In an effort to improve pay and working conditions on campus, United Campus Workers — a union primarily operating in states without a strong history of organized labor — is ramping up engagement on The Plains nearly four years after its Auburn location was chartered.
The only problem? Not enough campus workers know the union exists, according to Monique Laney, an associate history professor.
“We’re not quite there at that crucial point where you start seeing, okay, now we can really take some action and have a presence,” Laney admitted. “How often did I hear, ‘I’ve never heard of the union, I didn’t know that we have the union.’ That needs to change. We need to be a presence on campus.”
At the moment, Auburn’s UCW chapter is still relatively small and clustered in particular academic departments. Current members have found it difficult to break into janitorial services, groundskeeping and other skilled trades around campus.
One worker who has worked at the university for more than 30 years and wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution even mentioned receiving only a few dollars worth of raises over the course of their multi-decade tenure with the University.
It appears, however, that is beginning to change. And with certain loopholes and exceptions in Auburn’s pay policy, knowledge of the union could pay big dividends.
“There are a lot of undergrads who have hourly jobs here making minimum wage, so [$7.25] an hour, who would like very much to see that $14.50 an hour,” Roman Vasquez, a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, said. “While the University is advertising, ‘Wow, look at how much we pay our workers, $14.50,’ meanwhile they’ve got people making seven something or 11 something an hour all over campus.”
The effort on Auburn’s campus is part of a larger groundswell of support for unionization across the country, which has seen massive and sustained strikes at universities in California, food service and the recent revocation of right-to-work legislation in Michigan, a historically pro-union state.
In particular, labor organizing efforts have taken off since 2020 when COVID-related shutdowns and layoffs left an estimated 20 to 40 million Americans out in the cold before federal legislation and community-based mutual aid filled in the gaps.
“I think a lot of us, especially the graduate student unions, just feel like we have no choice, right?” Vasquez explained. If we want to stand a chance in this world, in this workforce, if we want to get the pay that we’re owed for the labor that we’re doing, we need to stand up for ourselves and for each other.”
Yet not every worker on campus can join the union. In many positions, such as food service and facilities management, employment through privately-owned companies such as Sodexo precludes workers, the majority of whom come from underrepresented backgrounds, from reaping the benefits of UCW membership.
There have also been issues recruiting those employed directly by the university. Misinformation regarding the legal status of unions in politically conservative Alabama has hampered recruiting efforts, and those with a more individualistic mindset are more than content to independently negotiate with supervisors.
“To the workers who would say that we don’t need a union here, I would just point them to David Pardo Hernandez, who was the fisheries graduate student who died. We never got to hear David’s side of the story,” Stephen Pedroza, a research assistant in the College of Veterinary Medicine who claimed he has been labeled a troublemaker by his supervisors, said of the need for campus workers to unionize. “We’ve seen on this campus too many times management just be callous toward our lives.”
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Daniel Schmidt, senior in journalism, is the assistant news editor for the Auburn Plainsman.