Labor scores a victory at Sac State and other CSU campuses

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Rejecting years of unequal treatment, 20,000 low-paid California State University student assistants and workers vote to organize.

By Mark Kreidler, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

When your state’s labor scoreboard includes the people who create and star in Hollywood’s entertainment exports, not to mention workers at one of the nation’s health care giants, attention is going to gravitate in those directions.

But the real action in California may be on its college campuses. And it’s there that union organizing and negotiating efforts have begun not only to take root, but flourish.

Last week, some 20,000 student assistants and workers across California State University’s 23 campuses voted to organize. With that vote, the university system’s staff union more than doubled in size.  It was the latest in a series of tectonic shifts among the state’s colleges and universities. The student assistants voted 7,050 to 202 (about 97%) in favor of joining the California State University Employees Union, or CSUEU.

That’s significant on a few fronts. First, the overwhelming vote validates years of growing unrest on Cal State campuses among student assistants who realized they were often doing the same work as unionized full-time staff members, but for less pay, restricted hours and no benefits.

Second, the 20,000 students join 16,000 existing members of the CSUEU — including many of the people they’ve been working alongside. 

They’ll receive assistance from the Service Employees International Union as they organize and present their contract demands for yet-unscheduled bargaining talks.

“University management will no longer be able to divide students and staff or exploit student labor to degrade staff jobs,” said Catherine Hutchinson, president of the CSUEU. “Joining together is a win for students, for staff, and for all Californians who have a stake in the CSU’s mission.”

Said Leora Freedman, Cal State’s vice chancellor for human resources, “The CSU has a long history of providing on-campus jobs to students through student assistant positions, which give our students the opportunity to gain valuable work experience while they pursue their degrees. The CSU respects the decision of student assistants to form a union and looks forward to bargaining in good faith with the newly formed CSUEU student assistant unit.”

The vote came on the heels of a historic strike in January by the 29,000 members of the California Faculty Association, which produced a tentative contract agreement with the Cal State administration on the first day of a scheduled five-day walkout. While that agreement has received mixed reviews from members of the union, their collective ability to prod action by the university system was noteworthy.

And these two events come a little more than a year after the largest higher education strike in U.S. history, involving 36,000 graduate student workers and 12,000 other academic employees within the University of California system. The strike ultimately produced 50% raises in base pay for the graduate workers in 2024, with negotiations on successor deals to begin later this year.

Among students who work in campus positions in both California university systems, the actions are a natural outgrowth of what they say are years if not decades of unequal treatment. Student labor, they say, has been used by both the Cal State and University of California administrations as a way of augmenting work done by full-time staff at a fraction of the cost.

Gem Gutierrez, 21, works in the Admissions & Outreach department at Sacramento State, where she assists in such areas as determining who does and does not qualify for in-state tuition rates. That difference, she said, can mean thousands of dollars a year in costs or savings for a student — yet the only other person in the office doing the same important work, she said, had union representation and was a full-time staffer.

“I realized I was being paid less, with no benefits and no sick pay. So I got involved with the union, filing to organize,” Gutierrez, a health science student, told Capital & Main. “If you had told me a year ago that I was going to be here (in the midst of a union vote), I’d have been shocked — but we need for student workers to be treated fairly, the way they should be.”

Student assistants in the University of California system, meanwhile, noted that prior to their strike, teaching assistants were being paid $24,000 a year — far less than the cost of rent alone near several UC campuses. And most assistants were capped at 20 hours of work per week.

According to the CSUEU, most student assistants within the California State University system make minimum wage and receive no sick time or holiday pay. The union maintains that Cal State has shifted more work to the lower-paid students, who also have their weekly hours capped at 20.

While the overwhelming nature of last week’s vote may have surprised some, younger Americans’ strong embrace of unions is becoming settled fact. Not only is student representation on the rise on college campuses nationally, but research by the Center for American Progress indicates that Gen Z, generally defined as adults born in 1997 or later, is the most pro-union generation alive today.

Student assistants across both of California’s massive university systems have now put voice — and vote — behind that notion. While national unionization rates continue to fall, the ground may be shifting in the Golden State.

Copyright 2024 Capital & Main

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