Student workers, consider joining a union

Bennett Burke, Contributor

If you are a student worker, you can and should join the nationwide labor movement.

Unions and the labor movement have been on everyone’s mind lately: from the ongoing Starbucks unionization efforts like the ones near UT at 24th and Nueces, 22nd and Rio Grande, and 45th and Lamar, or the historic win of the independent Amazon Labor Union at a warehouse in Staten Island, people across the nation are all in for organized labor. If you are a UT student who also has a job, you can take part in this.

Because UT is a public university, employees of UT are technically considered employees of the state of Texas, and there is a union for these employees. Local 6186 of the Communication Workers of America (CWA) is designated as the Texas State Employees Union. I am proudly a member and have been since I started work as a research assistant for a history professor in the summer of 2021.

You may have seen headlines on Twitter about Starbucks and Amazon firing their workers who attempt to unionize. Unionizing is indeed a very tough challenge if you work somewhere without a union, but the CWA already won that battle on behalf of Texas state employees in the 1980s. Employees of the City of Austin, which include library workers and lifeguards at Barton Springs, also have a union: AFSCME Local 1624, another union for public employees that already exists and is easy to join.

If you do not work for UT or the City of Austin, you might not have an existing union at your workplace, but you can still play a crucial role in the nationwide labor movement. The efforts at Starbucks and Amazon did not materialize out of thin air, they begin after months, or sometimes even years, of coworkers having conversations with one another. If you support unions and the labor movement but are not sure where to start, have a conversation with a coworker you trust about what you do and don’t like about your job, and what things you would change if you could. These conversations are a crucial starting point for getting your coworkers to think seriously about the prospect of organizing a union. Even if you don’t think you’ll be at your current job for long enough to see a unionization effort through to the end, you can still set the stage and help your coworkers realize their potential to organize.

Another way to get involved in the labor movement is seeking a job in sectors that are already unionized after graduation. As students, we live in an environment of fierce competition, where we exhaust ourselves applying for a limited number of often unpaid internships for companies in our field as graduation creeps closer. Seeking a career working in unionized sectors provides an alternative to this rat race. Union jobs in fields like nursing, education, and logistics have good pay and benefits, and you have the opportunity to join an existing union and shape the trajectory of their work.

Because we live in a capitalist economy, workers do not have that much power when they attempt to stand alone and ask their boss for better pay or benefits. But when workers unite together, they have the power to shut down workplaces until they get their way. This logic can be applied beyond the workplace, though. The actions that unions take do not have to be isolated to workplace issues like pay or benefits. In the summer of 2020, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down ports up and down the west coast by striking in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. If union density increases and people like you and me who want progressive change are helping shape the labor movement, actions like these can be replicated on an even larger scale. We have the potential in our lifetimes to threaten existing power structures and radically change our world.

The labor movement is a secret weapon that gives ordinary people, including students like us, power that the ruling class insists we don’t really have. But we can’t use that power until we all unite together and make the labor movement strong. You can do your part today by joining an existing union, like the ones representing UT and City of Austin workers, talking to your coworkers about things they would like to change, or seeking a unionized job after graduation. Whatever your situation, you can join the labor movement and help change the world.

Bennett Burke is a third year history and communication studies major from McKinney, Texas and a rank and file member of CWA Local 6186.