Student workers at the University of Oregon are trying to build a wall-to-wall union—uniting their resident assistants, dining hall staff, and all other undergraduate workers in a massive labor campaign. Over the last few years, interest in labor organizing has surged among young people, especially at colleges and universities. “Millennials and Gen Z are the first generations not better off than their parents, and the way that money has been flowing to the people at the top while becoming more and more scarce for the people at the bottom is hard to watch,” said Carolyn Roderique, a junior resident assistant at the University of Oregon. “It will become unlivable if we don’t do something about it.”
So far, Kenyon College in Ohio, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Barnard College in New York and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire have all engaged in some form of labor organizing. However, those union efforts have largely taken place at small, private colleges. If the Oregon undergraduates are successful, they believe they will be the nation’s largest undergraduate student union at a public university, representing—by the organizers’ estimates—approximately 3,000 workers.
At a general meeting for the prospective union, held on campus on a Saturday afternoon with over 75 people in attendance, most were students working a variety of jobs for the university: in dining halls, residence halls, cafes, libraries, information desks, and research labs. The meeting introduced the campaign to newcomers, gave progress updates and included a large group discussion where workplace grievances were shared. Participants shared experiences of horrible managers, long pay periods, lack of communication, and inability to get tips, shift meals, and Covid-19 pay.
One student proclaimed that university workplaces “weaponize passion to squeeze skilled labor out of underpaid workers,” with the room snapping in agreement. Another said that their paycheck doesn’t give them “enough to pay for food, tuition, or anything at all.” Feeling underpaid, overworked, and mistreated by the university was common. “There is a lack of recognition about how the school depends on what we’re all doing.”
The official demands of the union campaign are higher pay, a two-week pay period, flexible scheduling, and better workplace anti-harassment measures. However, individual workplaces also hope to win more specific benefits, like mental health resources for resident assistants. Wages for student workers start at Oregon’s $13.50 minimum wage—with employees limited to working no more than 25 hours a week—but students say that is not enough to pay for food, tuition, and housing. Moreover, the payday for all University of Oregon workers is the final business day of a month. This means that if a student starts working in the second half of a month, they will not receive compensation until the end of the next month. This pay period is potentially illegal. As the union points out, Oregon law 652.120 clearly states: “Payday may not extend beyond a period of 35 days from the time that the employees entered upon their work.”
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This was the first organizing meeting for Charlie Gunn, a freshman in dining. “I’ve been trying to get more involved on campus and be able to make a change, especially because where I work there is nobody representing us. And maybe I could be that person.” For Will Garrahan, a sophomore, “a union is a community of people who are going to show up for each other. It’s having a place where we can democratically use the power we do have to steer the university in the direction we want: treating its workers and students with dignity.” The union campaign has offered support to its workers by dispersing pamphlets that inform students of their workplace rights and has set up an online portal to document instances of unfair labor practices. Organizers are also fundraising to cover campaign costs, and for potential wage and legal support if a student is fired for organizing. The students also use social media as a tool to raise awareness of the benefits of unions and share instances of union-busting.
A union could also go beyond improving working conditions and actually improve the work of the university itself, according to Elizabeth White, a senior in the housing services center. “The university runs better when we’re staffed and not constantly worried about money. We are able to be more present in our classes and do the thing we are here to do, but a few people at the top have decided that having a huge salary is more important than how their own institution runs.” White is graduating this year. If the union succeeds, she will not directly benefit.“This is a union that I will not be part of,” said White, “but I wouldn’t do anything else because these are my people and this is my community.”
University of Oregon Director of Public Affairs Kay Jarvis provided a statement about the unionization efforts to the Eugene Register-Guard. “We strive to provide a positive employee experience for all, including our student workers, and make a concerted effort to address employee needs through collaboration and creative problem solving by identifying solutions that serve both the employee and the university,” Jarvis said. “The university does not take a position with respect to unionization efforts.”
Yet students shared many instances of on the job harassment that could constitute unfair labor practices, and even union-busting. Garrahan recounts the fight to keep union posters up in his workplace, “Just yesterday the posters in our workplace mysteriously disappeared,” Garrahan said. “We had to remind our managers that removing them is an unfair labor practice.” Ella Meloy, an organizer, shared how there have been attempts to shut down card signing efforts in the student commons at the center of campus, “Supervisors have been telling us that we can’t sign union cards in the building, in the entire building of the EMU.”
The organizers behind the union campaign, all student volunteers, hope to succeed under a unique Oregon law that allows a new bargaining unit of public employees to be certified not by election but by card check. In a card-check process, a union is certified under the Employment Relations Board if the majority of workers sign cards saying they want a union. Under this strategy, they need 50 percent plus one of student workers to sign a card affirming the creation of a union. Noah Thompson, an organizer and labor secretary in the student government, says the card check goal is achievable by April 1—180 days after the first card was signed. “We are getting 100 cards signed every week, and if we continue at this rate we will absolutely win,” said Thompson. “What winning a labor union does is give us a seat at the table. It legally requires the university to bargain over things like wages and working conditions. And if we fight really hard, we can bargain over stuff like health care and tuition assistance.”
UO student workers have no plans to affiliate with an already established union. “From our perspective, unions are hesitant to take on student worker organizing drives even in our current labor moment because of how weak employee side labor law is and the high turnover of student employees,” said Garrahan. “We’re excited to be organizing independently though we’re open to affiliation in the future.”
“If we succeed, UOSW will be a breakthrough for the working class. Organizing student workers raises expectations for all other workers at these institutions, and the downstream effects are crucial, too,” said David Purucker, a graduate student and organizer with the Young Democratic Socialists of America. “Unions will give student workers a priceless experience of solidarity that they’ll carry for the rest of their lives—and for some, into the militant rank and file of the labor movement. And that could be absolutely transformative for American politics.”