Building a real ‘student union’

A group of students getting some work done. Student workers are the backbone of UConn and are in desperate need of an undergraduate student union. Photo by Scott Graham/Pexels

If you’re a student worker or employed by the University of Connecticut in any capacity, this article is for you. If you’re not a student worker, read it anyway; then, send it to your student worker friends, classmates, neighbors, partners and Tinder matches.  

Whoever you are, there’s one thing you need to know: UConn is in desperate need of an undergraduate student union — a concrete, united organization of student workers with collective bargaining powers and a direct line of communication with the administration.  

Day in, day out, UConn’s academic and administrative departments process tens of thousands of emails, phone calls, request forms and more. They move mountains, if mountains are the arrangement of Student Union board rooms and crowds herding through Jorgensen to see a show. The complexity of UConn’s underbelly — the everyday processes that make attending and teaching at this school possible — is almost beyond comprehension. Among the talented staff who literally keep this university in one piece are student workers.  

Make no mistake, student labor is not “unskilled” labor. Very little labor is truly unskilled, except for that which is dependent on exploiting the work of others. Working draining shifts at the UConn dining halls, troubleshooting issues with registration; enduring the misdirected anger of disgruntled students, parents, and alumni; ensuring cultural centers are active to support marginalized students and learning the ins and outs of your department to complete many of the same tasks that full-time staff do is absolutely no joke.  

Paired with the burden of a highly demanding academic life, being a student worker can lead to considerable difficulties from missing out on college life to having to make the decision between studying and working enough hours in a week. No matter how gratifying the work can be (helping people as a student employee can lead to no shortage of proud moments),it begs the question: Are the benefits of student labor proportional to the amount of work we do? I’d argue that the answer is an unequivocal no.  

For all of our contributions to the functionality of UConn, we have relative little say in the terms of our employment and compensation. This is the biggest problem for which an undergraduate union is the only solution. You may be satisfied with your pay and job flexibility, but without a union, none of the positives of working at UConn are guarantees. Always being subject to change by the next administration to flirt with austerity cuts and depressed wage increases, a unionized workforce can change this. 

Unionized student workers have the power of collective bargaining, or the ability to negotiate pay and other elements of our employment such as schedule flexibility and the conditions of being terminated. Unions advocate for workers when they have concerns with treatment in the workplace, whether it be discrimination or an overall toxic work environment. Most workplaces relegate this task to human resources, an arm of the company meant to pacify workers and bury their concerns in the interest of a smoothly operating business. A good union won’t bury the worker; as an organization by and for workers, the priority of the union is to ensure that all employees are properly included, compensated and defended in the workplace.  

What are the enforcement mechanisms of an undergraduate union? All unions legally recognized by the National Labor Relations Board have the ability to file a legal complaint against employers who renege on their negotiated contracts with the union. This may result in the rehiring of workers who were unfairly dismissed or the return of stolen wages.  

The law, however, has manifold limitations. Sometimes, an NLRB ruling to rehire a worker who was wrongfully terminated may not be enough to address fundamental issues in contract negotiation or pay structure. When push comes to shove, unions have the right and the ability to go on strike, or withhold their labor to advocate for a fair contract for their members.  

Undergraduate student employee unions have immense power to affect change on campus with this respect, as unfair labor practices are not the only issue that impacts student workers; sexual violence impacts us; institutional racism impacts us; misogyny, homophobia and transphobia impact us; a bloated UCPD budget and high costs of tuition impact us. The power to withhold labor in protest is our greatest possible tool to make the necessary changes to this institution, and that is only possible with a true student union. When we stop working, the gears of the university stop turning — an accomplishment unthinkable through Undergraduate Student Government or Praxis, UConn’s officially-sanctioned activist cell. 

An undergraduate union is not a distant fantasy — in fact, just a few municipalities over, Wesleyan University undergraduates formed the first voluntarily-recognized union of residential assistants in American history this past March, following in the footsteps of University of Massachusetts, Amherst organizers who created a residential assistant union not yet recognized by their university administration. This is an incredible feat that UConn can build on for the prosperity of our student workers and overall community.  

Looking across sectors of the university, student workers aren’t so different from one another. An employee at the Student Recreation Center has the same financial interests and burdens as does a student administrative assistant at the Asian American Cultural Center or the Office of Financial Aid. A writer for the Daily Campus is employed by the same university as dining workers. We have far more power together than we do as an atomized population pursuing only our own individual interests.  

The process of organizing a union is a long and arduous process deserving its own column entirely; rather than elaborating here on the ins and outs of unionizing, I’ll make one simple request: Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your community members about the power that student workers have together. This is the first major step to uniting student workers to advance our interests as the backbone of UConn. 

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