CSU students filed for a union. Their strategy could help teleworkers and Gen Z organize, too

Student employees in the California State University system announced Tuesday that they are one step closer to forming what they say would be the largest non-academic union of undergraduate student workers in the country.

The student assistants, with support from the SEIU-affiliated California State University Employees Union, have submitted more than 8,500 digital union cards signed by fellow student workers to the Public Employment Relations Board. That’s more than enough to trigger a union vote.

Many CSU student assistants say they’re financially independent and need a union to advocate for higher wages, more hours and paid time off for sickness and holidays. They work their student jobs, and sometimes outside gigs, in order to cover basic living expenses such as rent, transportation and groceries.

Any CSU campus department can hire students to assist full-time staffers with their work. Although the students often complete the same types of work as staffers, they don’t receive any of the benefits or protections unionized workers have. If a student worker gets sick, they can’t get sick pay. Unless they can afford to forgo the hours, they have to arrange to make up the time later.

The Tuesday announcement comes after months of back-and-forth discussions between the union and the university to determine how many student assistants are actually employed across the CSU’s 23 campuses. That total number would determine how many signed union cards organizers needed to submit, since at least 30% of the represented employees must demonstrate support for a union in order to trigger an election.

Students submitted more than 4,000 signatures to PERB back in April in the hopes that they would have enough, and they continued gathering support throughout the summer. The union and university system finally agreed in early September that there were around 19,000 student assistants working for CSU, meaning the union would need at least 5,700 signatures to show the required 30% support.

CSU has until Oct. 12 to respond to PERB’s finding that the students have proof of support for a union election. The board would then set a date for an election. That date would likely be in a few months.

Why do students want a union?

Cameron Macedonio, a fourth-year journalism student at California State University Fullerton, worked through the summer to recruit thousands of his peers to sign union cards and join as organizers. The 20-year-old has worked as a student assistant for nearly his entire college career and says that student employment is supposed to serve as a safety net for students who need to support themselves financially.

At the heart of the unionization push is a fundamental disagreement about what role a student job should play. The university says it caps student assistant hours at 20 per week when classes are in session to ensure students have enough time to study and pursue their degree. During break periods, student assistants can work up to 40 hours in a week.

“Work hours are intended to be flexible to accommodate the academic program of the student,” CSU spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith previously wrote to The Sacramento Bee in an email, “ensuring they can focus on their education, progress to (a) degree and participate in opportunities that support and enhance their education, such as internship and research opportunities.”

But students who are financially independent, and in many cases first-generation, have told The Bee that the CSU is misguided for believing that 20 hours of pay at minimum wage is enough to afford living expenses.

Twenty hours a week at the state minimum wage of $15.50 an hour, or $310 a week, isn’t enough income to cover Macedonio’s $1,400 rent, let alone other expenses like food, utilities and his car payment. He takes on outside gigs, such as DoorDash, when he can. But mostly he’s been digging into his savings to make ends meet.

Some of his peers end up working extra jobs off campus, which he said runs contrary to the university’s goal of giving students time to focus on their classes.

Still, student employment offers perks that off-campus jobs can’t provide, such as flexibility with scheduling and convenience for students who don’t have their own cars or international students without work permits. That alluring flexibility makes it difficult for students to say no to on-campus work, Macedonio says.

“It’s almost kind of like a Venus flytrap,” he said. “It’s this thing that looks super appealing, and then once you’re there, you kind of get stuck.”

In April, Macedonio was working as a general manager for the campus radio station when one day he learned that the station had run out of funds to pay its student workers. He ended up finishing out the academic year without pay.

That experience inspired him to dive deep into union organizing.

“I thought, ‘If I can’t do something right now for myself, then I want to do something to help make sure this never happens again to anyone, whether it’s in a year from now or 10 years from now,’” Macedonio said.

Digital-only campaigns unite statewide (and Gen Z) workforce

Instead of circulating physical petitions or going door-to-door to get student support, Macedonio and other student organizers deployed a digital-only campaign that consisted of emails, texts and social media posts. Students could sign up to support the unionization effort by filling out a form with their name and contact information.

Macedonio said he could send out emails to nearly 900 student assistants in a matter of minutes. He sent at least three follow-up emails and texts to each person that he contacted. Digital organizing gave the largely Gen Z student assistant population a “home field advantage,” he said, since people his age are less likely to engage with in-person canvassers or answer unsolicited phone calls.

“I don’t want to overwhelm them. I want them to know that this is a safe, comfortable space for them,” Macedonio said. “They choose when to respond. They choose what information they want to take in. They choose whether or not they have the capacity to engage with this right now.”

Since organizers like Macedonio were given their own unique sign-up links to distribute to students, CSUEU was able to identify their most active advocates. Macedonio said he was speaking at a news conference only four days after agreeing to help with the signature-gathering effort.

Digital-only organizing and the use of digital union cards makes it much easier for unions to organize employees who are spread out across a large geographic area – such as California’s state workforce. It’s also easier to reach employees who are teleworking and who wouldn’t normally come into their offices and meet with union representatives.

Although unions have used electronic methods to sign up new members for some time now, digital-only campaigns are a relatively new and emerging trend in the labor movement. Other unions in California have used digital sign-ups before, but usually organizers meet employees in person through traditional door-to-door canvassing and then provide a tablet or computer for the person to sign up digitally.

“I think it’s fairly new, but it makes a lot of sense,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, leader of the California Labor Federation. “Students are obviously easier to reach digitally.”

Kerianne Steele, general counsel for CSUEU, said PERB in 2018 had originally ruled against allowing digital signatures for union representation petitions. But after backlash from labor organizers, the board worked to change its policies over the next three years. PERB introduced new policies in 2021 that allowed for unions to submit electronic signatures for union recognition petitions.

“The only way in a modern era to organize a large statewide unit, like CSUEU is so successfully doing, is to have people be able to express their support using digital signatures,” Steele said. “Student workers have signed all sorts of student loan applications digitally. Why can’t they express their support for the union the same way?”