Union Activity on Campus: How Institutions of Higher Education Can Prepare for Unionization Efforts by Student Workers

6 min

Union organization campaigns are on the rise again, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”). Institutions of Higher Education (“IHEs”) are wise to take notice. This past year, resident advisors and other student workers at IHEs across the United States, including Boston University and Columbia University, announced plans to unionize and filed NLRB petitions for union organization. IHEs interested in avoiding union activity should prepare now, before a union shows up on campus. Below are some practical tips for IHEs to address union organization issues.

Why are Student Workers Considering Union Membership?

One of the best ways for IHEs to tackle union organization issues is to understand why student workers turn to unions in the first place. Recent examples of union organization campaigns at IHEs suggest that student workers believe union membership may provide them better benefits in the following areas:

  • Increased compensation
  • Greater access to training and equipment
  • Workload management
  • Job security protections
  • Health insurance and other employee benefits

In addition to the issues above, arguably the most common catalyst for union organization campaigns is a sentiment amongst employees – rightly or wrongly – that their voices are not heard by their employer. Open lines of communication are critical for any IHE seeking to avoid a union organization campaign. Therefore, IHEs should create policies and procedures for student workers to raise concerns with their managers. IHEs should also consider proactively addressing the issues above before concerns are raised by student workers. By doing so, IHEs may show their student workers that a union is not necessary to resolve issues with their employer.

The Importance of Training Managers

Creating open lines of communication is only half of the equation, however. Mechanisms for raising concerns do little good if managers do not how to respond to the student workers’ concerns. Savvy employers often conduct manager training sessions where an experienced labor relations professional reviews the do’s and don’ts of communicating with employees about union organization issues. These do’s and don’ts include:

The Do’s – Managers may (and should) engage in the following discussions with student workers considering union membership:

  • Share facts about the union organizing process and the realities of union membership. For example, some student workers may not realize that they will need to pay monthly membership dues if they join a union. Other student workers may not know that once they join a union, they will be prohibited from speaking directly with their managers about terms and conditions of employment.
  • Tell student workers that union membership is their choice, and no one else’s. They are free to support or not support a union as they see fit.
  • Express opinions about whether union membership is a good fit for the student workers. Too often managers misbelieve that they need to keep mum about their opinions of union membership. They do not, and in most cases, they should not.
  • Answer employees’ questions about the IHE’s policies and explain why the IHE’s current wages and benefits for student workers are fair and competitive.
  • Assure student workers that whether or not they join a union, the IHE is committed to treating the student workers fairly and to promoting a good work environment.
  • Explain to student workers that if they do join a union, then they will be prohibited from speaking with their mangers directly about terms and conditions of employment. Instead, they will have to contact their union representative, who will then contact the manager on the student workers’ behalf. This could mean that any time a student worker wants a raise, a promotion, or an extra day of vacation, the student worker may need to ask a union representative to speak to the IHE instead of speaking to a manager directly.

The Don’ts – Although managers have free speech rights that they should exercise in accordance with the above suggestions, an employer is also prohibited from various types of statements and actions in connection with a union organization effort. Many of these statements or actions are human nature and may seem innocent enough, but the National Labor Relations Act prohibits the following activities, which are often described by unions and labor lawyers under the acronym “T.I.P.S.” because of the prohibitions against threats, interrogations, promises, and surveillance:

  • Threats. IHEs must not threaten action against student workers for supporting a union or engaging in other union-related activity. For example, telling student workers that the IHE will cut their pay if they join a union. That is a clear case of a prohibited threat, and the IHE may face an unfair labor practice charge in that situation.
  • Interrogation. Even though managers may express their opinions about union membership, IHEs must not ask student workers about whether they support joining a union. That type of inquiry is a step too far, according to the NLRB. Nevertheless, if a student worker voluntarily shares their views of union membership, that is not a violation.
  • Promises. IHEs must not promise student workers better benefits if they oppose union membership. This is a common reaction by many managers. They may feel inclined to tell student workers, in effect, “If you don’t sign a union card, I’ll make sure you get that pay bump that you’re looking for.” That type of promise is prohibited.
  • Surveillance. IHEs must not monitor student workers’ discussions about union membership or organization efforts. For example, managers should not record, photograph, or eavesdrop on student workers when they are discussing union membership issues.

Strategic Considerations for Neutrality Agreements and Voluntary Recognition

Some IHEs may welcome a union on their campus, whereas others may not. Strenuous opposition to union membership is not always the best option for an IHE. Each IHE’s campus dynamic is different, and therefore, each IHE should decide for itself whether it wants to encourage or discourage union membership for its student workers.

In some situations where an IHE may feel compelled to forego a traditional anti-union organization campaign, a union may ask an IHE to sign a document called a “neutrality agreement” or a “labor peace agreement.” These documents, generally speaking, set forth rules of conduct for the union and employer during a union organization campaign. A neutrality agreement/labor peace agreement is often a critical document, however. It should be carefully and strategically negotiated with the union. Otherwise, an IHE may find itself hamstrung later when it tries to exercise its free speech rights discussed above. And in some cases, unions add to their neutrality agreements/labor peace agreements very union-friendly rules for union card checks and in-person access to employees on the employer’s premises. These rules often pave the way for a union to convince employees that they should sign union cards. Therefore, if a union proposes a neutrality agreement or labor peace agreement, an IHE should immediately contact an experienced labor attorney.

Please do not hesitate to contact the authors of this article if your IHE has any questions about union organization issues.