UConn needs an undergraduate labor movement

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I’m a senior here at UConn. I’ve been involved in undergraduate political organizations here for three years. In this time, we’ve organized dozens of sit-ins, marches and demonstrations against injustice including racism, sexual violence, xenophobia, trans and queerphobia and the allocation of funds to UCPD while life-saving mental health resources are defunded. We’ve protested administrative relationships with apartheid regimes, the military industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry, which each threaten a habitable earth.  

There’s an unfortunate pattern to student-organized efforts. When terrible news surfaces about an injustice, it drives students to organize demonstrations calling for reasonable, actionable demands. Yet, support and interest from the student body dwindle over time and no broad coalition exists to sustain action. Undergraduate students alone often lack the necessary labor and resources for demands to be recognized. Without alliances, causes eventually become limited to a few undergrads with personal commitments, and there is a lack of community power built.  

Conversely, the university administration leads a tight, strategic response to student movements. They begin ignoring student concerns, then issuing communications and statements of their sympathy. When students sustain pressure, the administration creates task forces and working groups without resources, power or accountability who they claim will solve our problems. In effect, time after time, these task forces draw time and resources away from student organizers, creating the false belief that initial protests were enough to catalyze change while the initial problems persist and working group recommendations are ignored.  

Undergraduates gaining influence in university politics means genuinely understanding our role in the group of students, workers and faculty who create everything of value at this university.  

It’s time for students to build solidarity with worker groups on campus, uniting around our common struggles, our shared interests of fair wages, humane working conditions and institutions like labor unions — including for undergrads — that can create democracy at UConn. The current government, the Board of Trustees, represents powerful corporate and state interest groups throughout Connecticut, prioritizing revenue and lucrative industrial partnerships over the wellbeing of our community and planet. Students, workers and faculty have no say.  

It’s time we look out for each other. We need to stand up for our friends suffering from overwork and underpay, dependent on work-study assignments to attend classes here. We need to fight for everyone struggling through mental and physical illness, facing harassment, COVID-19 and other unfair working conditions, just to graduate with thousands upon thousands of dollars in debt. We also need to understand that many working class faculty and staff at UConn have their own struggles. This is a given in a country where most people live paycheck to paycheck and unions must fight to maintain contracts even at public institutions like universities. Undergrads must share and consider the community’s struggles as our own to transform labor relations and politics here at UConn.  

There have been multiple, actionable grievances of various campus worker-groups throughout recent years. In spring 2021, resident assistants were suddenly made to work throughout spring break or forgo approximately $800 of stipend funds, and denied overtime and hazard pay during a peak wave of COVID-19. During fall of 2020, facing a $28 million budget deficit, the University BOT unilaterally implemented layoffs and canceled the Connecticut Commitment, a program that had set millions aside promising low income families tuition free education. All the while, we have struggled under COVID-19 and shrinking real wages while CT weapons manufacturers, fossil energy industries and corporations like Travelers and Etna, each represented on the UConn Board of Trustees, continue profiting from their relationship with our school.  

Throughout the above struggles, there have been student workers, graduate workers, community members — even occasional faculty — who have sacrificed their own privileges and comforts fighting to genuinely protect our pack and their work must not go unnoticed. Yet there has been no sustained coalition between undergraduates, student workers and other communities here uniting around student and labor concerns.  

We’re seeing the emergence of a historic new labor movement in the U.S.. In the past two years, the Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks Workers United and dozens of new retail and service unions have joined the approximately seven million other workers throughout education, healthcare and utilities who are union led. Although U.S. union membership is at a historic low, rapid gains show the consistent power of organized labor across industries.  

Forming a labor movement, UConn undergrads would join graduate employee unions at universities across the country including the UConn Graduate Employee Union, only seven years old. We’ll follow ongoing undergraduate union drives at Kenyon College and Mount Holyoke College, unionized dining workers at Dartmouth, unionized admissions life workers at Hamilton college, undergraduate union recognition at Columbia University and the nation’s first wall-to-wall undergraduate worker union at Grinnell College. Nearby, we could follow undergraduate Residential Assistants at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and those at Wesleyan University who each secured union recognition and the right to bargain with their university. Forty minutes away, undergraduate students in Connecticut made a historic labor organizing breakthrough just six months ago. 

These student workers not only now have the ability to bargain for better wages, working conditions, hours and benefits, but they can leverage this bargaining power towards demands for environmental justice, protections for marginalized groups and other progressive politics at their schools.  

It’s time for undergraduates to channel the concerns we’ve always fought for at this campus into successful strategies showing solidarity across all worker and student groups. We can win labor rights, economic and workplace wellbeing and make breakthroughs on historic student life concerns here. UConn needs an undergraduate labor movement. 

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