Socialists Must Embed Themselves in the Student Labor Movement: Lessons from UO

The undergraduate student labor movement is growing rapidly. The authors bring their experience from organizing University of Oregon YDSA to answer how YDSA chapters should help build it.

At colleges and universities around the country, undergraduate student workers are getting organized. The movement to unionize undergraduate workers began at small private colleges like Grinnell in 2016 and Kenyon in 2020, and took off in 2021-22, with union drives at Hamilton, Wesleyan, Mount Holyoke, Dartmouth, Barnard, Tufts, and Columbia University. 

Last October, the movement scored its first breakthrough at a large public university when over 1,000 student workers at the University of Oregon voted to form a wall-to-wall labor union. The union, University of Oregon Student Workers (UOSW), is the largest of its kind in the country, with around 4,000 student employees in workplaces across campus. 

As we move into spring, the movement looks ready to expand further into the public sector, with major UAW and SEIU-backed victories in the University of California and California State University system. Organizing efforts backed by the UAW are also making significant inroads across Washington, and now in Oregon: this month, UOSW members voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with UAW.

What does this mean for YDSA? Organizing undergraduate student workers is (with a few exceptions) a new tactic for the student movement in the United States. Though there’s not much past experience to guide us, YDSA chapters have already played an important role in many of these campaigns.

As two of UOSW’s founding organizers, we believe that undergraduate student labor organizing has great potential for both revitalizing student politics and contributing to the movement for democratic socialism. As we explain in a companion article, we think that these campaigns can have powerful “spillover effects” that extend beyond the student workplace.

We believe YDSA members and chapters already agree with us on the “why” of student labor campaigns. Here, we want to explain some of the “how”, based on our experiences in UOSW.

Two years to a union

From the first conversations in 2021 about a student worker union to final certification in 2023, the UOSW campaign took almost exactly two years. The idea emerged in discussions among members of UOYDSA, then a small chapter that was being rebuilt after a period of disorganization and low activity. UOYDSA’s early meetings in fall 2021 took place against the backdrop of “Striketober”, when new strikes and union campaigns were starting to capture the imagination of young people radicalized by pandemic, the implosion of the Bernie 2020 campaign, and the waning of the George Floyd protest wave. 

These included the strikes of bakers at Nabisco, manufacturing workers at John Deere, and graduate and undergraduate student workers at Columbia University. A little later in the year, inspiring union campaigns took off at Starbucks and Amazon. During this time we read about undergraduate union campaigns at Grinnell College and Kenyon College, and connected with organizers at Kenyon via YDSA contacts.

In early 2022, we focused our efforts on outreach to workers via surveys and meetings to understand key workplace grievances and build a contact list. We held “organizing 101” workshops to identify organic leaders and train salts. By summer, we had consolidated a leadership team to plan a public launch for the union campaign, which began in fall 2022. 

We used a variety of tactics to reach workers and sign cards, including rallies and street canvassing, presentations in classrooms, and workplace visits. In parallel, our handful of salts and workplace leaders began the hard work of building shop-floor organization. RAs organized to win a significant wage increase. One of our strongest shop committees staged a dramatic dining hall walkout after a key organizer was fired, and soon after led a public march on the boss that involved over a hundred students. In April 2023, we delivered around 2,000 signed union cards to the offices of the state labor board.

In summer 2023, with uncertainty over whether we had actually gathered cards representing a majority of the proposed bargaining unit (there was a chance that we had fallen just short of 50%), we agreed with the university to forego a drawn-out card check certification process in exchange for a guaranteed election date in October. We mobilized hard to turn out student workers to vote, and in the end won the union with higher-than-expected participation and a stunning 97% yes margin.

Three factors stand out as important in explaining UOSW’s success: the advantage of organizing in the public sector in a blue state, the support of other labor unions, and the central involvement of socialists. Card-check and strong laws requiring union neutrality from public institutions in Oregon helped us carry out the campaign at scale without major risk of an anti-union campaign. 

Other labor unions, especially the local graduate employee union and the Oregon branch of the American Federation of Teachers, provided consistent mentorship, legal advice, and monetary support. And of course, UOYDSA’s commitment to the campaign—and the support of other DSA members in Eugene, Portland, and elsewhere—was indispensable.

Worker-to-worker organizing and the question of affiliation

To realize the full potential of undergraduate student worker unions, we believe these campaigns should adopt a “worker-to-worker” organizing strategy. To use Jane McAlevey’s terms, we recommend using an organizing strategy instead of mobilizing or advocacy strategies that place most agency in the hands of either union activists or professional union staff. 

