Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Student Worker Organizing Efforts See Drastic Uptick

Unionization efforts among higher ed student workers have risen immensely, amid an ongoing downward trend in overall workforce union density – the percentage of union members in the workforce, according to a new report from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

Hunter CollegeHunter College

The “State of the Unions 2023” examines workforce labor trends in New York and in the U.S. at large, finding that despite organization efforts, successful strikes, growing public support, and plenty of media attention, the share of union members among U.S. workers continues to fall.

“Unionization rates have fallen relentlessly over the past two decades, and the past year and a half has been no exception,” the report stated.

Union density in New York City and New York State is at its lowest in two decades, 17.7% and 20.2% respectively. Nationally, the rate sits at 10.1%, a decline from 2021.

However, despite this general downward trend, workers in higher education seem to be fighting harder to organize and make demands of their employers.

A special feature section from CUNY's Hunter College in the report about the rise in labor activity in higher ed from 2022 to 2023 illustrates the quickening pace of student worker organizing, to that degree that in the past year and a half, student worker unionization growth has surpassed that of faculty.

"The special feature demonstrates a continuing expansion of union density in higher education,” said William Herbert, executive director of Hunter's National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions and special feature co-author. “[From] January 2022 to June 2023, we showed that there has been a vast acceleration of unionization by student workers, in particular, graduate assistants but also undergraduate student workers."

Researchers found that the total number of student worker bargaining units has now risen to approximately 85 units, with many of them from 2022 and 2023 – 30 units in total over the two years. Graduate students made up 19 of the 30, and two also included undergraduates.

According to the report, these 30 units represent 35,655 workers, with graduate students comprising 93% of student-workers newly organized from 2022-2023.

Student workers at large have seemingly come out in vast support of organized labor. From 2022-2023, a staggering 91% of eligible student-workers on average voted in favor of unionization in representation elections.

Herbert also called recent increases in undergraduate student worker organization “remarkable.” In the past 18 months or so, more undergrad worker unions have formed at several schools, including Columbia University, Barnard College, and Wesleyan University. Notably, undergraduate student-workers at Columbia, Grinnell College, and Bennington College, unionized independent on any national organization, Herbert said.

“What we show in our study is that there's been a large increase among undergraduate student workers to unionize – resident advisers, dining staff, and others who are working on campus," Herbert said.

This rise in student worker unionization in general comes from the ranks of teaching and research assistants in the humanities and STEM fields, undergrad resident advisers, dining hall workers, and library staff, according to the report.

Herbert and his co-authors attributed these increases to a number of factors, including recent gains in public support for organized labor (77% of young adults in favor); increased centrality of social justice issues in student-worker organizing; the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on working conditions and public awareness of labor issues; and support from indus­trial unions.

“It's important to note that for graduate student workers, what's fueling this upsurge in union organizing and activism, in addition to the factors we mentioned in the report, is the long-running decline in full-time tenure-track jobs,” Joseph van der Naald, report co-author and CUNY Ph.D. candidate in sociology wrote in an email to Diverse. “The diminishing number of secure employment opportunities in academia, along with the growing reliance on graduate worker teaching and research labor as well as the rise in cost of living, has led student workers to turn to unions in an effort to improve their circumstances.

Over the past decade, unionization in the sector has been drastically increasing, especially for contingent faculty and postdoctoral scholars, Herbert said.

But faculty unionization in the past 18 months has admittedly slowed down, with only 11 new bargaining units recognized since January 2022, the report said.

"We don't have a specific explanation for it. We're not quite sure,” Herbert said. “We do know that there are current campaigns going on. It could be a question of timing, that there may be campaigns that are currently going on that have yet to reach the point of filing for representation.

“In light of the data we found prior to the pandemic, I think it may not be a significant matter. ... We do know, from the trends over the past decade, that we think it's likely that there'll be increased faculty unionization in the future.”

In these observed 18 months, there were also 20 organized strikes, six of the 10 in 2023 involving faculty and post-doc­toral units, and five involving student workers, according to the report.

 Arrman Kyaw can be reached at [email protected] 








The trusted source for all job seekers
We have an extensive variety of listings for both academic and non-academic positions at postsecondary institutions.
Read More
The trusted source for all job seekers