Labor 101 for Undergraduate Workers Seeking To Unionize

The Northeast Undergraduate Worker Convention is the nation’s first annual convention aimed at training undergrad workers in collective organizing.

Olivia Gieger

Undergraduate students from across the Northeast met at UMass Amherst, Nov. 15–17, 2019, to learn about the power of unionizing. (Photo by Mitchell Manning)

AMHERST, MASS. — Dol­ly Parton’s 9 to 5” plays in a class­room at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst (UMass Amherst) as stu­dents mill about with pink Under­grad­u­ate Work­ers UNITE!” but­tons pinned to their shirts.

“We wanted this [convention] to be a chance for undergraduates to meet each other [and] know they’re not alone,” says Emma Rose Borzekowski.

Near­ly 40 stu­dents from 10 insti­tu­tions across the North­east gath­ered Nov. 15 – 17, 2019, at UMass Amherst, a high­ly union­ized work­place, for the North­east Under­grad­u­ate Work­er Con­ven­tion (NEUWC). The con­ven­tion is the first in the nation aimed at train­ing under­grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers in col­lec­tive orga­niz­ing. UMass Amherst is home to one of the country’s only under­grad unions, known as RAP­MU, which rep­re­sents res­i­den­tial assis­tants (RA) and peer mentors.

The event gave stu­dents a space in which to unpack atti­tudes sur­round­ing under­grad­u­ate labor, and to under­stand how such atti­tudes can lead to poor work­ing con­di­tions. When I’m employed on cam­pus, the way [my super­vi­sor talks] about my employ­ment is very much like, This is you build­ing your skills, it’s a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for you,’” says Ben Hayes, 23, a senior at Skid­more Col­lege. It’s using the idea that you’re a stu­dent and there­fore not a work­er [who has] to be paid a fair wage and have good work­ing con­di­tions and be treat­ed right.”

Led by labor orga­niz­ers and edu­ca­tors, the work­shops cov­ered unique orga­niz­ing chal­lenges faced by under­grad work­ers. For starters, many stu­dents are unaware that union­iz­ing is even pos­si­ble. The largest logis­ti­cal hur­dle is the high turnover rate for stu­dent work­ers: Stu­dents grad­u­ate, study abroad, take on extracur­ric­u­lars and leave cam­pus for breaks, often inter­rupt­ing orga­niz­ing momentum.

As the price of high­er edu­ca­tion sky­rock­ets, work­ing has become a neces­si­ty for many. I feel strong­ly that every­one who has this job needs it,” says Vio­let Daar, 19, an RA and sopho­more at Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty. Emma Rose Borzekows­ki, 23, one of the con­ven­tion orga­niz­ers and a recent Wes­leyan grad­u­ate who worked as an RA, says that RA posi­tions are one of the high­est pay­ing jobs on campus.

A posi­tion as an RA is a par­tic­u­lar­ly fraught one because stu­dents live in the same place they work, so it becomes more dif­fi­cult to take need­ed breaks. Many atten­dees are frus­trat­ed that their work stipends don’t cov­er the cost of hous­ing, despite the job requir­ing resid­ing on cam­pus. At UMass Amherst, RAP­MU has bar­gained for high­er pay and more dig­ni­fied work­ing conditions.

Eliz­a­beth Pel­ler­i­to, direc­tor of the UMass Low­ell Labor Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram, pre­sent­ed on the impor­tance of inclu­sion. She not­ed that, his­tor­i­cal­ly, cis white men have been over­rep­re­sent­ed in union lead­er­ship, and that there’s still a long way to go before lead­er­ship tru­ly reflects mem­ber­ship. We are a move­ment that’s about pow­er, so how are we shar­ing the pow­er and rec­og­niz­ing the priv­i­lege?” she asked.

Though the con­ven­tion atten­dance itself was over­whelm­ing­ly white, many expressed a need to change. Con­fer­ence orga­niz­er James Cordero, 21, a senior at UMass Amherst and RAP­MU mem­ber, explained how RAP­MU incor­po­rat­ed racial jus­tice train­ing for RAs in its bar­gain­ing con­tract after racist inci­dents on cam­pus in 2018. We are build­ing a new chap­ter of the labor move­ment to improve upon past mis­takes, incor­po­rat­ing more social jus­tice into the move­ment,” Cordero says.

The big take­away for me is to have union orga­niz­ers who are racial jus­tice orga­niz­ers, who are envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ers,” says Joy Ming King, 22, a Wes­leyan senior.

Con­ven­tion orga­niz­ers stressed rela­tion­ship-build­ing as cen­tral to the suc­cess of stu­dent unions. We want­ed this [con­ven­tion] to be a chance for under­grad­u­ates to meet each oth­er [and] know they’re not alone,” Borzekows­ki says, which the con­ven­tion facil­i­tat­ed. Over an after­noon break, stu­dents shared curly fries and con­tact infor­ma­tion, and brain­stormed strate­gies to bring back to their campuses.

Most con­ven­tion atten­dees were stu­dents at pri­vate insti­tu­tions, who face a piv­otal moment: The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) pro­posed, in Sep­tem­ber 2019, to over­turn its 2016 rul­ing which des­ig­nat­ed stu­dent work­ers at pri­vate insti­tu­tions as employ­ees” — and allowed them to unionize.

Though the young orga­niz­ers wor­ried about the NLRB’s pro­pos­al, the mood at the con­fer­ence was hope­ful. We still have all of the pow­er that sell­ing our labor gives us and that build­ing rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er gives us,” Borzekows­ki says. For Lucy James-Olson, 19, a sopho­more at Mount Holyoke Col­lege, under­ly­ing all of the con­ver­sa­tions about orga­niz­ing and improv­ing the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions of work­ers is just a con­ver­sa­tion about love and care for each other.”

Olivia Gieger is edi­tor-in-chief of the Amherst Stu­dent news­pa­per at Amherst Col­lege, where she is a junior.
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