Before 2020, there were only two undergraduate worker unions in American private higher education. But in just three years, that number has swelled to over a dozen, including new unions at Harvard, Tufts University and Wesleyan University. At Brown alone, the past year has seen the successful unionization of computer science teaching assistants and Community Coordinators — live-in residential assistants and leaders.
Undergraduate worker unions at public institutions date back to 1914 when student dining workers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison formed a union and threatened to strike. But undergraduate unions at private institutions are a relatively recent movement, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
The first to ratify a contract was formed in 2016 at Grinnell College, when the college supported a workplace election that established a union of student dining workers. It was several years before the trend in undergraduate unionization would pick up, according to National Labor Relations Board case filings analyzed by The Herald.
To understand how undergraduate unionization grew in popularity, The Herald spoke with labor experts, organizers on Brown’s campus and a local union representative, who indicated that the recent push for unionization has been propelled by a labor-friendly White House, the pandemic’s strain on working conditions and surging labor power across the country.
According to Herbert, undergraduate organizing at private colleges began in earnest after the legal standing of student workers was clarified by the NLRB in a 2016 ruling. The NLRB rules on cases to determine how the National Labor Relations Act — the federal rules for labor relations in private workplaces — are enforced. The board is composed of five members who are appointed by presidents to serve five-year terms.
Because the board’s composition is influenced by the presidential administration, a president’s stance on labor can have a significant impact on how the NLRA is interpreted, multiple labor experts told The Herald. Student workers in higher education have had a tumultuous history of gaining recognition as employees and securing the right to collective bargaining, The Herald previously reported.
But since 2016, when the NLRB ruled in favor of Columbia graduate student organizers and recognized them as university employees, NLRB legal precedent has held that undergraduate and graduate student workers have the right to organize.
During his time in the White House, President Biden has appointed two new members to the NLRB — shifting its composition to be predominantly Democratic — and named a Democratic member as chair.
The Biden administration “is the most pro-union administration in history, even more so than Roosevelt,” Herbert said. “This is a president who's taking major steps in enforcing the National Labor Relations Act and supporting efforts by workers to unionize.”
With its new composition, the NLRB has ruled on two cases in the last year that have eased the process of unionization by reducing the time between submitting a petition and holding an election and creating a new framework for when employers need to bargain with workers without an election, reducing employer resistance to elections.
COVID-19 pandemic, market pressures
The turbulent working conditions that student workers experienced during the pandemic contributed to the surge in undergraduate unionization, experts said.
“People got their schedules messed up, mixed up and even eliminated,” said Lee Adler, professor at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “In many cases, the alteration of their work schedules left them economically vulnerable.”
The pandemic was also immediately followed by a labor shortage, which pushed up wages in service industry jobs. Students who had been getting paid similar wages in campus jobs may have taken notice, Adler said.
“Mega-corporations, especially fast food places, had to keep bumping up wages,” Adler said.
“When you see a sign that says ‘starting wage $17 an hour’ at McDonald's, (students) who are making $13 an hour start thinking, ‘geez, that's not right.’”
The increase in wages in the service sector caused student employees to reflect on their own compensation. Talib Reddick ’26, an organizer with the Labor Organization of Community Coordinators, said that compensation was a key factor in the decision to unionize.
“Student jobs used to be pretty poorly paid, and (that was) accepted,” Adler said. “Now, they’re still poorly paid, but there’s a change in the mentality about accepting that.”
Witnessing other unions
Undergraduate unionization is also in part inspired by the organizing successes at other schools and in other industries, such as the recent strikes in Hollywood and auto plants, said Mike Mullane, a field representative with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, which represents Brown’s LOCC, the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization and the University’s Graduate Labor Organization.
“Students looked outside and saw people fighting big corporations like Amazon, trying to organize into unions to protect themselves better,” Adler said. “They had friends that were working at Starbucks and saw what those struggles were like. They saw graduate students organizing at different places with a pretty good degree of success.”
The Herald examined data from NLRB case filings to lay out the timeline of undergraduate organizing at private institutions since Grinnell’s initial success in 2016. The following graph only includes organizations that filed for election through the NLRB and therefore excludes unionization efforts at public institutions, cases where both parties decided on a third-party arbitrator and cases in which the union received voluntary recognition, such as LOCC.
The data reveals a rapid increase in undergraduate labor activity since 2021, most of which is concentrated in the Northeast. According to Reddick, this can be attributed in part to students being inspired by other successful union efforts nearby, as was the case for LOCC.
“Hearing about those other schools’ unionization efforts was one of the main reasons that this entire thing started,” Reddick said.
When deciding to unionize, LOCC was inspired by the successful unionization of student residential assistants at Tufts and Columbia, as well as on other campuses nearby, The Herald previously reported.
An uncertain future
Since the NLRB “has the legal right to both define and then alter their definition of who's an employee,” Adler said, the decision giving student workers the right to organize “is subject to change if (former President Donald) Trump gets elected next year and reappoints a new board.” The NLRB proposed a rule in 2019 that would revoke students’ status as employees and their right to unionize but withdrew it in 2021.
In recent years, Duke University has filed opposition to the Duke Graduate Student Union’s election petition, challenging the students’ legal standing as employees of the university, The Herald previously reported.
If Duke’s legal challenge is successful and student workers lose their employee status, student workers everywhere could lose the right to organize and the protections granted by the NLRA that come with it.
“Duke is not only refusing to work with us and refusing to respect our right to an election, but they're actually trying to relitigate the status of (all) graduate workers,” a Duke Graduate Student Union organizer previously told The Herald.
Should Duke’s challenge succeed, “after the contract expires, the employer can refuse to continue to recognize the union,” Herbert said. “The union wouldn’t necessarily continue to have rights to represent the workers, so all the power would be in the hands of the employer.”
Yet even without recognition under the NLRB, it is still possible for student workers to bargain with their institution. In 2013, before the 2016 Columbia ruling recognized students as employees, New York University voluntarily recognized its graduate student union, The Herald previously reported.
Mullane also said that, in the absence of NLRB legal recognition, students could demand that their institutions grant voluntary recognition, which he said was a tactic that the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst pursued when he was a graduate student there in the 1990s.
The future of student worker organizing is precarious for both graduate and undergraduate unions, but organizers say they remain hopeful.
“You can make a union illegal and you could deny them the right to bargain, but you can't prevent workers from organizing,” said Maddock Thomas ’26, an organizer with Brown’s Student Labor Alliance. “The union would have to stay strong and hold itself to collective action.”
Ashley Cai is a Senior Staff Writer from Los Altos, California covering the staff and student labor beat. She is a Brown-RISD Dual Degree studying computer science, IAPA and graphic design. She is also a member of The Herald's Tech Team.