Standing Behind Student Unions


Adriana Barrios

From Cesar Chavez to Clara Lemlich, to Samuel Gompers, to that one TA in Math 10B, a labor organization isn’t just a couple of pages in a history book, it is a living, breathing force of change that can be found on this very campus. The UC system’s policies toward its student employees often put them at odds with labor organizations and the laborers themselves, and that is a disservice to the many student workers who help run their institutions. Despite the often strained relationship with the university, the unions that are already on campus have achieved a lot to improve their working conditions and pay. Their ability to get their demands met demonstrates what decades of history have already proven: Collective bargaining is the path to a more equitable working environment. Undergraduate student workers make this university run — from shuttles to dining halls to the front desks of most administrative offices on campus — yet there is no undergraduate student union to protect their rights.

Unions and labor movements are the true unsung heroes of society today, and their job is nowhere near over. The limits on child labor, pay rates and hourly regulations, and health and safety codes are all things that have become a normal part of today’s work environment, and they took countless hours and a great sacrifice from the labor movement throughout the past century. Unions go beyond fighting the big violations of labor laws, helping workers navigate the bureaucratic mess of laws, stipulations, and forms. They are a fundamental safeguard against unregulated capitalism, ensuring that people are aware of all of their rights and the ways in which they can better their working conditions. Despite this, union membership is quickly dissipating, and that is more worrisome than most think. Unions are not done fighting for the rights of workers, especially in the pro-business administration that is also anti-migrant and anti-minority. It has been challenging to discern the exact cause of this downward trend in membership, but at least part of it can be attributed to large institutions, such as Target actively preventing their employees from unionizing.

One of the labor sectors that is often forgotten is the student workers at universities, who are often getting their first glimpse of the workforce during this time. Graduate student employees face a harsh juxtaposition hovering between the expectations of a full-time job and the reality of being a student worker. Teaching assistants, for example, often bear the majority of the responsibility for lower-division undergraduate classes, and research assistants weren’t even allowed to go under contract with a union until last year. Before then, they faced an unfair position when negotiating the terms of their employment. That being said, on this campus, a large portion of student employees are undergraduates who staff the dining facilities and markets, who perform clerical work in administrative offices throughout every department, and who take care of campus transportation and residency. The lack of a union to protect the rights and interests of such a large amount of students seems unfair, but these absences are not from lack of trying.

The UC system has been vehemently opposed to every single pro-unionization movement by their student workers and then fights tooth and nail in its negotiations with them. The most recent example of this is its opposition to SB 201, which allows graduate research assistants to unionize in California. The position of the university toward unionization and collective bargaining has been to oppose it legally and, when that fails, to discourage it within its specific campuses. Nevertheless, unions have triumphed time and time again against opposition and have made some real changes in their working conditions and treatment, such as increasing maternity leave and pushing for measures like the aforementioned SB 201. Undergraduate students pursuing unionization are looking for those same rights to demand more equitable working conditions and have a better understanding of their rights as workers as opposed to their rights as students who work.

Anti-union sentiment is consistent with the way the UC Regents operate — like a corporation. UC San Diego, however, should not be following in those footsteps; to have a mural of Cesar Chavez on this campus and be actively discouraging labor organizing is simply hypocritical. This campus owes it to its student workers to be willing to cooperate with their labor organizations. In fact, the university should encourage undergraduate unions to demonstrate their awareness of a large amount of work done by undergraduate students at this university.