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Cal State Undergraduate Workers Seek Union Representation

A young woman with fair skin and long dark hair sits in front of a laptop and desktop monitor. She wears a baggy black coat and looks at her laptop screen.
Delilah Mays-Triplett, 19, works from her work station as a student assistant inside the Love Library Addition at San Diego State University in San Diego on April 12, 2023.
(Pablo Unzueta
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California State University is the largest public university system in the country, so when sophomore Delilah Mays-Triplett decided working on the San Diego State University campus as a library assistant would be the best thing for her education, she didn’t expect to be paid less than the local minimum wage.

But when Mays-Triplett’s check came, she saw she was paid $15.50 per hour, nearly a dollar lower than the San Diego minimum wage of $16.30.

That reason, paired with others, is why Mays-Triplett decided to sign a union authorization card when organizers approached her. Undergraduate student assistants at the university are mounting a union organizing campaign, calling for more work hours, paid sick time and higher wages. The campaign could potentially affect thousands of library assistants, clerical workers and other non-academic student employees and comes at a time of heightened labor activism on university campuses.

“There’s a lot of things that are kind of unfair about our job,” said Mays-Triplett. “So just being able to organize and address some of those issues would be really helpful,” she said, adding that she finds power in “just being able to have a voice.”

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The California State University Employees Union, which represents non-student workers in similar roles, filed petitions with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board in 2021 to add student assistants into its existing bargaining units, and has been working with student organizers to collect union authorization cards since last fall.

“Thousands of student assistants signed union cards. You’re almost ready to file for an election!” organizers texted student supporters April 8. Union spokesperson Khanh Weinberg declined to make leaders available for an interview.

Cal State has disputed the union’s claim that student workers have enough in common with other university support staff to be folded into existing bargaining units. “The Student Assistants’ primary role is that of a student and not a traditional employee,” Timothy Yeung, a lawyer for the university, wrote in December to the administrative law judge handling the case.

“We don’t have anything else to add on the matter,” Cal State spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp wrote in response to an interview request.

But Grace Dearborn, another San Diego State student, said she deserves the same benefits as any other employee. Dearborn said she caught COVID last semester. While her supervisor allowed her to make up the hours she missed, she felt she should have gotten the paid COVID-related leave that California at the time required businesses to give full-time workers.

“This is a real job for a lot of students,” Dearborn said. “We get paid and we use that pay for bills and our personal expenses, and so if you’re expecting for it to be a real job but not receive sick pay, I think that that’s really weird.”

Several cited the discrepancy between Cal State’s minimum wage and local minimum wages as part of their motivation. University attorney Marc Mootchnik told San Diego State’s student newspaper, the Daily Aztec, in 2016 that because Cal State is a state agency, it is not required to comply with local minimum wage laws.

Emma Galloway, a commuter student at Cal State Northridge, said receiving at least the Los Angeles minimum wage of $16.50 for her work as a student assistant in the Journalism Department office would help her save money to move out of her parents’ house.

“I have a very big fear of being homeless, especially with the homeless crisis in Los Angeles,” she said. “I’m really grateful to have my parents and to live under a roof, but that fear kind of lingers a little bit, and I just want to save enough to the point where I can rent a one-bedroom apartment.”

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“Student assistants are a backbone” for the campus departments where they work, she added.

Some 11,000 Cal State teaching assistants and other academic workers already have union representation through the United Auto Workers. But the undergraduates involved in the California State University Employees Union organizing effort are doing work that’s arguably less related to their studies – such as filing office paperwork, helping with print jobs and assisting in checking out books at the library.

More students are organizing

They’re part of a recent wave of campus labor activism that includes the largest higher education strike in history, in which 48,000 graduate student workers at the University of California walked off the job in November, eventually winning raises, transit passes and child care benefits.

In February, Dartmouth University agreed to pay its student dining hall workers a base wage of $21 per hour after they voted to authorize a strike — less than a year after being recognized as a union. And last month, undergraduate residential advisors at the University of Pennsylvania filed for representation with the Office and Professional Employees International Union.

“The most fundamental demand that people on college campuses are making right now is honor the principles that you say you are committed to,” said Caroline Luce, a labor historian at the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and a member of the university’s lecturers’ union. “You say you’re a public-serving institution; it doesn’t make sense to be paying people wages that they can’t live on.”

While Cal State undergraduates have been inspired by the gains made by graduate student organizing, Luce said, they face an uphill battle if the university continues to oppose the effort, because of the high turnover in their ranks. “If (Cal State officials) draw things out, they will win basically because the students who (are organizing) will go on to bigger and better things and it might fall apart.”

Public Employment Relations Board hearings to determine whether the California State University Employees Union can expand its bargaining units to include student assistants began in March and will resume June 12. Either the union or the university could appeal the judge’s decision to the full board and then to a state court of appeal. If the union prevails, it could then submit cards showing majority support and petition to represent the students, said the board’s general counsel, Felix De La Torre. It could also file to create a new bargaining unit composed of student assistants only.

“What makes it more unique than a typical public employee union drive is we’re dealing with individuals who straddle the line between employees and students,” said De La Torre. He cited recent controversies over whether, for example, collegiate athletes should be allowed to organize.

“All these cases begin to develop a body of law around this class of workers,” he said. “To that extent, it could be significant if this petition goes up to the board.”

Walker is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. Network editor Felicia Mello contributed reporting. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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