When we founded Sunrise Oberlin in the spring of 2019, our very first action was to drive to Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office in Cleveland and ask that he support the Green New Deal. We posted our plans on social media, and connected with several Kenyon students who were passionate about climate justice. Despite having just a few days notice, they made the trip to Cleveland and joined us in Brown’s office. A few months later, we traveled to Kenyon to attend an incredible student-led conference on climate change and racial justice. We came away from both events with a clear lesson: If our generation is going to build a better world, we need to be organized, and we need power. That’s why we’re standing with Kenyon student workers as they fight for unionization.
We believe that all workers deserve a union. The evidence is clear: Unions deliver for working people. Full-time union workers across the country make about 23% more than their non-union counterparts, and enjoy more generous benefits, stronger job security and safer working conditions. That’s why Sunrise is fighting for the creation of millions of good-paying union jobs through a Green New Deal, and why we support Kenyon students’ unionization campaign.
Unfortunately, only 10.3% of United States workers belong to a union, a number that has been declining since the late 1960s. As unionization rates have fallen, economic inequality has skyrocketed and wages have stagnated. Student workers can play an important role in reversing this trend.
One of the strategies used by those in power to undermine workers is to divide us up, and tell us who does and does not belong in the labor movement. They tell white-collar employees that unions are only for blue-collar laborers, and they tell native-born workers to turn their resentment away from their bosses and toward immigrants who are supposedly stealing their jobs. And they tell students that we don’t need unions, that we’re not real workers and should just focus on school. It’s time to do away with all of these myths — every worker has the right to unionize, and unions are for everyone!
Kenyon students’ unionization campaign is an inspiration to Oberlin student workers, and an example that we would do well to follow. Not only would a union give us the power to fight for higher pay and fairer treatment from Oberlin, it would also offer us a meaningful way to support full-time staff in their contract negotiations. Student workers at Oberlin are rarely paid more than $10 per hour, and it isn’t much better for full-time employees. Last spring, the school laid off 108 dining and custodial workers, who were unionized at the time through United Auto Workers, and hired them back through an outside contractor at a fraction of the pay. With a student union, we could win higher wages for everyone.
Workplace safety is also a problem on Oberlin’s campus: Both full-time and student workers, including multiple members of Sunrise Oberlin, have suffered injuries working for campus dining. A fair contract won through collective bargaining could address this issue as well.
That said, unionization is about more than just a fair contract — it would give student workers a voice in the workplace and power in public life. This is more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, as colleges across the country have become sites of uncontrolled spread. At the University of Michigan, unionized graduate students went on strike to demand that the school take COVID-19 seriously and go remote. The strike failed, and, as predicted, the University has completely failed to contain the spread of the virus, leading to rising hospitalizations across the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. If undergraduate student workers had been unionized as well and joined the strike, perhaps it would have succeeded and this tragedy could have been avoided.
COVID-19 is just the tip of the iceberg: Our generation is facing a multitude of crises, from climate change to student debt to racial injustice, and worker power is the greatest tool we have to take them on. By unionizing and acting collectively, Oberlin students could pressure our school to, for example, divest from fossil fuels — and Kenyon students could do the same. Together, we can demand that our elected officials take action to stop climate change, and build a fairer economy along the way. Unionization is the best way for our generation to win dignified work and build a better world — not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
Sunrise Oberlin is a youth-led climate advocacy group and local chapter of Sunrise Movement, based in Oberlin College.