The Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE) passed its card check and is now the nation’s first undergraduate union to be voluntarily recognized. The announcement came on Tuesday, March 22, nearly three weeks after the union went public. The recognition occurred after the American Arbitration Association confirmed that a majority of Residential Life (ResLife) workers signed authorization cards—legal documents stating that the workers want to unionize and be represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).
There are two different ways for a union to form: involuntary or voluntary recognition. Involuntary recognition is achieved when a union files for an election with a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after 30% of its employees sign cards confirming their involvement. Voluntary recognition is attained when the bargain unit—a group of workers who share sentiments regarding their condition of employment—fills out cards which ask for recognition. Voluntary recognition is achieved when a union files for an election with a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) after 30% of its employees sign cards confirming their involvement WesUSE has completed the voluntary recognition process and is fully acknowledged by the University.
ResLife student workers formed the union to renegotiate their contracts with the University. Now officially representative of those workers, WesUSE aims to leverage this recognition to bolster its ability to bargain with the University for better working conditions, training resources, and compensation. WesUSE will begin regular meetings with the administration to rewrite the union’s contract with the University in early April.
“Starting the week of the 11th, we’re going to meet with the administration just to go over negotiations, so rewriting the contract and going over the things we’ve been talking about,” Community Advisor (CA) for ResLife and a Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) Senator on the Student Life Committee (SLC) Ruby Clarke ’24 said.
In the weeks since the union publicly announced its formation, WesUSE has continued to be active on campus: they facilitated a sit-in at Exley Science Center on Saturday, March 5, and hosted a second rally on Sunday, March 6. In addition, the WSA introduced a supportive resolution on March 6. To WesUSE organizer and Light House House Manager (HM) Charissa Lee ’23, there is a sense of empowerment in being formally recognized as a union, particularly considering the pace at which WesUSE is expanding.
“Activism work at Wesleyan is very draining because, for the most part, there are no results, or at least the results take a long time to come into fruition,” Lee wrote in an email to The Argus. “We began organizing conversations two weeks into the semester and before spring break we won voluntary recognition. It’s unbelievable how fast this whole process was. Other undergraduate student workers in America have taken months to win recognition, but we were able to do it quickly.”
According to Clarke, WesUSE has seen an outpouring of support from the University community.
“I think it’s just been amazing to hear the response and support from community members here at Wesleyan,” Clarke said. “I think it’s also been cool to hear other students speak about how a union could be beneficial for themselves in their own workplace outside of ResLife, as well as that conversation carrying over into faculty and staff positions, because I think like the way how quickly our process has gone has given other people potential hope in ways that they might not have necessarily seen this as a feasible action.”
Moreover, WesUSE’s recognition has been positively received and championed by Middletown elected officials. Local leaders have voiced their support in-person at rallies and online through social media.
“Congrats to Wesleyan’s undergraduate residential life workers on winning recognition for Connecticut’s newest labor bargaining unit…and making some labor history in the process,” Connecticut State Senator Matt Lesser ’10 wrote in a tweet. “So impressed by these student workers.”
The recognition process started with the mobilization and collective action of WesUSE members. This work included collecting authorization cards for union members, submitting a request for voluntary recognition, and signing a legal document listing explicit terms. Clarke noted that WesUSE needed a signed agreement between itself and the University to avoid an election with the NLRB.
“We needed to come to a written legal agreement with the University to make sure that we had a plan moving forward to proceed with the card check, and so luckily we signed that,” Clarke said.
This work culminated in the subsequent card check in early March.
“[It] was a monumental occasion,” Clarke said. “We had 84% of the bargaining unit having signed cards, which is just an amazing amount.”
There are many things that Clarke is excited about regarding WesUSE moving forward, including a successful bargaining process with the administration, support from the University community, and securing a new contract.
“I’m excited about all the changes that are gonna happen, the ways in which our contract is going to be renegotiated, the ways in which we’re gonna be building new avenues for connection between students and administration, as well as the skills and opportunities that students are gonna be able to cultivate now that there is a union on campus for them,” Clarke said. “It’s a cool opportunity to be at the bargaining table negotiating for different terms of our contract.”
Nonetheless, Clarke emphasized that the process of unionizing is ongoing.
“[Finalizing contracts is] not something you do once, but something you do every couple of years,” Clarke said. “So that’s something we need to figure out, especially in a workplace where there is massive turnover.”
Though there is still work to do, Clarke highlighted the importance of WesUSE as an empowering tool for student workers to make their voices heard relative to the University at large.
“I think it’s important to think about these things, especially in the context of an educational place like this, because we don’t have the same ability to voice our concerns about the workplace and our desires about the workplace by restricting our labor,” Clarke said. “And so WesUSE is important to be recognized because this is a concrete way we can have the school listen to what we need and want.”
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