Why Your Chapter Should Start a Union Campaign

Students at the University of Oregon won the largest wall-to-wall undergraduate workers union in country. The author explains how UOYDSA was central to their organizing success.

A year ago, I signed my union card. I believed in things like universal healthcare and socialized housing, but I didn’t think there was anything I could do personally to change my conditions or the conditions of my community. The UO Student Workers (UOSW) Union was my first exposure to collective action and the power of organizing.

Now, we have a certified union, having won our election 1055-30 on October 26th. Our bargaining unit is about 4000 workers. We are the largest student worker union in the country and the first of its kind at a public university.

Our universities have hundreds of students with the same mindset as me—people who agree with YDSA positions, but aren’t sure if we, or anyone, could achieve the demands we’re making. Building union campaigns engages students who wouldn’t otherwise believe in mass action and organizing.

When done through a class-struggle perspective, a union campaign can raise class consciousness on our campuses. Our arguments for the need for a union have included talking about how food insecurity is three times the national average on our campus and that low wages were responsible for this. In many of the conversations I had with student workers, they weren’t voting for themselves: they were voting for someone they work with or people they knew. Even if they liked their job, student workers were willing to vote yes for other student workers on campus.

In the pre-drive worker advocacy phase of our campaign we tried to use existing structures of power, like student government, knowing they would fail. When that campaign inevitably failed, workers passionately organizing and investing in change saw firsthand that the institutions around them were not serving their interests and never would. 

I wasn’t a part of the broader YDSA-led campaign during this time, but led a  company union for RAs. Around the time our card-check campaign started, I came to the same conclusion that the other workers who participated in the advocacy phase did: like student government, a company union structure merely tells people in power that the problems exist. If there wasn’t a union campaign to catch me, I would’ve become another hopeless and apathetic student worker. 

Many student workers have done something similar on a smaller scale —they’ve talked to their boss and asked them to make changes. A union campaign was a powerful way to change my circumstances rather than accepting getting blocked by people who had the power to change my circumstances but not the will to do it.

Student-workers nationwide want better conditions and know they deserve better but they don’t know how to get there. Union campaigns expose undergrad workers to collective action and strengthen the belief that what they want outside the workplace can be achieved through organizing and mass action. 

Support for unions is high among young people. Having a union in their workplace turns young workers from simply supporting unions in theory to active union participants. The working class can only build its power if unions have high membership and participation. A union campaign also teaches organizing skills to student workers before graduation, giving them the skillsto enter the rank-and-file pipeline and become lifelong union organizers.

Since organizing UOSW, our YDSA chapter has grown significantly along with students ready to organize. I’ve seen a shift in my own mindset from “it is what it is” to “what can I do to organize around this?” The more people on our campuses with this mindset who feel empowered to organize around the issues they’re facing, the more effective our campaigns—whether for reproductive rights, solidarity with Palestine, or any other intersectional issues—will be.