As the student-worker organizing movement grows, the University of Oregon (UO) YDSA helped organize a wall-to-wall campus union. It could prove to be a monumental win for student workers across the country.
This article first appeared in the 2023 Summer Print Issue, which can be found here.
The student workers at the University of Oregon (UO) are organizing, and if successful, this union will be the largest undergraduate labor union in the United States. A wall-to-wall union comprised of over 3,800 workers spread across dorms, dining halls, information desks, and other workplaces.
This massive labor campaign is part of a wider national movement to organize college campuses. Students, and young people broadly, recognize the unfair economic order they’ve been born into and have seen how it treated their parents. Faced with meager wages, high rents, and student loan debt, young people are increasingly turning to the labor movement, as unions have reached their highest approval rating in decades.
The official demands of the University of Oregon Student Workers (UOSW) are higher wages, a two-week pay period, increased scheduling flexibility, and workplace anti-harassment measures. Individual workplaces have also set up committees and hope to win more specific benefits, like mental health resources for resident assistants (RAs).
At a general meeting for the union in the spring, attendees shared experiences of uncommunicative and abusive managers, low pay stretched over long pay periods, and not receiving tips, shift meals or COVID-19 hazard pay. A student declared that “the university weaponizes passion to squeeze skilled labor out of underpaid workers.” Another said that their job didn’t provide them “enough to pay for food, tuition, or anything.”
Wages for student workers start at the state of Oregon’s $13.50 minimum wage, but employees are limited to working no more than 25 hours a week, severely limiting their take-home. Moreover, the payday for all UO workers is the final business day of a month, meaning that if a student starts working in the second half of a month, they will not get their paycheck until the end of the next month. This pay period is potentially illegal under Oregon law which states “Payday may not extend beyond a period of 35 days from the time that the employees entered upon their work.”
A final student summed up the need for a union as “ a lack of recognition about how the school depends on what we’re all doing.”
UOSW originally started out cataloging grievances of student workers using an anonymous online survey in early 2022, which quickly morphed into a full fledged unionization campaign once the student government failed to accept a ballot initiative expanding rights for student workers.
UOSW is organizing through a card check process, which under Oregon law allows the certification of new bargaining units of public employees without an election. Under this strategy a majority of student workers must sign a card declaring their approval for the establishment of a union in their workplace.
The Oregon Employment Relation Board (ERB) stipulates that a card check process is successful if a campaign collects 50% + 1 affirming a union. Winning a labor union gives the students a seat at the table and legally requires the university to bargain over working conditions and wages. If the union is successful it could go beyond improving the lives of student workers to improving life for all UO students by bargaining over healthcare and tuition. Collective action will be the only way to win such material gains.
On April 7th the campaign filed over 2,000 cards with the ERB to begin the certification process. This monumental achievement is owed to the skills of the student organizers and shows young people’s capacity to organize. This feat is made more impressive by the sheer monumental task of organizing nearly 20,000 undergraduate student workers.
Student organizer Elizabeth White remarked, “We are standing at a pivotal point in the current labor movement. We’ve used our collective power to get to this point, and we will continue to use it to create tangible change on our campus and to empower others to do the same”.
Since the union campaign went public the organizers have had to deal with union-busting and unfair labor practices from the university. Campus workplaces regularly had union posters taken down, workers were told they could not sign cards in public spaces, and a lead organizer, Will Garrahan, was fired from his dining hall job. The university also intentionally did not provide an accurate listing of all student workers, instead providing a list of just 700 that did not include essential positions like dining and office workers, tour guides, tutors, research assistants, and resident assistants.
UO’s only winning strategy is wasting time and running out the clock as many student workers either move on from their positions or graduate. If UOSW fails to win their legal union via outright card check majority then it will come down to an election among student workers, of which organizers are confident in their chances.
These student workers recognize their place in the wider labor movement and are conscious of their class position.
“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 in sociology and YDSA member. “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.”