Student Worker Strikes, Unions Gain Momentum in Higher Ed

Student workers are a growing part of the wave of strikes and unionization efforts advancing across the country in virtually every industry sector.
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  • Students at MIT recently agreed to unionize.
  • Meanwhile, Kenyon College student workers just began a strike.
  • College student worker unionization efforts have accelerated since 2016.

Union votes by Amazon and Starbucks workers are making news this spring, but student workers at colleges across the country are also advancing union efforts and fighting for improved conditions and pay.

Columbia University graduate students grabbed headlines in January when their union struck a tentative labor agreement with the university. Since then, both graduate and undergraduate students from multiple colleges have also formed unions. Some organized strikes in an effort for their union to be recognized.

Those efforts include students from prestigious universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Elsewhere, student workers started strikes or narrowly avoided strikes after reaching labor deals with their respective universities. At Kenyon College in Ohio, multiple student groups are in the midst of a joint strike over what they describe as unfair labor practices at the college.

Here's an overview of some of the labor issues sweeping higher education.

Student Worker Unions Become More Common

Columbia University opened the floodgates in 2016 after the National Labor Relations Board allowed student workers to unionize.

In the ensuing years, many schools have followed suit.

The most recent high-profile case involved graduate students at MIT. The university announced on April 6 that workers voted in favor of being represented by the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America. There were just over 3,800 eligible graduate students to cast a ballot for the union, and the motion passed with 1,785 votes in favor and 912 against.

As a result, the group officially formed the MIT Graduate Student Union.

MIT Chancellor Melissa Nobles said in a statement that the school would begin negotiations with the new union over the terms of a labor contract.

"With the election outcome now clear, we will continue to work alongside you to improve MIT for all of our students," Nobles said. "And we congratulate the current and past members of the MIT GSU on their four years of dedicated work that culminated in this election."

Another prestigious university's union, the Harvard Graduate Students Union, congratulated MIT students on the recognition. Harvard University's graduate students ratified their first four-year labor deal in November 2021. It came after a three-day strike and follows a one-year deal reached in 2020.

Not all students have been able to unionize, however.

Student workers at the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition at Indiana University voted in favor of a strike, which started Wednesday, to get their university to recognize the group as a union. Nearly 98% of members agreed to the strike.

Indiana University Provost Rahul Shrivastav has voiced opposition to the proposed union. According to the Indiana Daily Student, the provost sent an email to faculty at the school warning about the potential consequences of a strike. He added that he would not revisit the decision to not recognize the union.

Shortly after, over 450 faculty signed a pledge not to retaliate against striking graduate students.

Undergraduate students are joining unionization efforts now, too. A labor union at Wesleyan University comprised entirely of undergraduates became the first such union to be voluntarily recognized in late March. The union includes workers from the university's Residential Life program, which includes resident advisors, house managers, and community advisors.

Students Strike for Better Labor Conditions

As unions become more common, so too do accompanying strikes.

The ongoing strike at Indiana University is perhaps the most noteworthy at present. However, others could have ripple effects across higher education.

Residential advisors at Kenyon College in Ohio began a strike on Monday in an attempt to bid for fair working conditions and in protest of recent changes to their wage system, according to the group. Two days later, most teaching assistants from the school's Modern Languages and Literatures and Classics departments joined the strike.

Student workers stressed in statements that the primary issue is a reclassification of these advisors by turning their pay structure from a wage system to a stipend system. That classification would make them unable to unionize and would take away minimum wage and overtime regulations for these workers, according to the group.

Kenyon College released a statement in early April addressing some of the group's concerns, but it did not include any information on the wage structure change.

The teachers' assistant strike at the University of California, Santa Cruz was one of the more publicized strikes of the past few years. The strike lasted months and resulted in over 50 graduate students losing their jobs after they withheld undergraduate grades, although most were later reinstated. At one point, protesters blocked all entrances to the university campus and forced the school to cancel in-person classes.