A growing trend of union organizing among undergraduate student workers reached a crescendo last week when a unit of 20,000 student assistants at California State University voted in favor of unionization.

California State University Employees Union Election

Student assistants across California State University’s 23 campuses have unequivocally voted to form the largest undergraduate student union in history. In April 2023, California State University Employees Union, SEIU Local 2579 filed a petition with the California Public Employment Relations Board (“CPERB”) seeking to represent a unit of almost 20,000 student assistants—undergraduate and graduate students working on campus in non-academic positions such as clerical workers in information technology, financial aid, and facilities management. Among other concerns that commonly drive organizing efforts on college campuses, student assistants at the university are unionizing for pay increases, more work hours, and sick leave.

In December 2023, the university and the union entered into a consent election agreement through CPERB, pursuant to which a representation election was conducted electronically by the American Arbitration Association from January 25, 2024 through February 22, 2024. The undergraduate student assistants voted 7,050 – 202 in favor of unionization, forming the largest undergraduate student union to date. The university and the union will soon begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement.

Overview of Undergraduate Unionization

While union organizing on college campuses is certainly not a new phenomenon, union activity in higher education, particularly among student workers, experienced dramatic growth in 2022 and 2023. According to a report published by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, unions secured 30 new bargaining units representing student workers in 2022 and 2023. (Union Organizing and Strikes in Higher Education: The 2022-2023 Upsurge in Historical Context, National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.) This represents a nearly 50% increase from the 21 bargaining units organized over the 8-year period between 2013 and 2021. Whereas, in the past, unions seeking to represent student workers in higher education generally received the support of about 75% of eligible student workers, on average more than 90% of eligible student workers voted in favor of unionization in representation elections in 2022 and 2023.    

While a significant portion (93%) of the student workers organized during this period were graduate students, organizing among undergraduate student workers also saw a considerable surge in the last few years. Uncertainties in student employment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led undergraduate student workers to organize. Similar to graduate students, undergraduate concerns include compensation, job security, rent assistance, and protections against harassment and discrimination.

Before 2022, undergraduate unions were relatively uncommon, with one longstanding bargaining unit of resident advisors and tutors at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Then, in 2016, student dining hall workers at Grinnell College formed the first independent union for undergraduate students at a private college in the United States. While undergraduate student workers continued to organize post Grinnell, successful undergrad organizing campaigns were few and far between prior to 2022. Between 2022 and 2023, 11 new undergraduate student worker bargaining units were successfully organized, with an additional 8 undergraduate representation cases pending before the NLRB or state labor relations agency at the end of 2023. (January 2024 Newsletter, National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.)

While not an exhaustive summary, below is an overview of recent organizing activity among undergraduate student workers across the country:

  • Grinnell College: Following the successful unionization of student dining hall workers in 2016, the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW) has since expanded its jurisdiction to a campus-wide unit of all hourly student workers, making Grinnell College the first fully unionized undergraduate school in the United States.
  • Hamilton College: In 2021, student workers serving as tour guides and admission fellows in the admissions office voted in an NLRB election to join United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 1. The union’s election represents the first of its kind representing college admissions office workers.
  • Dartmouth College: Undergraduate student workers at Dartmouth’s campus dining halls unanimously voted in an NLRB election in March 2022 in favor of unionizing with the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth. In January 2024, Dartmouth undergraduate advisors issued an open letter to administration announcing their intention to organize under the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, identifying increased compensation and improved training as one of several demands to the university.
  • Harvard University: Undergraduate academic workers have been represented by the Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW since 2018. In October 2023, Harvard’s undergraduate non-academic workers—specifically those students working in university libraries, cafes, the Cambridge Queen’s Head Pub, and the equity, diversity, and inclusion offices—voted in favor of unionizing with the Harvard Undergraduate Workers Union – UAW, with 99.4% of eligible student workers voting in favor of unionization.
  • Kenyon College: In 2020, undergraduate student workers employed at Kenyon College began organizing a union—the Kenyon Student Worker Organizing Committee. The union, which represents approximately 60% of Kenyon student workers such as student teachers, resident hall assistants, library workers, and farm and greenhouse workers, has filed a petition for recognition with the NLRB and gone on strike four times since 2020. The college has consistently refused to recognize the union. After a prolonged postponement, representation proceedings before the NLRB have recommenced, with a pre-election hearing scheduled for October 2023.  
  • Resident Advisors Bargaining Units: Between 2022 and 2023, undergraduate student workers serving as resident advisors have voted in favor of unionization at a number of colleges and universities, including Swarthmore College, Smith College, Reed College, Barnard College, Tufts University, University of Pennsylvania, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Fordham University, and Wesleyan University. In March 2022, Wesleyan University voluntarily recognized the Wesleyan Union of Student Employees representing about 100 undergraduate residential life student employees—the first union of its kind to be voluntarily recognized by a university.

