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Unionization is catching on among undergraduate student workers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Inflation, stagnant wages and difficult working conditions have prompted a wave of unionization across the country. And as Connecticut Public Radio's Kay Perkins reports, the union movement has now reached undergraduate students at small liberal arts colleges with campus jobs.

KAY PERKINS, BYLINE: Undergraduate student workers across the country say they've been under more stress than ever. Esmeralda Abreu-Jerez is a dining worker at Dartmouth College. I met with her near the campus cafe where she works. Like many of her co-workers, she needs her job to pay for living expenses, and she sends money back home to her family in the Dominican Republic. She says the working conditions are grueling.

ESMERALDA ABREU-JEREZ: It's like this constantly, like, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure, pressure. There's no time to breathe. I remember I would get home from my shift. I would go to bed at 10:30, and I would wake up at eight, and I would still be exhausted.

PERKINS: And this is on top of an Ivy League course load. Abreu-Jerez says some of her co-workers were already working up to 40 hours per week. And the pandemic only made conditions worse. She says most dining workers got COVID, so they were always short-staffed. But when they brought these and other concerns up to their managers, nothing changed. So when students saw the successful union campaigns at other colleges, they decided to start their own, and they voted to unionize unanimously. But the path for other unions hasn't been as smooth. At Grinnell College in Iowa, campus union leaders began organizing back in 2018. The administration put up a fierce legal fight until a new college president took over and agreed to work with them. And earlier this year, they gathered on Zoom to watch their election ballot count.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Votes cast for the petitioner - 327.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Cheering).

PERKINS: That makes Grinnell the first ever union at a private college to represent all student employees - over half the campus population. Meanwhile, student leaders at Kenyon College in Ohio are still struggling to get Kenyon to cooperate. Colleges like Grinnell and Kenyon have argued that their relationship with students is primarily educational, that student workers aren't really employees. Peter McDonough is the vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents colleges all over the country, including Dartmouth, Grinnell and Kenyon. He says letting student workers unionize would undermine the educational side of student work.

PETER MCDONOUGH: Do we want to arrive at a place where the madrigal singers and the school newspaper journalists, workers out on an organic farm - once volunteered but now compensated to some degree - are all unionized rather than part of student experiences?

PERKINS: But union advocates point out that public colleges have had underground employee unions for years. While private colleges have to follow policies set by the National Labor Relations Board, public schools are beholden to state laws. And Bill Gould, former chair of the NLRB, says universities are businesses, and student employees are no different than other employees.

BILL GOULD: They're treated as employees. The employer has to adhere to the minimum wage legislation and has to adhere to health and safety, fair employment practices, and they have to adhere to labor law regarding the right of workers to join into unions.

PERKINS: So far, the Biden administration's NLRB has followed this logic. But Kenyon College hasn't given up yet. But in the meantime, undergrad organizers across the country are taking advantage of this moment to teach other student activists how to unionize. Keir Hichens is president of Grinnell's student union, and he says students from at least 25 different schools have attended these trainings so far.

KEIR HICHENS: We get an email almost every week from a student worker at another institution saying, how do we do what you did? And now it really feels like we're going to have the tools to tell them how to organize to win. I think the sky is the limit.

PERKINS: Organizers at Grinnell, Kenyon, Dartmouth and Wesleyan University in Connecticut are currently working with the Young Democratic Socialists of America on a six-week-long summer curriculum that they hope will get students across the country ready to organize by September. For NPR News, I'm Kay Perkins in Hartford.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "TIME FEAT. JACK HARLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.