The Importance of Student Power for Campus Labor Unions
By Joanna Stewart
Eugene, Oregon -Have you ever been in a space where everyone felt drained? Like there was no control over what your life would be like because someone or some institution made the rules and you were reaching for any opportunity you had to make it better? Well, if you have you know that it sucks. It is the kind of feeling that undergraduate college students have been feeling for a very long time.
I used to sit in those rooms and be frustrated with my fellow peers. Now, I sit in rooms with groups, including my own, the University of Oregon Student Labor Action Project (SLAP), where we push back.
The University of Oregon is in a relatively liberal school in a liberal state. We are not an anti-worker state. We still have work to do on same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, and of course, corporate tax loopholes, but we are making some strides in those areas. What UO does have though, is high union density. Our campus has three unions that represent faculty (including adjunct), classified staff, and graduate teaching assistants. The United Academics, SEIU, and Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) have all been tremendous powerhouses in their fight for better working conditions at the University of Oregon.
Student power has been key to ensuring they have momentum in the bargaining fights. The UO Student Labor Action Project is a direct action organizing student group that works on economic justice campaigns. We are not a union but we are representing ourselves and our peers. Our solidarity work with the unions on our campus has been pivotal to our growth as well as theirs. Whether they want to admit it or not, administrators get concerned and nervous when undergraduate students who do not seem to have a direct stake in what happens show up at rallies and bargaining sessions for our faculty and staff. And, they should. Because it means that we are all talking to each other.
The importance of a work sector being organized is unparalleled but what really counts is when it creates a ripple effect on the surrounding sectors. You will find students, faculty, and workers at a rally for graduate teaching assistants. We support each other because we know that if we are in it together then we can win all of our fights. These cross-connections make us stronger and are necessary to our victories.
These victories can be as small as helping a union by just being there, or can be as big as escalating tactics that a union doesn’t have the resources to do, but a student group might.
When SEIU almost went on strike on the UO campus last fall, SLAP was going to do a rolling sit-in at the chancellor’s office. We understand the importance of the student voice in worker struggles and were willing to do whatever we needed to ensure that our staff, as well as the other six public universities’ staff, got the fair contract they deserved.
These are the types of tactics we can do together to reach our greater goal. Unions are a positive influence on our campus for the workers and students. It is essential to the labor movement and student movement that unions and students work together. We are doing that at the University of Oregon and we have control.
Joanna Stewart is co-chair of the Student Labor Action Project at the University of Oregon. Originally published in People’s World.
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