How Campus Strikes Impact Students

Labor strikes are sweeping college campuses. Here's a breakdown of what workers on strike means for classes, grades, and financial aid.
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  • Higher education is not exempt from strike action.
  • The University of California and University of Minnesota systems are examples of campuses that went on strike that had impacts.
  • Disagreements between administration and faculty or campus workers that result in strikes can affect classes, academic achievement, and campus operations.

Labor strikes have impacted various fields, such as healthcare or food service. Higher education is no exception. In November 2022, nearly 50,000 academic workers in the University of California (UC) system voted to authorize the largest strike in higher education.

Workers in the UC system demanded increased compensation and job security. Columbia University student workers' union shared similar concerns and recently reached a deal with university officials after a two-year bargaining process.

Employees go on strike to fight for better working conditions. But when university faculty go on strike, what can students expect?

Reasons Campus Strikes Occur

A strike is an “organized and intentional stoppage of work by employees,” typically to make an employer address employee needs. Strikes emerge when union members vote to authorize the work stoppage because they have followed the required steps but employer and employee were unable to reach a deal. These can occur in many industries, including healthcare, K12 education and more.

Campus strikes can include any employee category — typically, those represented by a labor union. Some issues that on-campus strikes aim to address include:

  • Better or more competitive pay and benefits
  • Affordable housing near campus and transportation
  • Support for particular employees, such as working parents and international workers
  • No exploitation of non-tenure track faculty
  • No mandated overtime for janitorial staff

What Students Can Expect on Campus During a Strike

Each campus strike will have different outcomes. The impacts depend on the length of time, the category of campus employees involved, the response of administration or management, and the number of participants.

Will classes be canceled?

This is a possibility. In the UC system scenario, the absence of graduate student instructors who teach courses resulted in canceled classes.

A labor union at the University of Minnesota system made up of janitorial, food service, and maintenance employees voted to authorize a strike because negotiations with management were not proceeding sufficiently. They managed to reach a deal with the university before strike activity began. Had these employees been forced to carry out a strike to reach a deal, it would've deeply impacted campus operations, but class cancellations seemed unlikely.

Should I still complete my coursework if there is a strike?

Pay attention to your class portals and emails from instructors. Instructors rarely leave their students without information about how to proceed if they are forced to strike. Due dates and class schedules may shift in the case of academic workers participating in strikes on campus.

If your instructor has not provided updates, contact a department chair or dean to receive guidance on what to do about coursework due.

Am I expected to pay for classes that aren't being taught?

Yes, for now. Depending on strike duration and how it impacts course offerings, students should communicate with university officials and the financial aid office to find out how it may interfere with their financial aid.

During the UC system strike, the university committed to helping students whose aid could be affected due to faculty withholding grades from undergraduates.

Will clubs and extracurriculars be canceled?

Possibly. Suppose employees who oversee building operations or student involvement are unable to come to a resolution with management and must become involved in strike action. In that case, clubs and extracurriculars would likely be put on hold.

How does a strike affect university operations?

University operations include academic services, libraries, food services, health services, and more.

Again, the outcomes will vary based on what type of campus employee is striking in order to reach a resolution with the university management. For example, the potential University of Minnesota system strike could have directly impacted dining services and campus operations, such as trash removal and cleaning common areas and bathrooms.

Can I get involved in or join the strike?

Labor unions commonly have websites that offer updates on strike action, negotiation progress, and how to support those participating in strike action.

If you are an employee of the university but not represented by the participating labor union, be cautious that joining the strike could be grounds for termination or other job consequences. Before joining any strike action, it's important to know your rights.