Undergrads Fight for Their Right to Organize
Long-underpaid undergrad students who work on campus are increasingly seeing the value of their labor and organizing unions.
The year 2022 shattered expectations for the labor movement, most prominently represented by the growing unionization efforts at more than 200 Starbucks stores across the country and at least one Amazon warehouse.
Young leaders, like 33-year-old Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, are building a movement based on their refusal to give up their well-being for jobs that mistreat them. In step with these generational values, undergraduate students are starting to see themselves as an important part of labor’s rebirth, as evidenced by the historic momentum behind the undergraduate union movement at institutions like Grinnell College, where the first campuswide undergraduate union in the U.S. formed this April.
Although access to higher education has expanded over the last two generations, the student debt crisis reveals that such access comes at a tremendous cost to those seeking the upward mobility promised by a degree. Paying one’s college tuition with a part-time job is no longer a viable option due to the cost of tuition alone. Still, today’s college students are working to both decrease their student loan burdens and afford food, housing, and other necessities.
According to a 2018 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, nearly 70% of college students are currently employed. Although the study does not distinguish between on-campus and off-campus work, it is well known that wages have not kept pace with the cost of living across the U.S. For those pursuing higher education, the challenge to make ends meet remains.
In a related 2019 study, the CEW identified that between 1980 and 2019, the cost of a college education increased 169%, while wages for people between the ages of 22 and 27 have grown by just 19%. No matter how much students work while they study, they will most likely spend decades paying off student loans once they leave campus, with or without a degree in hand. For most students, financial aid and merit scholarships cannot completely eliminate the need for student loans.
The Pell Grant, which is designated for “undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need,” falters as well, covering only about 30% of the average tuition at a public university, as per the 2018 Georgetown study. This is half of what it covered in 1980.
Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, labor scholar and associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, detailed the lineage of student debt in her 2021 book Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt. She explains, “Because of the expense of college, students and parents have to not only borrow more, but work a lot more.”
Colleges and universities staff important areas, like dining halls, mailrooms, and libraries, with students receiving financial aid, who receive low wages while still paying tuition and living expenses. Ultimately, institutions benefit from the financial pressures weighing on their students via their on-campus labor.
The divide between who needs to work and who works to gain experience reminds students that college is not the grand education-centered equalizer, but is also yet another site of labor.
Since the 1960s, graduate students have made headway in asserting their status as employees. There are currently more than 50 graduate employee unions in the U.S.
Undergraduates, however, perform notably different labor from their graduate counterparts. Their jobs are less academic in nature and more service-oriented. On many campuses, undergraduates are likely to be found shelving books or serving meals in the dining hall. Meanwhile, graduate students serve as teaching and research assistants, work that serves as a woefully underpaid introduction to academia. One difference, then, is that undergraduates’ on-campus jobs rarely contribute to their career aspirations.
This April, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers became the country’s first campuswide undergraduate union to win legal recognition. It is significant that the union grew out of the dining hall, where many workers receive financial aid. Aid recipients at Grinnell participate in work-study programs, meaning that students work toward a certain dollar amount that must be earned by the end of the semester. After federal work-study roles are filled, there are some positions left over for those not receiving federal aid. Unlike a grant or scholarship, work-study funds must be earned through hourly work by the end of a given semester. If a student does not earn the required minimum, they will be expected to make up the difference out of pocket.
“During the initial unionization in the dining hall, work-study students had to work more during the week to make [$1,100,] the amount set by the college,” says UGSDW organizer Isaiah Gutman.
Union president Keir Hichens adds, “The $1,100 is by no means a meaningful chunk out of the tuition cost. … The college relies on this deferred payment.” By “deferred payment” Hichens means that the federal government pays the college for the student work at the end of the semester. Hichens recalls having to work 10 hours a week in order to earn the amount set by the work-study requirement.
The disparity in working hours between students on financial aid and those not receiving aid was a primary motivation for the creation of the union. Among the UGSDW’s demands is an increase in wages, which would give students back valuable time. According to the 2018 Georgetown study, students who work more than 15 hours per week tend to be more likely to perform poorly in college, putting them at a greater risk of abandoning their studies. They were also more likely to pay their tuition with credit cards than those who worked less than 15 hours.
Workplace harassment and food insecurity further inspired Grinnell students to build a legally recognized pathway to secure their rights as student workers.
The National Labor Relations Board has continuously blocked union efforts by undergrads, claiming that the relationship between undergraduate students and their colleges and universities is “educational,” not “economic,” in nature. The recent struggle to unionize at Grinnell for undergrad students’ labor rights shows that the two cannot be disaggregated.
“Because of the way that college has evolved over the last 80 years, it is [perceived as] something you do between 18 and 22. It’s this sort of netherworld,” explains Shermer. Representations of students in popular culture show them as almost-adults, treading water before assuming real responsibilities. Labor policy’s exclusion of college students exacerbates students’ struggles for their labor rights to be recognized on campus.
According to Shermer, this perceived incompatibility between undergraduate students and organized labor began during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. “[The administration] cleaved off colleges and universities as a separate labor market” in its policymaking, attempting to “get young people out of competition for jobs,” says Shermer. While many continue to walk the tenuous line dividing students and laborers, the lack of up-to-date federal policy that encompasses this reality leaves many with great financial uncertainty.
A central issue arising in the conversation around undergraduate unions—and now at Wesleyan University and Kenyon College—is the invisibility of student labor to society at large. “A lot of the labor students do is invisible,” explains Shermer. “A Starbucks barista is visible [to the public].” In contrast, she says, “the only people using a dining hall are students and some faculty.”
Hichens adds that the unacknowledged essentiality of student labor also helped student workers recognize that they were being mistreated. “Students are realizing just how much institutions rely on our labor to function—not just tuition or financial aid, but our labor.”
Today, unions are challenging American youth’s indebtedness to institutions of higher education. They are breaking down the class divisions that attempt to separate “educated” professionals from “unskilled” labor. According to Hichens, “Student workers are seeing themselves in a global community.”
Instead of looking askew at Starbucks and Amazon employees—many of whom hold college degrees—many undergraduate organizers are drawing on a shared principle: that they, too, are upholding large institutions that refuse to acknowledge the value of their labor. As union members, Hichens notes that his peers have begun to “see themselves as more than individuals or families making their ways through capitalism. I think we’re at the very beginning.”