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Undergraduate student assistants at the California State University system submitted 4,000 signed union cards to the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) on Monday, hoping to prompt the board to schedule a vote.

The students, some of whom are financially independent, say they need higher wages—or more hours—and benefits like paid sick days and holidays in order to make ends meet. System leaders say the students’ hours are limited to 20 a week during the school year to maximize their time focused on academics.

If the PERB schedules an election, a simple majority of yes votes is required to establish the union; the next step would be institutional approval, which could be offered voluntarily or sought through a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

It’s the latest labor action at the country’s largest public university system, after a recent push for wage increases by researchers, adjuncts and support workers, and builds upon a trend of increasingly bold labor initiatives in higher ed more broadly.

CSU undergraduate workers sought union recognition in 2021 as well, as part of the broader California State University Employees Union, which represents all staffers across the system’s 23 campuses. That effort was halted when the PERB voted that student workers’ roles were too distinct from those of other campus employees to be in the same bargaining unit.

Unlike graduate student workers—who have won a string of unionization votes since the landmark 2017 NLRB ruling on Columbia University graduate students’ right to form collective bargaining units—undergraduate student unions are still rare and the subject of more contentious debate.

Administrators and higher ed lobbyists argue that student workers’ relationship to their institutions is primarily educational, superseding the employer-employee relationship that makes unionization necessary; many students say that at their jobs, work-study or not, they are treated as workers. The NLRB has gone back and forth on the question.

If successful, the CSU student assistants’ union would be the largest in the country by far, and one of only a handful of successful organizing efforts by undergraduates.