Victory for Student Workers and YDSA at the University of Oregon

In October 2023, undergraduate student workers at the University of Oregon (UO) made history when they cast ballots to form a union, UO Student Workers (UOSW). The union comprises around 4,900 student workers in every workplace around campus: dining halls, student housing, the rec center, research and teaching assistants, and many others.

UOSW isn’t the first union formed by undergraduate student workers. It’s part of a growing movement to organize RAs and other student employees at colleges like Kenyon, Wesleyan, and Tufts. But UOSW was the first undergraduate union breakthrough at a big public-sector university anywhere in the country. (In February, a unit of 19,000 undergraduate student workers in the California State University system unionized with SEIU.)

UOSW was organized from the bottom-up by ordinary students and workers. The secret to UOSW’s success was the commitment and vision of our university’s YDSA chapter, UOYDSA. In fact, UOSW is the largest successful union drive to ever come out of a DSA-driven campaign.

UOSW shows that undergraduate student workers are ready to organize and fight, and we believe our strategy can be replicated by YDSA chapters all around the country. Campaigns to organize undergraduate workers can build YDSA chapters and train future leaders in both DSA and the labor movement.

So how did we do it, and what does it mean for DSA?

 

Opportunity, Commitment, Strategy

The UOSW campaign succeeded because of a combination of opportunity, commitment, and strategy.

First, UOSW organizers identified a favorable opportunity for a union campaign. The idea of organizing undergraduate student workers took shape in discussions among UOYDSA members in fall 2021.

Our chapter was rebuilding after a period of low activity during the pandemic. New UOYDSA members were inspired by the example of “Striketober,” which involved union struggles at John Deere, Nabisco, and Columbia and Harvard. We also read about examples of other undergrad students forming unions at Grinnell and Kenyon.

We were aware that unsafe working conditions, low pay, and understaffing were common in campus workplaces at UO, especially during the pandemic. A survey we circulated among student workers confirmed those grievances and identified others, like rampant sexual harassment and discrimination.

Besides the national context of Striketober and the presence of worker grievances, UOSW’s organizing committee benefited from favorable labor laws in Oregon. Public-sector workers in our state can form unions via majority card-check. That encouraged us to think big and try to organize across the entire student workforce, rather than just a subset of workers.

Second, the campaign wouldn’t have been possible without the ideological commitment of socialists in UOYDSA. Not every core UOSW organizer was a socialist or an active YDSA member, and we were careful to maintain an organizational separation between the union and YDSA. But it’s not an accident that the campaign was started and driven forward by YDSA members. 

We envisioned UOSW from the start as more than just a campaign for a union. It was, rather, a political campaign aimed at changing the balance of power at our university, by empowering working-class students against a neoliberal university administration. We saw forming the union as one battle in a long war to democratize our university and build working-class power in society.

Importantly, we recognized from the start that we could not succeed without an organic base in student workplaces. Some UOYDSA members already had campus jobs, while others “salted,” meaning they got hired into student jobs with the intention of organizing their coworkers. We were inspired by the idea of the rank-and-file strategy in DSA and thought we could apply it to our context.

That strategy is the third reason for UOSW’s success. UOYDSA salts in dining and student event services helped us map workplaces, recruit worker leaders, and gather union cards. We picked public fights with university bosses by agitating around withheld raises for RAs and staging a large demonstration after a dining hall organizer was fired for eating food that was going to be thrown away. 

By standing up to management over poor treatment, union workers gained confidence and won real concessions from the boss: a 65% increase in RA stipends and $2/hour raises for dining hall workers.

We also used tactics like workplace visits, street canvassing and rallies, social media, and phone banks to gather over 2,000 union authorization cards. Later, with uncertainty over whether we had actually gathered cards representing a majority of the proposed bargaining unit (there was a chance that we had fallen just short of 50%), we agreed with the university to hold an election. Over a thousand workers cast ballots in October, and a stunning 97% of them voted yes for their union.

 

Looking Forward

YDSA has played an important role in the student labor movement already, and not just at UO. YDSA chapters were also instrumental in the success of union drives among RAs and dining workers at Kenyon, Dartmouth, and Columbia, and more recently at UC Santa Barbara. 

Big unions are taking notice. With SEIU organizing in the CSU system, and UAW beginning to organize undergrad workers in the University of California and University of Washington systems, undergrad workers are quickly becoming an important part of the higher education labor movement. In March, UOSW members voted to affiliate with UAW, making ours the first UAW higher education local in Oregon.

Organizing undergrad workers can have important “spillover effects” that ramify beyond the campus. Unions of undergraduate workers can join fights to reform their universities. They can influence larger unions like SEIU and UAW by affiliation. Their example can show all students the power of a union. And they can put young organizers on a pipeline into the rank-and-file of the labor movement after they graduate.

For DSA these campaigns have another effect: they train future leaders of the socialist movement. YDSA members that participate in them win vital experience in building a persistent working-class organization (not just a one-off campaign) and leading workers in conflict with bosses, administrators, and the state.

Through the UOSW campaign, we in UOYDSA are proud to think we’ve broken new ground for student organizing in the United States. As DSA makes hard decisions about its priorities, UOSW and other YDSA-supported union campaigns should serve as reminders that investments in our youth section are investments in the future of socialism and the labor movement.