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Undergraduate Unionization Comes to Campus

Legal Issues Students

Undergraduate Unionization Comes to Campus

The union movement and organized labor are flourishing in a post-pandemic environment.

Much has been written about new waves of unionization in many industries, and higher education is no exception. Over 40 percent of the professoriate is now organized, and organizing among adjunct, part-time, and academically related employees shows no signs of abatement.

Those reading this essay are also aware of unionization among graduate students at elite private schools like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, the University of Chicago, MIT, and Stanford. Some 23 new bargaining units of graduate student assistants have been formed in just the past two years, most at elite private schools. This activity has been attributed to the 2016 decision of the National Labor Relations Board in the Columbia University[1] case, where the board reversed earlier precedent and held that students who carry out work functions at their campuses can be considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act and allowed to unionize. The fact that they are primarily students and, indeed, must maintain student status to be teaching or research assistants did not mean they could not also be considered employees with the right to unionize. While that decision involved graduate student workers such as research and teaching assistants, the board’s rationale applied with equal force to undergraduate workers who may hold campus jobs. In this essay, we touch upon the extent of undergraduate unionization, look at its effects, and offer some recommendations to both union and university leaders about how to approach negotiations.

Extent of unionization among undergraduate student workers

Researchers at the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, CUNY, are at the forefront compiling and analyzing data on undergraduate student unionization. The above notwithstanding, there is no reliable national clearinghouse for data on the extent of unionization among undergraduate populations. We do know there are over a dozen bargaining units involving just undergraduate student workers and more coming. As of February 2024, there are approximately 20 institutions and systems where undergraduates are covered by labor contracts as employees or covered by contracts also covering graduate students. At 13 additional private institutions, there is ongoing union activity among undergraduates but no recognized union.

The earliest known confirmed examples of students hired as employees into classifications represented by labor unions occurred at the City University of New York in the late 1960s. They were hired as clericals and other part-time workers represented by District Council 37. In the 1990s, students worked in classifications (dining halls, dormitories) represented by unions in the University of California system. The first contract covering only undergraduates appears to be negotiated at the University of Massachusetts in the early 2000s (resident assistants and peer mentors).

Short- and long-term effects of undergraduate unionization

Organized students may feel more empowered; they have learned to organize effectively, and unionization will no doubt result in higher compensation and better working conditions. As employees, they will be protected under the umbrella of a labor contract. Students may lose flexibility in employment and will now likely pay union dues.[2] While wages for on-campus union jobs will rise, developing individualized employment relationships, which could include flexible hours or additional compensation, will be difficult once students are covered by standard provisions in labor agreements. Those in bargaining units will have a different relationship with the institution and will be obligated to adhere to the terms and conditions set forth in the labor contract, which may include different avenues for resolving employment-related conflict. For those students represented, these conditions may constitute an advantage.

Recommendations for approaching negotiations

During organizing activity, a union purporting to represent a majority of student workers may ask the institution to voluntarily recognize it as the exclusive agent of such employees. While some institutions may differ on this question, we recommend that the institution insist on an election conducted by the NLRB or state board to ensure a secret ballot vote by all student employees. If there are unit issues to litigate, they should be litigated and clarified prior to the election—although we would note the threshold issue of whether the students are employees has been asked and answered in the private sector under the NLRA. In the public sector, however, if the state board has not yet considered the question of students as employees, the matter can be litigated before that state’s public employee labor relations board. Many states have not yet had to deal with this question.

Following an election in which the students have chosen to unionize, the institution must negotiate with the union in good faith per the requirements of the law. In such negotiations, however, the institution should limit the topics of bargaining to mandatory subjects under the law and not allow negotiations to become a broad forum on all student issues, academic and otherwise. For example, grading policies and other classroom protocols or other issues under the purview of faculty. Such a goal may be challenging considering what we discern as a growing student worker movement trying to expand bargaining table discussions to address not only pay and working conditions but the entire student experience.

We acknowledge that untangling the educational issues from employee workplace matters and benefits is not easy. But there is no evidence—for example, at the University of Massachusetts, where undergraduate bargaining has been in place for nearly 25 years—that union membership has harmed the student-mentor relationship or had a deleterious effect on the undergraduate experience. What we do suggest is keeping the contract narrow in scope; protecting management rights; ensuring that contracts do not impinge upon classroom protocols, grading policies, and attrition rates; and safeguarding the role of faculty. Taking this approach will be easier before significant conflict evolves and negotiators feel pressured to justify their positions, making agreements more difficult to obtain.

We acknowledge that unionization may constrain decision making prerogatives of school leaders and affect organizational cultures in ways yet unanticipated, particularly if there is long-term conflict. Managed correctly, unionization does not have to lead to increased bureaucracy and formalization of decision making. Care should also be taken to ensure that authority for student affairs (on matters covered in labor contracts) does not migrate from offices of student life to legal and labor relations professionals. In public jurisdictions, institutional leaders may lose authority over matters covered in labor agreements, particularly in systems where bargaining may be managed in system offices, to third parties such as bargaining agent representatives, courts, arbitrators, and mediators. It is essential that communication on these matters remain fluid and continuous. 

Collective bargaining can facilitate long-range planning, resource allocation, the management of employees, and conflict resolution. How the parties manage and adapt labor relations processes will determine outcomes. The real work comes after contracts are negotiated.

[1] 364 NLRB No. 90 (2016)

[2] Union shops are outlawed in the public sector because of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, 585 U.S. __, 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018). Students in private schools will most likely pay union dues.

Daniel J. Julius, EdD, is a visiting fellow at the School of Management at Yale University, a senior fellow at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, and a visiting professor in organizational behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.

Nicholas DiGiovanni Jr. is a managing partner at Morgan, Brown & Joy, Boston. He is one of the foremost labor attorneys in higher education and represents numerous colleges and universities, including MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and many others.