As the largest student protest movement of the 21st century has roiled college campuses, including several colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area, a parallel campus organizing effort has been underway: unionization.

While the key bargaining issues for many of these unions are compensation, benefits, courseload, and workplace protections against sexual harassment and discrimination, campus unions are also increasingly becoming a bulwark against administrative crackdowns on Gaza-related protests. 

“Part of the reason why I am part of this whole movement for student labor at Oxy is to accelerate positive change led by students,” said Emma Galbraith, a junior at Occidental and organizer with Rising Occidental Student Employees (ROSE). “A big part of that is making sure that students are able to protest, without censorship and especially without violent intimidation.”

A student organizer speaks at a rally in support of a student-worker union. (Avery Ferrier / LA Public Press)

At the end of April, Occidental undergraduate student workers voted on unionization, the culmination of a monthslong campaign by ROSE. If successful, it will be the latest in a string of new student-worker unions at private higher education institutions in LA: Graduate students at CalTech voted to unionize early this year, and GSWOC-UAW Local 872, the union that represents USC grad students, ratified their first contract this past December. 

Galbraith says student workers are in a unique position. “You live where you work, and you study where you work, and you eat where you work,” she explains. That means student-worker unions have a unique opportunity to address twin sets of issues, or as Galbraith asks, “How do we not only make things better for student workers in the workplace, but also think creatively about the many community issues on this campus that affect the workplace directly?” 

In a statement, Occidental College welcomed the vote. “The College supports students’ right to make this determination and encouraged all eligible students to exercise their right to vote in the election,” a spokesperson for the college said via email. “We look forward to hearing the election’s outcome once the National Labor Relations Board has counted all the votes.” The results are expected in mid-June. 

According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 45,000 student workers at private colleges and universities nationwide have unionized via election since 2022, reflecting a more pro-labor stance among the youngest generation of workers. “Under the National Labor Relations act, depending on who’s in office, there have been different board decisions at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about whether graduate students, teaching assistants, [and other student workers] have the right to form unions,” said Margaret Poydock, a senior policy analyst at EPI and author of the report. 

Poydock told LA Public Press that student workers at private universities gained the right to form unions and collectively bargain in a 2016 NLRB decision concerning Columbia graduate students’ effort to unionize — a right that the Trump-era NLRB attempted and failed to revoke. (Public universities are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act, which excludes employees of state and local governments. Their unionization and bargaining rights are determined by local and state law.)  

After university administrations moved to suppress campus protests with arrests, encampment sweeps, and heightened campus security, some existing unions have intervened to protect students’ right to political protest. GSWOC-UAW Local 872, the union that represents USC grad students, filed charges of unfair labor practices against the university on April 29 after the violent police response to the protests at USC that centered the famine, siege, and destruction in Gaza.

For Shenali Pilapitiya, a first-year political science graduate student at USC and an organizer with GSWOC, the link between the labor movement and the anti-war effort is clear. “Movements like BDS — boycott, divest, sanctions — are global calls for worker solidarity,” she said.

The union alleges that the arrests of union members participating in the Gaza Solidarity Occupation and the subsequent changes to campus security policies amounted to violations of labor law.

“Our union members aren’t just students on USC campus, they are workers and USC is actually our place of work,” said Shenali Pilapitiya, a first-year political science graduate student at USC and an organizer with GSWOC. “So it’s abhorrent that employees would be arrested in their workplace on the basis of free speech and expressing their political beliefs.” 

USC’s administration denies the claim. 

“We believe the charge is without merit and intend to defend our position before the National Labor Relations Board,” the administration said in a university statement on the charges. 

In the days since, UCLA’s graduate student union has also filed unfair labor charges with the state of California in response to May 2nd arrests, and a strike authorization vote in solidarity with pro-Palestine protesters began on Monday. 

“It is important for Academic Employees to vote YES in the strike authorization vote to show UC Administration that this unprecedented crackdown on free speech on University campuses is unacceptable,” UAW 4811, the union that represents academic workers at UC campuses, wrote in a statement, noting attacks by counter-protestors and a subsequent police crackdown

And though some student organizers involved in unionization and anti-war efforts are graduating this month, Nicholas Solimene, an organizer with ROSE and senior at Occidental, explains that having a union can keep campus movements alive even as students leave campus.

“A union doesn’t graduate,” he says. “It can be here as a support system, as a structure, even when we’ve all graduated.” 

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