Takeaway

The successful union election at California State University may further encourage the growing organizing efforts among undergraduate student workers, joining the tens of thousands of graduate and, now, postdoc students who have organized over the past several years. This is a trend we expect to continue, and we will keep you informed of the latest in higher education unionization here.

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Photo of Paul Salvatore Paul Salvatore

Paul Salvatore provides strategic labor and employment law advice to companies, boards of directors/trustees, senior executives and general counsel in such areas as labor-management relations, litigation, alternative dispute resolution, international labor and employment issues, and corporate transactions.

Paul negotiates major collective bargaining agreements…

Paul Salvatore provides strategic labor and employment law advice to companies, boards of directors/trustees, senior executives and general counsel in such areas as labor-management relations, litigation, alternative dispute resolution, international labor and employment issues, and corporate transactions.

Paul negotiates major collective bargaining agreements in several industries, including real estate and construction. He represents the NYC real estate industry’s multi-employer organization, the Realty Advisory Board on Labor Relations (RAB), and its principal trade organization, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). In 2022, he helped the RAB reach a new collective bargaining agreement with SEIU Local 32BJ, covering more than 30,000 residential building employees. Paul also represented the Cement League, a multiemployer group of NYC area superstructure contractors, in halting an illegal strike by the Carpenters Union and negotiating a significant new, more competitive, collective bargaining agreement. He previously negotiated, on behalf of The Related Companies with 18 New York City construction unions, a landmark project labor agreement (PLA) for Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side, the largest private real estate development in U.S. history. In 2019, he assisted Related in resolving the very public labor disputes at Hudson Yards in time for its grand opening. He also represented REBNY in negotiating its 2019 landmark “Statement of Principles” with NYC’s construction unions. For his work in this sector, City & State magazine has named him one of the most powerful lawyers in New York.

Paul tries arbitrations and litigations, and argues appeals, arising from labor-management relationships. Paul argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett. In a 5-4 decision of importance to employers, the Court held a collective bargaining agreement that explicitly requires unionized employees to arbitrate employment discrimination claims is enforceable, modifying 35 years of labor law. In 2016, he argued and won NBC Universal Media, LLC v. NLRB, where the D.C. Circuit — rejecting the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) analysis — found “the reasoning supporting the [NLRB’s] judgment … incomprehensible.” In 2017, Paul argued and won T-Mobile v. NLRB where the Fifth Circuit refused to enforce the NLRB’s ban on certain common sense employee handbook policy provisions, finding the NLRB’s analysis to be unreasonable.

Paul represents universities and colleges in their labor and employment relations, including in the currently active areas of graduate student and adjunct faculty union organizing. He represented Yale, Duke, Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis and other universities in their response to graduate student unionization after the NLRB’s controversial 2016 decision finding graduate teaching/research assistants to be employees under the labor law. He has negotiated innovative non-NLRB election agreements at Cornell and Brown Universities.

