Across the U.S., undergraduate student workers at colleges and universities are unionizing.
Students at the University of Oregon in Eugene have formed one of the first unions for mostly undergraduate student workers at a public college or university. Last week, the Oregon Employment Relations Board certified the results of the unionization vote which was held on the UO campus last month.
The UO Student Workers Union is now the official group representing mostly undergraduate students working at the institution’s dining halls as food service workers, resident assistants and in other part-time positions.
Noah Thompson is a fifth-year political science student and an organizer with the union. They reflected on the historic nature of their labor victory.
“We knew from the start when we set the groundwork for unionizing two years ago that this was avant garde, that this was something people hadn’t done before,” Thompson said. “We knew the task was something we were ready to take on.”
The union hopes to address a number of issues including workplace harassment, discrimination and pay.
One of the biggest goals for the union is to ensure anti-discrimination laws are followed and to stop workplace harassment, one of the most pervasive grievances, according to union organizer and UO sophomore Mae Bracelin.
“It’s more about bringing up standards to where the law ensures they have to be, by building up solidarity and power among workers, and then going a step further to make sure our workers are safe from harassment,” she said.
Given that its membership is comprised of students, turnover may appear to be a big challenge for the new union. But Braceline says that she isn’t too worried about membership numbers because of the skills and connections that can be learned and passed within the group.
“Every four years, yes, we are losing people. But we are turning out skilled union organizers into the workforce,” Bracelin said. “We hope to have some sort of reciprocal relationship with the rest of higher education unionism and the rest of the labor movement.”
The union is hopeful to set ground rules and begin bargaining efforts with university officials sometime in January. Braceline says certification comes with many benefits, including access to payroll information as well as having a union representative during orientation meetings for new hires.
Thompson said that another benefit of unionizing is the power of collective bargaining to address perennial concerns like pay, tuition increases and book costs, whether at a public or private institution.
“The issues of higher education aren’t gonna be fixed by people asking for it. It takes real power and power comes from the hands of workers in the workplace,” Thompson said.
Noah Thompson and Mae Bracelin joined OPB’s “Think Out Loud.” You can listen to the full interview here: