ANALYSIS: How the rise of unionization on campus impacts undergraduate students

Graduate student worker unions rose in popularity and power in the last decade, as unions staged protests and held labor strikes supported by progressive figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The unionization push began in the 1960s, with teaching assistants at Rutgers University and the City University of New York being first to be included in a collective bargaining agreement.

In February, graduate student workers at Clark University formally requested that the school voluntarily recognize them as an official union. That request was the latest development on their unionization efforts which began in 2020.

Those workers demanded better working conditions, stipends, and the school addressing their COVID-19 concerns including greater accessibility of KN95 masks.

Graduate student worker unions rose in popularity and power in the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, as unions staged protests and held labor strikes supported by progressive figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The unionization push began in the 1960s, with teaching assistants at Rutgers University and the City University of New York being first to be included in a collective bargaining agreement. Although they were included under the faculty’s unionization contract at the time.

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Student worker unionization grew aggressively in the 1990s and early 2000s, but the movement was hindered by a 2004 case decided by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which prevented student workers at private universities from unionizing. 

That decision slowed the growth of the movement considerably.

However, the NLRB reversed its decision in 2016 and allowed student workers at private universities to unionize, which triggered a resurgence of unionization efforts and the protests that followed.

The 2016 case was brought on by Columbia University's attempt to shut down unionization efforts on campus, which prompted the NLRB to decide whether students employed by a private university should be considered university "employees" as defined by the National Labor Relations Act. 

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In deciding that students employed by private universities should indeed be considered "employees" of the university, the NLRB overturned their 2004 decision, allowing student workers to unionize under federal law despite every Ivy League school opposing this decision.

Following the 2016 landmark NLRB victory for student worker unions, tens of thousands more graduate workers decided to unionize in order to have their labor demands met.

Unionized student workers continued to strike and protest, but have become increasingly hostile and aggressive in recent years.

For example, graduate student worker unions began holding undergraduate grades hostage, stealing food, shutting down campus, occupying a Provost’s office, and even physically holding administrators hostage as leverage in their collective bargaining agreements to achieve better working conditions, higher pay, and increased COVID measures.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, student worker unions’ demands have shifted, as they hold strikes and protests advocating for remote learning, restrictive mandates and free masks to be given out to faculty, staff, and students.

In 2020, a student worker union of Cornell RAs went on strike demanding hazard pay, cost of living raises to compensate for tuition and workload increases, as well as personal protective equipment in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar demands were made at the University of Utah and the University of Massachusetts.

More recently, the United Campus Workers of Arizona demanded the school switch to remote instruction through the month of January, provide free high-quality masks for those on campus, expand testing, and implement a vaccination mandate.

The University of Iowa’s Campaign to Organize Graduate Students further demanded that the school increase their five-day COVID-19 quarantine period for individuals who test positive, per CDC guidance, to a 14-day period. Additionally, they demanded remote instruction for the beginning of the semester.

On top of having their grades held hostage, which can delay graduation, and having their campuses shut down as a result of student workers union strikes and protests, undergraduate students are negatively impacted by the recent COVID-19 demands pushed by the unions.

Remote learning, as demanded by student worker unions, has been shown to have adverse psychological effects on students, correlating with a rise in suicidal ideation, drug addiction, and suicide attempts for college-age individuals.

Further, a recent Johns Hopkins literature review and meta-analysis conducted by three scholars, concluded that non-pharmaceutical intervention policies like school closures, mask mandates, and lockdowns have no significant impact on COVID-19 mortality, doing more harm than good.

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