An honors graduate of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) and the Cornell Law School, Paul served eight years on Cornell’s Board of Trustees, including on its Executive Committee. Upon completion of his terms, he was elected Trustee Emeritus and Presidential Councilor. Paul presently serves as a Trustee Member of the Board of Fellows of Weill Cornell Medicine, as well as on the Law School and ILR Deans’ Advisory Councils. In 2002, ILR awarded him the Judge William B. Groat prize, the school’s highest honor.

At Proskauer, Paul was elected to its Executive Committee and served as co-chair of its global Labor & Employment Law Department, named by The American Lawyer and Chambers USA as one of the premier U.S. practices. He is widely recognized as a leading U.S. labor and employment lawyer in such publications as Chambers Global and USA (Band 1), and Legal 500 (“Hall of Fame”). The National Law Journal selected Paul as one of “The Decade’s Most Influential Lawyers” – one of only three in the labor and employment law field. His peers elected him to the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.

Paul counsels business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its Litigation Center. An active speaker and writer on labor and employment law issues, his publications include “One Dozen Years of Pyett:  A Win for Unionized Workplace Dispute Resolution” in the American Bar Association Labor & Employment Law Journal, Volume 36, Number 2 at 257. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Cornell Law School.

Photo of Steven Porzio Steven Porzio

Steven J. Porzio is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Labor-Management Relations Group. Steve assists both unionized and union-free clients with a full range of labor and employee relations matters. He represents employers in contract…

Steven J. Porzio is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Labor-Management Relations Group. Steve assists both unionized and union-free clients with a full range of labor and employee relations matters. He represents employers in contract negotiations, arbitrations, and representation and unfair labor practice cases before the National Labor Relations Board.

Steve has experience conducting vulnerability assessments and providing management training in union and litigation avoidance, leave management, wage and hour, and hiring and firing practices. He provides strategic and legal advice in certification and decertification elections, union organizing drives, corporate campaigns, picketing and union contract campaigns. Steve has represented employers in a number of different industries, including higher education, health care, construction and manufacturing in successful efforts against unions in election and corporate campaigns.

In addition to his traditional labor law work, Steve assists companies with handbook and personnel policy drafting and review, daily management of employee disciplines and terminations, and general advice and counsel on compliance with federal and state employment laws.

Steve’s litigation experience includes work on matters before state and federal courts, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, the New York State Division of Human Rights and various other administrative agencies. He has litigated matters involving age, race, national origin, gender and disability discrimination, wage and hour, whistleblower and wrongful termination claims.

While attending the Syracuse University College of Law, Steve served as the editor-in-chief of the Syracuse Science and Technology Law Reporter. He also received the Robert F. Koretz scholarship, awarded in recognition of excellence in the study of labor law.

Photo of Elizabeth Dailey Elizabeth Dailey

Elizabeth Ann Dailey is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Elizabeth assists clients in a variety of labor and employment matters, including motion practice, administrative proceedings, internal investigations, labor-management relations, and claims of employment discrimination. As part of her labor-management…

Elizabeth Ann Dailey is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Elizabeth assists clients in a variety of labor and employment matters, including motion practice, administrative proceedings, internal investigations, labor-management relations, and claims of employment discrimination. As part of her labor-management relations practice, Elizabeth has assisted in representation proceedings before the NLRB and has experience responding to unfair labor practice charges, conducting labor-related business risk assessments, and assisting with collective bargaining negotiations.

Elizabeth frequently represents clients across a variety of industries and sectors, including educational institutions, sports entities, news and media organizations, entertainment companies, healthcare institutions, and real estate companies.

Elizabeth earned her J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she completed a certificate program in business management from The Wharton School. While attending Penn Law, Elizabeth interned with the National Labor Relations Board Region 2 where she conducted investigations into unfair labor practices and recommended case dispositions to the Regional Director.

Photo of Mallory Knudsen Mallory Knudsen

Mallory E. Knudsen is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Employment Counseling, Training, and Pay Equity groups.