The inspiring wave of student worker organizing that the Trump administration tried to stop

Nearly 45,000 student workers at private colleges and universities have formed unions since 2022, seeking to bargain with their employers over wages, health care, protections from harassment and discrimination, and other issues. These student workers include graduate student teaching assistants, undergraduate and graduate student resident assistants, and student dining workers. They are organizing across the country, from Duke University in the South to Northwestern University in the Midwest, Boston University in the Northeast, and California Institute of Technology in the West.

This surge in student worker organizing reflects a recent trend, with support for unions at record highs, especially among young workers. Petitions for union representation elections are up 35% at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) compared with last year, building upon significant increases over the last few years. The NLRB has also helped streamline the representation election process by adopting new rules that have cut the time between election petition and election from 105 days last year to 59 days.Young workers, including student workers, were a large part of the increase in union membership last year.

But none of these student workers would have had a right to a union under the Trump administration. The Trump NLRB proposed, and was on the verge of finalizing, a rule that excluded private college and university student workers from coverage under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), taking the position that student workers are not “employees.” The Trump NLRB rule would have stripped 1.5 million student workers of their organizing rights. Fortunately, in March 2021, the NLRB withdrew this wrongheaded rule following the election of President Joe Biden and his appointment of a democratic chair, Lauren McFerran. Dozens of petitions for representation elections among student workers have followed. 

This action is one of many detailed in a new report by EPI contrasting the actions of President Biden’s NLRB appointees with the Trump NLRB. Our report finds that the Biden NLRB has made great progress undoing the damage inflicted by the Trump NLRB and has taken additional actions to support workers’ organizing and bargaining rights under the NLRA.

In the past 2.5 years, more than 60 groups of student workers have filed petitions for representation elections. As of May 1, 46 student worker representation elections have been held, with 44,186 student workers forming unions.

Table 1

NLRB elections involving student workers, 2022–2024

2022 2023 2024 Total number of workers
9 27 10 44,186

Source: As of May 1, 2024. Data is compiled from the NLRB's advanced data search function. Data only include elections with completed tallied votes.

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Notably, student workers have won every single election that has been held, and student workers have voted by overwhelming margins to unionize. On average, a whopping 91.3% of student workers have voted in favor of forming a union during their elections.

Table 2

Student workers overwhelming vote in favor of forming unions: Average “yes” vote rate of student worker elections, 2022–2024

2022 2023 2024 Overall 
93.5% 91.2% 89.4% 91.3%

Source: As of May 1, 2024. Data is compiled from the NLRB's advanced data search function. Data only include elections with completed tallied votes.

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More student workers have gained a union through their employer voluntarily recognizing their union based on a showing of majority support, as Brown University recently did. And it’s not just student workers at private colleges who are organizing. Public university student workers have also formed unions, including tens of thousands of student workers at the University of California, Rutgers University, California State University, and more. 

Young workers–including student workers–are growing the labor movement in inspiring and impressive numbers. Fortunately, the Biden NLRB–unlike its predecessor–supports their rights.