Student labor activism is on the rise in new and surprising ways. Not only do students in higher education regularly turn out to support striking staff members on college campuses, but they’re also organizing and joining unions themselves in growing numbers. This direct action sets the stage for their lives after they leave higher education, because when students are involved in organizing efforts in their on-campus working lives, you’d better believe these same workers will seek out unions later in their careers.
The number of student-worker bargaining units in the U.S. grew from 54 at the beginning of 2022 to 84 in July 2023 — a 56% increase — according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. While there’s been steady growth over the past few decades in the organization of graduate students, whose focus is often on teaching requirements and compensation, what is new is a surge of undergraduate student workers turning to collective bargaining around issues such as minimum-wage pay and sick leave benefits.
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Business leaders would be wise to pay attention to how some universities are working with students to address these challenges. The task for schools is to ensure the rights of students to unionize for an improved on-campus work environment while also providing those same students with the educational benefits of living and learning on campus. There are parallels here to how businesses must juggle the need for both workplace productivity and employee satisfaction. Today’s student organizers are building expectations for partnership that they will bring with them to their future workplaces.
The Rise of Undergrad Unionization
Before 2016, nearly all organized student unions were composed of graduate student employees. In fact, there was only one that wasn’t: In 2002, undergraduate students who served as resident assistants at the University of Massachusetts Amherst became the first union of student resident assistants in the country. Then, after 2016, other undergraduate unionization efforts began popping up, at Grinnell College, George Washington University, and Reed College, among others.
Students — whether they are focused on the two-year associate’s degree, the four-year bachelor’s degree, or graduate studies — represent approximately 8% of the U.S. workforce. Many work within campus environments like The Ohio State University, where I am dean of the College of Engineering, either because work-study on campus is required as part of their financial aid package or because there are few flexible part-time work opportunities available for the traditional 18-to-23-year-old student.
The kinds of issues they’re organizing around are closely aligned with the issues raised by unions in the retail and service industries. A 2023 report out of the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies noted that the new wave of student-worker unions “has included teaching and research assistants in both the humanities and the previously quiescent STEM fields, as well as undergraduate resident advisers, student dining hall workers, and library staff.” The 30 new student-worker collective bargaining units launched since the start of 2022 represent 35,655 workers — a number that might be getting a big boost soon: At California State University, over 19,300 student assistants are hoping to vote as early as January 2024 on their organizing efforts, which would make them one of the largest student-worker unions in U.S. history.
The 30 new student-worker collective bargaining units launched since the start of 2022 represent 35,655 workers.
The year 2022 marked another change: the evolution of the student-worker strike. The CUNY report cites 20 strikes by workers in higher education in 2022 and 2023 by a mix of faculty members, postdocs, and students and states that “this explosive growth in strike activity in higher education is unprecedented within recent memory.” The most notable of these, the University of California graduate student workers’ strike, lasted over five weeks and is now recorded as the largest ever at a U.S. institution of higher education. It ended with an agreement for higher pay, fee waivers, and other benefits.
Some experts postulate that there’s a strong correlation between the growth of unions on college campuses and the growth in high-profile organization efforts off campus (most recently at Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks). In fact, union organizing among college-educated young workers has been trending up. Gallup reports the relatively high approval rate of 77% for labor unions among young adults.
Power Dynamics to Watch
On college and university campuses, unionizing student workers represent a unique constituency. On the one hand, their relationship to the school is one of worker-employer. On the other hand, they are also paying for a service and educational product, making the relationship one of customer-provider.
Schools navigating this dual identity need to think of these student-worker activists as a new kind of stakeholder — one to engage with and ultimately keep happy. California’s state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, who also serves as an ex officio member of the California State University board of trustees, put it this way at an October press conference about that school’s student unionization efforts: “The California State University is stronger today because students are rising up to hold the university system true to its mission to open the doors of higher education and a strong future to every student, no matter their background.”
Corporate organizations faced with newly organizing employees often don’t initially think of them this way — as a cohort that they similarly have to engage with and ultimately keep happy. Some successful negotiations eventually bring both sides around to this understanding, if only begrudgingly.
It’s worth noting that this student movement is occurring at exactly the same time that some employers in corporate America have spied on and fired workers who were leading organization efforts (actions that are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act). But companies must understand that if their values do not align with this new generation of student workers who have lived the experience of political advocacy, they will have difficulty in recruiting. “I think unions are incredibly important,” a college sophomore told nonprofit news organization Marketplace after undergraduates at her school, Barnard College, voted to unionize in October. “I would be honored to be part of one after college.”
In their article “Leading in an Age of Employee Activism,” Megan Reitz, of Hult International Business School, and John Higgins, coauthor of the book Leadership Unravelled, noted, “We are entering an age of employee activism that may well upend our assumptions about power within organizations.” Some business leaders might see this as a passing trend, but many of us in the university environment know that student labor activism is becoming the new norm — and see learning how to address the needs of the newest generation of worker-customers as an imperative. Companies and their leaders have an opportunity to watch how these negotiations play out on college campuses and understand that they’re likely to also be tasked at some point with navigating the different (and perhaps divergent) interests of established employees and management, community members, and younger employee activists.