Courtesy of Neorah Davis / The Highlander

James Anderson is a lecturer and freelance journalist who is from Illinois but now resides in Riverside, California. He has taught labor studies as well as media and cultural studies courses at University of California, Riverside (UCR). He is a member of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) and the The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Freelance Journalists Union. You can reach him at

Several weeks ago, Cameron Macedonio, a journalism major and the then-manager of the campus radio station at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), spoke to the Introduction to Labor Studies course I’m teaching this quarter at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). Macedonio, then a senior, told students that afternoon about how he and other student workers across the California State University (CSU) system organized the largest undergraduate labor union in United States (US) history. They won their union election earlier this year in February 2024, adding to a growing wave of undergrad labor organizing. 

Student workers across the country are not only getting an education in labor organizing. They’re also collectively struggling for their rights as academic workers. The prospects for a potent labor movement capable of improving the lives of all wage earners are bolstered by the efforts of undergrad employees to organize and thereby democratize campus workplaces. In addition, those efforts are encouraging a revaluation of education as a common good — a good that enhances and transforms social life along with the lives of those who learn and labor within it. 

In my view, every worker deserves a union. A union gives organized labor the ability to negotiate minimum wages and otherwise affords employees a meaningful say in the workplace decisions affecting them. Absent such critical input and influence, achievable through collective bargaining and through coordinated, direct action — including strikes, pickets, walkouts and marches on the boss — a workplace tends to resemble the sort of dictatorial governance many people abhor, at least rhetorically, in the established political arena. Trying to earn a living should not mean having to subordinate yourself to dictatorial rule or having to forfeit participatory self-governance. 

Student dining workers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) are trying to form a union, and I would be ecstatic were undergrad employees on all UC campuses to undertake the task of organizing every university worker who’s simultaneously seeking a four-year degree. But I’d like to see newsroom staff at UC student-run papers, including students who work for The Highlander, unionize most of all. 

There’s recent precedent for unionizing in higher education but also in the journalism world. More than a hundred newsrooms nationwide unionized between 2015 and 2022. In a field rife with layoffs and publication closures, media workers have organized to push back against top-down changes that imperil their livelihoods and threaten the integrity of an indispensable institution. Some have negotiated contracts guaranteeing layoff protections, high severance pay and wages that better reflect the value of journalism as a public good. 

Not long after the Los Angeles (LA) Times unionized, circa early 2018, Carolina Miranda, then a culture writer for the paper, spoke virtually to students in a media and cultural studies class I was teaching at UCR about the campaign that led to the formation of the LA Times Guild. In 2019, the guild and the paper reached an agreement that bolstered employment protections and stipulated increases to previously stagnant wages. This past January, in response to an announcement regarding a significant number of planned layoffs, some 300 members of the union participated in the LA Times’s first work stoppage since the paper started printing in 1881. That kind of action could be exactly what is needed to save and revivify journalism. 

At present, members of UAW 4811, the union representing postdocs as well as graduate students employed as teaching assistants, researchers and readers on UC campuses, are on strike at UCSC, UCLA and UC Davis. The union filed a series of Unfair Labor Practice charges against university management in May, in part to challenge the UC’s interference in and retaliation against Local 4811 member participation in peaceful protest and exercise of free speech rights. The First Amendment in theory protects freedom of speech and assembly vis-à-vis the government, and those protections in theory tend to apply at public universities, but a union can advance those and other rights of employees vis-à-vis employers. 

The First Amendment, as newsroom staff at student papers are likely aware, also prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of the press, in theory, if not often enough in practice. As members of undergrad-run papers at the different UC campuses continue to report on the UAW 4811 “Stand Up” strike, like some did during the largest post-secondary academic worker strike in US history in the fall of 2022, they might just get inspired to unionize themselves. If they opt to organize, they could defend their rights as working members of the press and help champion both higher education and journalism as public goods in the process. 

Op-Eds are not edited by The Highlander, excluding those related to grammatical errors and AP requirements. Op-Eds do not reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board and are not written by Highlander contracted writers.