Crucially, we think that undergrad labor organizers should pursue a worker-to-worker organizing strategy even when mobilizing or advocacy might be sufficient to win legal recognition for the union through card-check or a labor board election. This is because how one wins the union will shape the strategic capacity of that union in the future, and empowers rank-and-file workers if and when affiliation with a larger union becomes an option.

One important factor shaping UOSW’s strategy was the absence of initiative from any established union to launch an organizing drive among undergrad workers at our campus. Like our predecessors at Grinnell College, we organized UOSW as an independent union.

In our case, participation “from below” in a union-sponsored organizing drive wasn’t an option, and affiliation only became a serious possibility after winning our election. Prior to fall 2023, the handful of undergraduate worker unions that had found affiliates were almost entirely located at small private colleges and universities in blue states. At these institutions, the small scale of bargaining units combined with the survival of private-sector fair-share dues incentivized unions like OPEIU and UFCW to support some organizing drives. 

At public universities, however, bargaining units can be larger and more complex, and “fair-share dues” are banned by the Supreme Court. These units are not safe bets for large, risk-averse unions, even in blue states with relatively favorable labor law. However, recent events in Washington and California suggest that big unions—specifically UAW and SEIU—may be more interested in industrial-scale organizing among undergraduate workers than appeared to be the case during our own campaign.

The involvement of large unions in the undergraduate labor movement is an exciting development. It is likely a necessary condition for organizing the hundreds of thousands of student workers across the university sector in the United States. Still, the staff support, expertise, and institutional resources of established unions are not a substitute for the strategy we describe above. The key danger to be avoided is a top-down, staff-driven mobilizing strategy that displaces agency from ordinary workers.

Our basic recommendation is for YDSA members involved in undergraduate union drives to build a strong culture of rank-and-file organizing. Salting should be a central tactic, combined with systematic leadership identification and development from the rank-and-file. That, in turn, empowers workers to approach affiliation on their terms, with the leverage to ensure worker-led open bargaining, elected stewards, control over staff hiring, and other democratic conditions.

YDSA and undergraduate labor: Three tasks

We predict that the movement will continue to grow. Both undergraduate and graduate union drives have won with overwhelming margins, a fact which reflects nearly universal support for unions among young people. The involvement of big labor unions on the West Coast raises the possibility of industrial-scale organizing reaching tens of thousands of new student workers in the public sector.

We see three important tasks on the horizon for the undergraduate labor movement and socialists within it. First, the movement will need to learn how to organize the hard way. Under the pressure of a tight timeline to gather cards, UOSW relied mainly on a mobilizing strategy with a low-risk ask: sign a card, vote yes for your union.          

But to win strong contracts and catalyze “spillover effects” that build working-class power throughout society, undergraduate union organizers will need to build high-participation unions with a strong base on the shop-floor. Organizers will need to think carefully about balancing the desire for speed and scale against the imperative of building strong face-to-face relationships among workers. Tools like digital-card signup in states with public sector card-check could reach huge numbers of workers but they can’t substitute for the hard work of developing leaders and forming a collective class identity.

Second, the movement will need to find ways to break through in red states where public-sector workers’ rights to organize and bargain are harshly limited. In these contexts, a strategy of pre-majority unionism may be necessary. In addition, if Trump is elected this year, the movement will need to prepare for the NLRB to repeal the 2016 Columbia decision that gave private sector graduate and undergraduate workers the legal right to organize.

Winning these battles across red states and the private sector may take years and require a large, coordinated organizing drive launched by one or more major unions. DSA will need to combine disruptive workplace and campus campaigns with statewide political mobilization against the Right and its anti-labor policy regime.

Finally, we urge young socialists involved in the movement to think carefully about the division of labor between mass organizations of workers and political organizations of socialists. On the one hand, YDSA members should be careful not to accidentally dissolve their chapter into union campaigns they initiate or support. On the other hand, they need to resist the temptation to define the union from the start as a “socialist” organization. From their position in the rank-and-file, socialists should aim to be the “best builders” of their unions, and shouldn’t see those unions primarily as recruiting grounds for YDSA. 

This is an exciting time to be involved in the student movement in the United States. We believe that the undergraduate labor movement could make a major contribution to reviving working-class politics, and YDSA is positioned to play a leading role within it. With sound strategy and a little luck, we could help bring tens of thousands of young people into the labor movement and train a new generation of socialists in the school of class struggle.