In summary

Undergraduate student assistants at California State University are mounting a union organizing campaign, calling for more work hours, paid sick time and higher wages.

Update: This story was updated April 17 to reflect the fact that Cal State student assistants have officially petitioned the California Public Employment Relations Board for a union election. Lea este artículo en español.

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 across the system’s 23 campuses and comes at a time of heightened campus labor activism.

“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.”

A student assistant organizing committee filed a request for a union election Monday with California’s Public Employment Relations Board, submitting more than 4,000 signed union authorization cards. The students are seeking representation by the California State University Employees Union, which represents non-student workers in similar roles and has been working with campus organizers to collect union authorization cards since last fall. The union is billing the campaign as the largest non-academic student worker organizing effort in U.S. history.

Cal State “acknowledges all workers’ rights to organize,” university spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith said by email Monday. “In the event student employees are formally recognized by the California Public Employment Relations Board, we look forward to engaging with them as we do with all of our other union partners.”

The union previously filed petitions with the board in 2021 to add student assistants into its existing bargaining units, but Cal State disputed the claim that student workers have enough in common with other university support staff to be folded in with them. “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. 

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. “As a state entity, the CSU is subject to state, not local minimum wage laws,” Bentley-Smith said, noting that student assistant pay rates range from $15.50 to $23.50 and are based on job duties, experience and department budgets.

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.”

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

Student organizers also raised concerns about Cal State capping work hours at 20 per week for most student assistants, which Bentley-Smith said is intended to “allow students the flexibility to focus on their education and education-related opportunities.”

That’s not realistic for all student employees, said Cameron Macedonio, a third-year student at Cal State Fullerton who’s active in the campaign. “Let’s face it — a lot of student assistants have a second job and are already working more than 20 hours a week,” he said. His own job as general manager of the campus radio station, he said, involves overseeing a staff of 12 and requires more hours to do successfully than the 20 for which he’s paid.

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. 

The UC strike “definitely inspired many of us to realize that we had a voice as well and we can empower ourselves and advocate for ourselves,” said Elisa Mendez-Pintado, a student assistant at San Diego State’s Latinx Resource Center.

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.”

Under California law, the student assistants will need to show support from more than 30% of workers to trigger a union election. Cal State estimates there are about 13,000 student assistants currently working for the university, while the union puts the number at roughly 10,000.

Union officials say they will also continue to pursue the option of expanding existing bargaining units to include student assistants; hearings in that case began in March before an administrative law judge and will resume June 12. Either the union or the university could appeal the judge’s decision to the full Public Employment Relations Board and then to a state court of appeal, said the board’s general counsel, Felix De La Torre.

“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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Rocky Walker is a senior at California State University, Northridge pursuing a bachelors degree in Broadcast Journalism and English: Creative Writing. He is currently a Senior Editorial Assistant at the...