Thousands of undergraduate Cal State University workers filed a petition on Monday morning to form a union that would represent more than 10,000 students across the state’s largest public university system.
The campaign has been dubbed the largest non-academic organizing effort in U.S. history, and it would affect working conditions for those who fill non-academic positions including clerical workers, student media, library assistants and more across the system’s 23 campuses.
The 4,000 workers and counting who have signed union authorization cards are calling for a health care plan, high wages, paid sick time, holiday time and more work hours.
At Cal State Long Beach, there were 1,315 students working on campus without union representation last fall. During the same time, 348 academic student employees—researchers, teacher assistants and more—on the Long Beach campus were represented by United Auto Workers, according to a 2022 employee report provided to the Long Beach Post by CSU.
“They work because they have to. They work because they need the money to support themselves, pay rent, buy food, etc.,” Catherine Hutchinson, president of the California State University Employees Union, said at a Monday morning news conference. “But instead of providing resources to help make the students’ lives easier, the CSU exploits this labor pool because they can.”
Since last fall, CSUEU has backed student organizers in their effort to collect union authorization cards. To submit a petition to form a union, students had to submit a “showing of interest” to California’s Public Employment Relations Board, which handles collective bargaining statutes across the state. The filing gives the university system the option to schedule an election and to reach an agreement about who is eligible to vote. If the request is granted, an election will allow student workers to vote on whether to form a union.
“They can make this process very voluntary and timely, or they can go into … lawyer mode and they can try to stall the process,” said Philliou, CSUEU’s executive director. “And we’ll be ready to challenge them for any of their tactics, but we are calling on them to sort of take the high road here.”
Amy Bentley-Smith, a spokesperson for the CSU, told the Long Beach Post that the university “acknowledges all workers’ rights to organize. In the event student employees are formally recognized by the California Public Employment Relations Board, we look forward to engaging with them as we do with all of our other union partners.”
Monday’s conference also included a handful of student workers from multiple campuses, who shared their experiences working various jobs, often while balancing a full class load and other jobs outside of their campus.
Cameron Macedonio, a junior at Cal State Fullerton, works as the general manager for Titan Radio. He manages radio programming and is responsible for training more than 100 student DJs. He says he also handles marketing and leads a staff of 12 students.
“I love the work, but I’m the only general manager I know who works for minimum wage,” he said. “Doing the job takes far more than the 20 hours I get paid for. I average maybe 30 or 35 on top of carrying 18 units of classes.
“I make it work, but it isn’t easy to imagine paying $340 a semester to work for minimum wage,” Macedonio said.
Many students like Macedonio say they face a 20-hour work cap, which often forces them to find work outside of campus.
Grayce Honsa, who is pursuing a double major in political science and women’s studies at San Diego State University, works as a resident advisor on campus.
“We don’t have health insurance, paid time off, sick pay—and there’s so much instability within that,” she said. “There are so many student assistants who need to work to support themselves, yet the university doesn’t give that support back to the people who are making the university run every single day.”
The effort is the latest contentious labor campaign between California’s public universities and campus workers. Last year, the University of California saw a massive strike across its campuses in which 50,000 teaching assistants and academic workers went on strike for 40 days. Out of that effort, they garnered contracts for higher wages and better working conditions.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Catherine Hutchinson’s name.