, now a graduate student at San Diego State University. “But in California, these jobs are what keep us living.”
Mendez-Pintado jumped into the organizing campaign at CSU in 2022 in her senior year at SDSU. Like many students, she needed to earn money to pay for rent, food and gas. An on-campus job at the Latinx Resource Center paying $14.50 an hour was the best option because it accommodated her irregular schedule. “Student work is real work, and therefore we should be treated like real employees,” Mendez-Pintado said.
The organizers hope a union contract will help them secure raises and benefits like sick pay. Most CSU student workers earn $16 an hour, the state minimum wage, according to the California State University Employees Union, which is backing the undergraduate campaign at CSU. The vote will last until Feb. 22.
“The California State University (CSU) respects the rights of workers to unionize,” Hazel Kelly, a spokesperson for CSU, said in an emailed statement. “Should student assistants elect to unionize, the CSU looks forward to engaging with them as we do with our other union partners.”
Read more: Unions Are Winning Big for the First Time in Decades
Unions aren’t new to campus. Dining hall workers and faculty have long been unionized. Tens of thousands of adjunct professors and PhD students have joined them to secure better pay and job security. But undergraduates have only more recently joined the movement. Before the pandemic, there were only two all-undergraduate unions in the US. Now there are more than a dozen with at least another half dozen in the works, according to data from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining at Hunter College CUNY.
Most of those votes, buoyed by the recent surge in support for unions, have been won in a landslide. On average, over 90% of student workers voted yes in the last year, according to a report by the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. Undergraduate unions have also had success negotiating contracts.
Last year, unionized resident assistants at Tufts University secured free meals and a $1,425 stipend per semester. At Wesleyan University, undergraduate workers won raises of at least 17% and guaranteed annual wage boosts tied to tuition increases.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University. Logan suspects students these day are more drawn to organizing because they’re more suspicious of US-style capitalism. They see a future filled with debt, little job security and the inability to buy a home or even retire.
As more of these Generation Z workers join the labor force full-time, companies may increasingly be forced to reckon with that perspective. “It’s a new type of worker that’s going into the workforce,” Mendez-Pintado said. “We want an economy that works for all of us.”
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