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Undergraduates fight for their right to organize

The year 2022 has turned the expectations of the labor movement upside down, primarily represented by growing organizing efforts at more than 200 Starbucks stores across the country and at least one Amazon warehouse.

Young leaders, like 33-year-old Amazon union president Chris Smalls, are building a movement based on their refusal to give up their well-being for jobs that abuse them. In tune with these generational values, undergraduates are beginning to see themselves as an important part of the work renaissance, as evidenced by the historic momentum behind the undergraduate labor movement at institutions like Grinnell College, where the first Campus-wide undergraduate union in the United States formed this April.

Although access to higher education has expanded over the past two generations, the student debt crisis reveals that such access comes at a huge cost for those seeking the upward mobility promised by a degree. Paying tuition with a part-time job is no longer a viable option due to the cost of tuition alone. Yet today’s students struggle to both reduce their student loan burdens and afford food, housing, and other necessities.

According to a 2018 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, nearly 70% of university students are currently employed. Although the study does not distinguish between on-campus and off-campus work, it is well known that salaries have not kept up with the cost of living in the United States. For those pursuing higher education, the challenge of making ends meet remains.

In a related 2019 study, the CEW identified that between 1980 and 2019, the cost of a college education increased by 169%, while salaries for people aged 22 to 27 only increased by 19%. No matter how hard students work while in school, they will most likely spend decades paying off their student loans once they leave campus, with or without a degree in hand. For most students, financial aid and merit scholarships cannot completely eliminate the need for student loans.

The Pell Scholarship, which is intended for “undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need,” also fails, covering only about 30% of average tuition at a public university, according to the 2018 Georgetown study. That’s half of what he covered in 1980.

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, labor scholar and associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, detailed the lineage of student debt in her 2021 book. Indentured students: How government-backed loans left generations drowning in college debt. She explains, “Because of tuition fees, students and parents not only have to borrow more, but work a lot more.”

Colleges and universities occupy important premises, such as dining halls, mailrooms and libraries, with students receiving financial aid, who receive low salaries while paying tuition and living expenses.

Colleges and universities occupy important premises, such as dining halls, mailrooms and libraries, with students receiving financial aid, who receive low salaries while paying tuition and living expenses. Ultimately, institutions benefit from the financial pressures placed on their students via their on-campus workforce.

Grinnell College mailroom workers rallied in the fall of 2021 to demand an end to what they called a “toxic work environment.” Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees

The divide between who needs to work and who works for experience reminds students that college is not the great equalizer centered on education, but also another workplace.

Since the 1960s, graduate students have made progress in asserting their status as employees. There are currently over 50 graduate employee unions in the United States

Undergraduates, however, do significantly different work than their graduate counterparts. Their jobs are less academic in nature and more service-oriented. On many campuses, undergraduates are likely to find themselves putting away books or serving meals in the dining hall. Meanwhile, graduate students serve as teaching and research assistants, a job that serves as a woefully underpaid introduction to academia. One difference, then, is that on-campus jobs for undergraduates rarely contribute to their career aspirations.

Members of the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers met with a campus administrator in November 2021 to share their concerns and demands regarding their working conditions. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees

Last April, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers became the first campus-wide undergraduate union in the country to gain legal recognition. It is significant that the union was born from the canteen, where many workers receive financial assistance. Grinnell aid recipients participate in work-study programs, which means students work for a certain dollar amount that must be earned by the end of the semester. After the alternate federal positions are filled, there are positions left for those who do not receive federal aid. Unlike a grant or scholarship, work-study funds must be earned through hourly work by the end of a given semester. If a student does not earn the required minimum, they will have to make up the difference out of pocket.

Unlike a grant or scholarship, work-study funds must be earned through hourly work by the end of a given semester. If a student does not earn the required minimum, they will have to make up the difference out of pocket.

“When the refectory was first organized, work-study students had to work more during the week to [$1,100,] the amount set by the college,” says UGSDW organizer Isaiah Gutman.

Union President Keir Hichens adds, “The $1,100 is by no means a significant portion of tuition. … The college is counting on this deferred payment. By “deferred payment,” Hichens means that the federal government pays the college for student work at the end of the semester. Hichens remembers having to work 10 hours a week to earn the amount set by the work-study requirement.

The disparity in working hours between assisted students and those who are not was a primary motivation for the creation of the union. Among UGDSW’s demands is an increase in salaries, which would give back valuable time to students. According to the 2018 Georgetown study, students who work more than 15 hours a week tend to be more likely to perform poorly in college, putting them at greater risk of dropping out. . They were also more likely to pay their tuition by credit card than those who worked less than 15 hours.

Workplace harassment and food insecurity have also inspired Grinnell students to create a legally recognized pathway to secure their rights as student workers.

Throughout the fall and spring semesters, students held continuous rallies on campus in support of the union. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees

The National Labor Relations Board has continually blocked union efforts by undergraduates, saying the relationship between undergraduates and their colleges and universities is “educational,” not “economic,” in nature. The recent fight to unionize at Grinnell for undergraduate labor rights shows that the two cannot be separated.

“Because of the way the college has evolved over the past 80 years, it is [perceived as] something you do between the ages of 18 and 22. It’s that kind of underworld,” says Shermer. Representations of students in popular culture present them as quasi-adults, treading water before taking on real responsibilities. The exclusion of college students by labor policy exacerbates student struggles to have their labor rights recognized on campus.

On April 26, student organizers at Grinnell celebrated a successful vote, becoming the nation’s first campus-wide undergraduate union. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees

According to Shermer, this perceived incompatibility between undergraduates and organized labor began during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. “[The administration] separated colleges and universities as a distinct labor market” in its policymaking, attempting to “take young people out of the competition for jobs,” Shermer says. While many continue to walk the fine line between students and workers, the lack of up-to-date federal policy that encompasses this reality leaves many people in great financial uncertainty.

The invisibility of student labor to society as a whole is a central issue in the conversation about undergraduate unions – and now at Wesleyan University and Kenyan College. “Much of the work that students do is invisible,” Shermer explains. “A Starbucks barista is visible [to the public].” By contrast, she says, “the only people who use a dining hall are students and some teachers.”

Hichens adds that the unrecognized essentiality of student work also helped working students recognize that they were being mistreated. “Students realize how much institutions depend on our work to function – not just tuition or financial aid, but our work.”

The undergraduate labor movement that began at Grinnell not only spread to other colleges, but also gained support from established labor organizations, like the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, which rallied to members of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees, pictured here on March 5, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees

Today, unions are challenging the indebtedness of American youth to higher education institutions. They break down class divisions that attempt to separate “educated” professionals from “unskilled” labor. According to Hichens, “working students see themselves in a global community.”

Instead of looking askance at Starbucks and Amazon employees, many of whom have college degrees, many undergraduate organizers rely on a common principle: that they, too, support large institutions that refuse to recognize the value of their work. As members of the union, Hichens notes that his peers began to “see themselves as more than individuals or families navigating their way through capitalism. I think we are just at the very beginning.


Sophia L. Burns

is a writer who explores personal and collective experiences of place, identity and economy. She is an emerging fellow at Kos every day.


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