February 12, 2023
Inside the Campaign to Unionize the University of Oregon
By Lisa Herforth-Hebbert
If the Oregon workers are successful, they believe they will be the nation’s largest undergraduate student union at a public university.
Student workers at the University of Oregon are trying to build a wall-to-wall union—uniting their resident assistants, dining hall staff, and all other undergraduate workers in a massive labor campaign. Over the last few years, interest in labor organizing has surged among young people, especially at colleges and universities. “Millennials and Gen Z are the first generations not better off than their parents, and the way that money has been flowing to the people at the top while becoming more and more scarce for the people at the bottom is hard to watch,” said Carolyn Roderique, a junior resident assistant at the University of Oregon. “It will become unlivable if we don’t do something about it.”
So far, Kenyon College in Ohio, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Grinnell College in Iowa, Barnard College in New York and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire have all engaged in some form of labor organizing. However, those union efforts have largely taken place at small, private colleges. If the Oregon undergraduates are successful, they believe they will be the nation’s largest undergraduate student union at a public university, representing—by the organizers’ estimates—approximately 3,000 workers.
At a general meeting for the prospective union, held on campus on a Saturday afternoon with over 75 people in attendance, most were students working a variety of jobs for the university: in dining halls, residence halls, cafes, libraries, information desks, and research labs. The meeting introduced the campaign to newcomers, gave progress updates and included a large group discussion where workplace grievances were shared. Participants shared experiences of horrible managers, long pay periods, lack of communication, and inability to get tips, shift meals, and Covid-19 pay.