Student workers are making history


By GRAHAM TRAINOR, Oregon AFL-CIO president

Graham Trainor
Graham Trainor

Throughout history, university campuses have been a hotbed for student organizing and progressive action, from the anti-war and civil rights movements to international campaigns like the anti-sweatshop movement. And that has often included labor action, where workers on campuses stand together to form unions and fight for their rights as workers.  In fact, Oregon’s public university system is already one of the most highly unionized in the country thanks to the bravery and determination of workers — from graduate employees to faculty members to classified staff — and the investment and support from the labor movement. 

Now we’re seeing another example of innovation and bravery on university campuses: student workers. Just last month, student workers at the University of Oregon and at Harvard voted overwhelmingly to unionize on the same day. UO Student Workers Union is now the nation’s largest undergraduate student union at a public university.

In 2016 undergraduate workers at Grinnell College in Iowa organized a union for dining hall workers under an Obama-era NLRB policy that was later undone by the Trump administration. The same student workers then sought to build a wall-to-wall union on campus two years later, but the university appealed, and the union withdrew its petition. Then in 2022, student workers at Grinnell were successful in becoming the first fully unionized undergraduate campus in the country. Since then we’ve seen student workers organizing at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, at Kenyon College in Ohio and Wesleyan University in Connecticut, in the California State University system, at Columbia University and Barnard College in New York.

This is a big deal and an exciting new direction for organized labor. And it’s going to continue to be a big deal as this newer wave of organizing takes hold on university campuses across the country. In fact, in the last few weeks House Advisors at Reed College in Portland successfully organized their union. We hope that student workers at private universities across Oregon will likely follow suit.

It shouldn’t be too surprising to see this action being led by students on campuses. With a groundswell of labor action and strikes in recent years, the role that a union can play in the life of working people has captured the attention, and the imagination, of the nation. College and university students are no exception. Additionally, 88% of voters under 30 supported labor unions and 90% supported strikes in polling done in September by GBAO for the National AFL-CIO. Some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world are seeing active and inspirational organizing campaigns, and nearly all are being led by Gen Z workers, workers of color, and women. We are at a truly incredible moment in labor history.

As the recent campaigns at University of Oregon and Reed College showcase for us, young people are hungry to make change, savvy in their organizing techniques, and ready to usher in a new and important era for our movement. For all of Oregon labor, our charge is to listen to these young workers and their campaigns, embrace their efforts and their leadership, and do everything in our collective power to help them secure a fair, life-changing contract. Because our fates are intertwined, they’re showing us that a progressive and bright future is not only possible, it can become reality. But we will only do so by standing together with student workers and supporting their noble, brave, and historic campaigns.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is a federation of labor unions.


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