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Cal State undergrad student workers vote to unionize

A person walks down a sidewalk toward a large glass-fronted building.
A student at San Francisco State University walks through campus in 2022. Undergrad student workers at the school and other Cal State campuses have voted to unionize. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Undergraduate student workers at California State University voted to join a union in hopes of negotiating better pay, sick time, paid parking and other benefits with the university, creating the largest such union in the country, officials announced Friday.

The California Public Employment Relations Board said 7,252 student workers submitted electronic ballots between Jan. 25 and Feb. 22, with 7,050 voting in favor of joining the California State University Employees Union, or CSUEU.

Student assistants at the largest four-year university system in the country last April submitted a petition with thousands of signatures asking state authorities to approve their union election and organized get-out-the-vote campaigns at the university's 23 campuses.

The university's 20,000 student assistants will join CSUEU/SEIU Local 2579, which already represents 16,000 university staff members.

The student workers say they are underpaid and unappreciated. They get paid $16.25 an hour, which is the state's minimum wage. They do not receive paid sick leave and are not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week.

"Many of us will only be here for four years. But we know that this isn't just for us, this is for every student worker who comes after us," Gem Gutierrez, a student assistant at Sacramento State, said during a Zoom meeting after the vote results were announced.

CSU Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Leora Freedman said in a statement the university respects the student assistants' decision to unionize and "looks forward to bargaining in good faith with the newly formed CSUEU student assistant unit."

Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry told the students Friday they are making history as the largest undergraduate student worker union in the country. "I'm here to tell you that your victory will reverberate, inspiring change for millions all across the country as the next generation of leaders in our movement," she said.

Emilio Carrasco, a junior majoring in liberal studies at California State University, Fresno, works 20 hours as an administrative assistant in the dean's office of the Department of Education at his university. He gets financial aid and some help from his parents, but he still needs to work help pay rent and buy food.

He said he is lucky to only need one job but that other student assistants have two or three jobs to make ends meet.

"The CSU says that their goal is to help the student body to make sure they're set up for success. But it's kind of hypocritical in a way because they're not paying many of the student assistants enough to even support themselves, to pay their rent, pay for food, pay for bills," he said.

Last month, California State University faculty members reached a tentative contract agreement with the university the same day that nearly 30,000 professors, librarians, coaches and other workers went on strike. Members of the California Faculty Association suspended their planned weeklong walkout and returned to work the following day.