Upcoming vote reflects rise in undergraduate labor organizing

Occidental students rally in support of the student union campaign on March 28. Photo courtesy SEIU 721.

The organizing effort at the private liberal arts campus is part of a broader “societal shift” in favor of labor unions.

By Bobbi Murray, Capital & Main

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

Jennifer Baidon Carrillo, a senior at Occidental College, stepped outside the school’s administration building to explain to a visitor what was behind the echoing racket inside. More than 100 student workers demonstrated inside the building, carrying signs saying “WE are the Union,” “Job security” and “Fair Treatment.”

The spirited action at the end of March followed months of quiet behind-the-scenes union organizing by student workers that included collecting hundreds of their signatures on union cards. Now, after weeks of back and forth talks with the college’s administration, the students are gearing up for a union election scheduled on April 30.

Occidental College — Oxy, as it’s known — is a well-regarded liberal arts college of about 2,000 students, just 8 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. It gained prominence after Barack Obama, a one-time student there, became president. Now its students are part of a national labor movement that increasingly includes young people who work on college and university campuses, observers said.

The student organizers dedicate as many as 10 hours a week to various on-campus jobs. Many said they struggle to earn enough to help offset the high cost of attending Occidental College. Some students work in the library, while others work at different campus enterprises such as the Green Bean coffee shop or Bike Share, a student-run free bike rental service. Until she graduates in May, Carrillo staffs the front desk of the athletics department and works as a campus tour guide, introducing local youth to the college.

The union is a way to “stand up to the administration who can afford to pay all the workers at Oxy more but just chooses not to,” said Noah Weitzner, an urban and environmental policy major and a campus union leader.

In a statement emailed to Capital & Main, Rachael Warecki , a spokesperson for Occidental College, said that the administration “supports students in deciding their student work experience and whether to join a union.” The statement added, “We encourage high student voter turnout next week to ensure a truly representative outcome.”

The student-led union, Rising Occidental Student Employees, or ROSE, proposes to represent about 900 workers. So far, ROSE has collected more than 600 signatures from student workers who support a union.  

If certified, the student-led union would be affiliated with Service Employees International Union Local 721. (SEIU Local 721 already represents non-tenure-track professors and clerical staff on campus.)

One of the students’ first priorities is negotiating an increase in the earnings cap for students employed in on-campus jobs. The administration now limits student wages to $5,000 a year. Students would also like to increase their base wage, which is tied to the city of Los Angeles’ minimum wage currently set at $16.78 an hour.

The financial stakes for Oxy student workers are high. The campus website estimated the cost of attendance for an on-campus student at $85,526 for the next academic year. That includes the cost of campus housing, food, tuition and fees. Students who receive financial aid typically pay a fraction of what U.S. News and World Report called “the sticker price.” But the cost of attending Occidental College for the average student receiving need-based financial aid still exceeds $35,000 per year, according to U.S. News and World Report.

As the cost of housing and higher education rises, student workers on college campuses are increasingly voting to unionize. While graduate student workers constitute the bulk of student union members at universities, in recent years, undergraduates are also organizing. Wages that have not kept pace with inflation and the dislocation created by the COVID-19 pandemic have provided some of the impetus for on-campus union organizing, according to one of the contributors to a report published by the City University New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.

In the last few years, new undergraduate student worker unions have been organized at Columbia University, Barnard College, Wesleyan University and other campuses, according to the CUNY report. In February, a majority of undergraduate student workers in the California State University system who cast ballots voted to join the California State University Employees Union. There are almost 20,000 student workers in the system. Before 2022, only two colleges had undergraduate-student-led unions: one at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and another at Grinnell College.

Campus organizing may be part of a societal shift in support of unions, said William A. Herbert, a contributor to the CUNY report and executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York. “We have a new generation that’s stepping forward, that is embracing unionization at the workplace as a paradigm in terms of what takes place in the workplace,” he said, adding that a 2023 poll showed that 88% of people under 30 support labor unions.

It’s not only happening on campus. Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and other off-campus employers tend to have young employees  who favor a union workplace, evidence of a new generation recognizing collective bargaining as the best way to improve working conditions, Herbert said. 

Herbert attributed some of the attitude shift in favor of unions to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think that the dislocation and the disruption caused by the pandemic has led many people to reassess their position regarding work,“ he said. Also in the mix, he said, were salaries and benefits that haven’t kept pace with inflation.

Students generally stay at Occidental College for only four years. How does an undergraduate campus union, once established, maintain a presence?

Carrillo is enlisting underclassmen to carry on the union effort after she graduates in May. She is optimistic that they will. It was not until her senior year that she understood the benefits of unions and organizing, she said. But students she has contacted during the union drive seem to have caught on earlier in their college careers. Occidental freshmen, sophomores and juniors have “taken up positions of [union] leadership,” she said.

If a student workers union is certified at Oxy, keeping it in place will require an ongoing fight, she added.

“Contracts are not for a lifetime,” she said. She’s hoping a contract at Oxy would be revisited every four years. “We’ll find that out at the bargaining table.”

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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