Gray Gautereaux, Contributor
According to Union Plus, a nonprofit organization founded to provide benefit programs to union members, “a labor union or trade union is an organized group of workers who unite to make decisions about conditions affecting their work. Labor unions strive to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation.” Willamette, a university that relies on student labor while providing minimal worker’s compensation, could benefit from a student employee union, and precedent is on their side.
Student unions were recently enshrined in law under the Obama administration. In 2016, the National Board of Labor Relations (NBLR) ruled that graduate students working for their university had a right to collective bargaining, commonly achieved through unionizing. According to National Public Radio (NPR), in 2004, the NBLR reasoned that graduate assistants cannot be statutory employees because they “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” But the 2016 NBLR changed its tune, releasing a statement which maintained that worker compensation “is permitted by virtue of an employment relationship; it is not foreclosed by the existence of some other, additional relationship.” The decision was significant as it was one of the first steps the government has taken to recognize the rights of student workers— a labor category that is often marginalized or ignored.
According to the Oregon state laws that regulate minimum wage and the payment of wages, “students enrolled in and employed by an institution of primary or secondary education” are not “subject to the state minimum wage and overtime requirements.” Student labor can often be the backbone of an institution, but students are an economically vulnerable population that can be easily exploited.
According to Mandy Devereux, Director of Career Development at Willamette’s College of Liberal Arts, 846 student employees (over half of all students enrolled at the CLA) currently work for the University. However, this number doesn’t reflect how many students work multiple on-campus positions at the same time. The true scope of student labor on campus hasn’t been recorded, so how can it be honored?
Lauren Alexander (‘20) has five official positions in Workday, the host site Willamette uses for logging work hours, accessing time off and updating personal information for employers. Alexander explained that she works as a student manager at the Hatfield Library from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. two to three nights a week, while also working similar hours as a Campus Safety dispatcher. Or Simone Stewart (‘20), who has worked for the University for nearly three and a half years now in roles such as Willamette Watch, Dispatch and parking booth attendant jobs for Campus Safety while also serving as a math department intern and as the Collegian business manager. Both Alexander and Stewart average just over 20 hours of work a week, but there were disparities in their understanding of benefits they could receive for their labor.
In fact, in a poll conducted on the Willamette Students Facebook page, which asked student employees if they were aware of their Oregon Sick Time benefits, 80 out of 128 respondents chose the option, “No, I was not aware of sick time,” compared to the other 48, who were aware. Many students are unaware that, according to Oregon sick pay law, “employees accrue 1 hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked or 1-1/3 hours for every 40 hours worked, and are eligible to take accrued sick time after 90 days of employment.” These hours can be accessed in the “Time Off” section of Workday and applied to paid sick days.
As for student raises, Devereux explained, “From a department perspective, because the minimum wage has increased significantly each year, even for students who have been working for us for a while it becomes difficult to increase their salary, especially as department budgets decrease.” An anonymous CLA student reported that her job had promised her a $0.25 raise every semester, but any wage increases were absorbed by legally-mandated minimum wage increases and she never saw institutional compensation reflect her multiple years of service.
Students are actively being exploited and undervalued in their role as temporary workers. A student employee union may offer solutions by allowing students to hold Willamette accountable as an employer. With unions, student employees could organize systems to better track hours and long-term work commitments to the University. Students, invaluable laborers as they are, could likely even make a case for more benefits— such as discounted access to student healthcare plans. A student employee union could engage in collective bargaining for better wages, or for the implementation of a real and traceable policy concerning student pay raises. Creating a union would not be an easy process and would require multiple years of oversight that mosts students can’t provide during their short tenures on campus. Unions have historically been difficult to establish and require an activated and cooperative coalition to take charge and mobilize united action. Lacking any real discourse or movement behind student labor rights, it is likely that Willamette will continue to supply dedicated student workers the bare minimum in terms of wages and benefits for their labor.