The student news site of California State University - Los Angeles

University Times

The student news site of California State University - Los Angeles

University Times

The student news site of California State University - Los Angeles

University Times

Thousands of students across the CSU system set on union vote

Raised by a zoologist father, Danielle Lee found a passion for environment conservation early on in life. It’s the reason she decided to become a compost intern in the sustainability department at her university, Cal State Northridge, a student assistant role she was eager to fill despite its lack of benefits and little pay. 


Although she has one of the more physically-demanding student assistant jobs, smashing fruits, vegetables and other plants to make nutrient-rich soil (compost) to use throughout the university’s botanical garden, Lee isn’t paid any differently. 


“I mean, it’s a student assistant job so I was just happy to receive whatever pay rate it was, but it is lower than local minimum wage,” said the TV production major.


As a student assistant, Lee makes the state minimum wage of $15.50 compared to the city minimum of $16.90, a special exemption CSUs hold as a state institution. That could change soon, however, as Lee and over 19,300 students will vote to unionize alongside the California State University Employees Union (CSUEU) on Thursday, Jan. 25. The alliance could potentially more than double the union’s current size of 16,000 support staff.


Although she won’t be a student assistant for much longer, Lee’s voting with her successors’ best interest in mind. 


“It’s not about me anymore. I’m a senior. I’m leaving,” Lee said. “I’d rather see the security for people after me and to make sure that the unionization is there and that the abilities are there for future student assistants.”


In addition to higher wages, students are aiming for paid sick time, discounted campus parking and more hours offered each week, as the current system caps them at 20 hours. 


As of now, it’s unclear just how much of a raise or how many hours student assistants would like to work, as all agreements and negotiations would take place following the union vote.


Last fall, students and CSUEU representatives lobbied in Sacramento where they met with legislators and submitted thousands of union cards, which the California Public Employment Relations Board deemed was enough support to hold a union election.


Although he couldn’t make it out in the fall, Cal State LA CSUEU Chapter President Kenneth Castillo attended Lobby Day last spring where he had the chance to bend the ears of legislators in support of unionization. Although Castillo isn’t heavily involved in the student organizing aspect of the movement, he was surprised to hear the challenges his peers faced. 


“What I have heard from my colleagues that are involved in the student campaign was that the CSU was being very difficult,” Castillo said. “When it came to the [union] cards they were pushing back and didn’t want the students going to card counts. They tried all the factors that any corporation would do to prevent their workforce from having a union vote.”


As a Cal State LA alumnus and former student assistant, some could say that Castillo has a deep-rooted devotion for helping students organize. He spent five years working in IT as a student before deciding to make a career of it, now an equipment systems specialist for the university. Reflecting on decades of work, Castillo remembers the times he was sick and lost out on pay as a student. 


“To me, it’s just the basic human right when it comes to labor,” Castillo said. “Throughout the history of the CSU, students have been a pool of cheap labor who are paid less than what they’re worth.” 


Ballots were emailed to eligible student assistants via their campus email on Wednesday, Jan. 24, and voting will end on Feb. 22. The CSUEU remains active on social media, pinpointing their demands while encouraging students to vote.


It is unclear how student unionization could affect campus life and whether or not a union would limit the amount of student assistant positions available. While there is a lot of support behind unionization, not all students agree with the movement. Some said that giving all students extra hours and pay would weigh on departments financially. 


Despite the uncertainty, Lee said she feels the security a union offers will help students more than it will hurt them, emphasizing their voice and providing a crutch to stand on come contract bargaining time. 


“Through union there’s power so I’m able to say ‘Let me just cast my vote and take my place in making sure things happen for other people,’” Lee said. 


The University Times reached out to CSU media relations for comment and received the following response: 


“California State University respects the rights of workers to unionize. Should student assistants elect to unionize, the CSU looks forward to engaging with them as we do with our other union partners.”

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About the Contributor
Marcos Franco
Marcos Franco, Managing Editor
Marcos is a journalism major who focuses on news coverage of underreported people, communities and nonprofits on the Eastside and South L.A. He also has experience in entertainment reporting and freelances for local news outlets.

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