Op-ed: Student workers should revive efforts to unionize

Alumnus Mark McKibbin, Class of 2020, served as a three-year resident adviser and is currently completing a master’s in comparative social policy at the University of Oxford.

What do Meghan Markle, Amazon employees and student workers at GW have in common?

They have all suffered because they do not have a labor union to stand up for them.

This shared struggle highlights why unions are so important and why every worker deserves the chance to unionize.

In her bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey and her husband Prince Harry, which aired last month, Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, opened up about experiencing suicidal thoughts and her unsuccessful attempts to seek help from the royal family. During the interview, Markle mentioned that in her previous work as an actress, she had the protection of a union when she needed help. But within the royal family apparatus, no one was willing to perform a similar function.

Coincidentally, Markle and Harry’s interview aired about a month after Alabama Amazon workers began the process of voting on whether they wanted to unionize. Despite a starting salary of $15 an hour, Amazon workers are pushing to unionize due to demonstrably substandard working conditions at their workplace. Amazon executives have fiercely opposed this effort. In January 2021, Amazon appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to delay the election. The NLRB denied Amazon’s appeal, the election took place and the NLRB is currently in the process of tallying the votes.

Resident advisers and graduate student workers have also sought to unionize in past years due to unfair working conditions. Similar to Amazon executives, administrators actively opposed student unionization efforts in both instances.

In 2017, NLRB regional judge Sean Marshall ruled that RAs at GW had the right to unionize, slapping down the request by GW’s lawyers to stop the unionization election from taking place. Marshall based his decision on a 2016 ruling by the NLRB that graduate student workers at Columbia University were employees and therefore had the right to unionize. While the RA unionization election was sadly canceled shortly before the vote was scheduled to take place in May 2017, Marshall’s ruling still represented a major victory for student workers at GW and across the county.

But unfortunately, in 2019, former President Donald Trump’s NLRB appointees proposed a rule that would have reversed the NLRB’s 2016 Columbia decision. The proposed rule re-classified student workers at private universities as non-employees, unable to collectively bargain through a union under the National Labor Relations Act. During the Trump years, the NLRB shifted from a friend to a foe of student unionization efforts.

But with President Joe’s Biden’s newly appointed NLRB withdrawing this proposed Trump-era rule, student workers’ attempts to unionize have a better chance of being successful. Now is an opportune time for student workers at GW to renew their push for unionization. Student workers should take advantage of this opportunity and move forward with seeking union recognition from the NLRB.

Opponents to unionization often portray efforts to unionize as a money-grab – they do this to decrease support for those attempting to unionize, hoping to paint them as being greedy rather than having legitimate grievances about their working conditions.

But for student workers, the fight for unionization is about far more than wages – it is also about power. Administrators may claim they provide student workers with internal avenues to provide feedback to officials. But under this kind of system, officials can withdraw established mechanisms for feedback at any time and hold no obligation to incorporate feedback from student workers into subsequent policy decisions. Without a union, student workers have very little tangible power and almost no codified protection against unfair practices and working conditions.

Administrators will likely resist any future unionization efforts by student workers, as they have in the past, because they are terrified of giving up their power. They want to have authority over when, where and how they accede to the requests of student workers. Negotiating with unions would eliminate GW’s ability to exclude student voices from the rooms where decisions are made. For many administrators, the idea that they might have less control over who can enter this room frightens them.

But this asymmetry of power between officials and student workers is exactly why student workers need a union. Unionization would provide student workers with power, protection and dignity in their on-campus jobs, leading them to be more productive employees and have a better quality of life during their time at GW.

In the 2021-22 academic year, student workers should begin mobilizing in favor of unionization.

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