Cal State student workers get the OK to hold a union vote

Students walk through the Fresno State campus in Fresno, on Feb. 9, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

California State University student workers are one step closer to unionizing after announcing today that the California Public Employment Relations Board has deemed there is enough student support to trigger a union vote.

After vetting thousands of union cards submitted by student assistants, the board notified the CSU Employees Union on Sept. 27 they met the threshold following a wave of organizing this past year. Over 19,300 student assistants will soon vote on forming one of the largest student worker unions in U.S. history. Their ranks would more than double the size of the employees union, which already represents 16,000 support staff across the 23 campuses.

Student assistants work at front desks and in back offices in many capacities throughout the campuses, such as information technology, financial aid, and facilities management. Both undergraduate and graduate students can hold these positions.

Student assistants say unionizing would allow them to bargain for higher pay, more hours, and sick leave, among other benefits. Currently, student employees in the CSU system earn the state minimum wage, even in areas with higher local minimum wages, are restricted to working no more than 20 hours per week, and do not receive paid time off when they are sick.

In a news conference earlier today, student workers shared their experiences and thoughts on the announcement.

A Cal State Los Angeles historian and student assistant Diana Perez said she often has needed to take on multiple jobs to support her family due to the 20 hours per week limit the CSU places on student workers. 

“My mom and my sister are both sick. I’m the head of household and sole provider,” Perez said. “Over my six years working as a student assistant, I’ve held two, sometimes three jobs at once. Juggling multiple jobs has slowed me down trying to finish my master’s degree. However, that hasn’t stopped me.” 

CSU student union organizers celebrated and shared the decision in social media posts on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

Leah Baker, a senior computer science major at CSU Monterey Bay, spoke during the news conference about her experience as a student assistant in her school’s IT department. 

“This summer alone, I assisted in the replacement of over 200 computers across campus,” Baker said. “My job has a direct impact on student success.” 

“We do the work of union staff, are paid minimum wage, get no sick leave or benefits, and that’s why I’m looking forward to voting for a union,” Baker said. 

CSU starts student assistant pay at the California state minimum wage of $15.50 an hour, even though some areas of the state have higher local minimum wages. CSU also does not offer sick leave to its student assistants, although California does require employers to provide at least 24 hours or 3 days of sick leave.

Student assistants interviewed at their campuses today had mixed reactions to the news. Cal State Fullerton fourth-year communications major Cameron Macedonio said he’s most looking forward to students receiving paid sick leave.

“No one should have to come to work sick,” said Macedonio, the general manager at Titan Radio. “Last month, I was sick for like two weeks. And I was coming to work still because it was, like, I needed to pay my rent.”

Angel Garza is a senior biology major and a student assistant for the Edible Garden under the Basic Needs Department at CSU Bakersfield. Garza said he is responsible for managing the Edible Garden, from arriving early or staying late to open and close the garden, providing guidance, and assigning tasks to other workers. He said that this creates stress for him because he does not receive any benefits, nor is he accommodated for performing a leadership role. 

“We are students here, and yes, this isn’t like a full-time job, and this is more of a means to an end. But for me, I do use all the money that I get for working here to help provide my parents with rent, and I do pay for my own food, my own insurance. So, having the ability to get our voices heard could help potentially increase our wages and have some sort of benefits for us students,” Garza said.  

Not all students agree that unionizing is the right move. Kristina Agresta, a third-year public relations major and international business minor at Cal State Long Beach, debated whether to support the unionization effort. On the one hand, she often does a lot of unpaid work because she is maxed out on her hours. However, in her student assistant role as director of operations at Beach Media, the business hub for student media at the campus, she sees the challenge of giving more hours and higher wages to all 70 student assistants in her division.

In the end, Agresta chose to not sign her union card.

“Frankly, the demands that the union has, I personally can’t afford to bend to if they’re asking for more hours and better pay,” she said. “I mean, student media would go broke and we would essentially not be able to pay anyone.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who serves as an ex-officio member of the CSU Board of Trustees, also spoke at the press conference. 

“The California State University is stronger today because students are rising up to hold the university system true to its mission to open the doors of higher education and a strong future to every student, no matter their background,” Thurmond said. “I strongly encourage CSU leadership to respect the state board decision and agree to a fast and fair election for their student assistants.”

The CSU has until Oct. 12 to respond to the California Public Employment Relations Board’s announcement. The employees union is hoping to hold the election as early as January. As of now, the CSU Chancellor’s Office has not commented on the announcement. 

San Roque is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. CJN fellows Haydee Barahona, Briana Mendez-Padilla, and Hugo Rios contributed to this story. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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