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Labor Rights and College Education

This post was originally published at The Diamondback. Reposted with permission.

By Olivia Delaplaine

Top on the long list of worries for most graduating students is the prospect of finding a job. Each day a hiring manager doesn’t email us back or a website removes a job listing — and the looming anxiety of paying back exorbitant student loans draws closer — our desperation grows. Soon, we abandon pipe dreams of a livable salary with health insurance and paid leave, and begin to search for any work we can find.

We enter interviews insecure, self-conscious and vulnerable. We might take the first offer that comes our way, because we don’t know any better. We feel like it’s a privilege to even be offered a job; so who are we to ask for a higher salary, fixed hours or better health insurance? It’s not like we had the chance to negotiate as a part-time student employee, teaching assistant or intern. We may have even tolerated daily harassment or intimidation while doing our jobs, unable to do anything about it. Why should we expect that to change?

So instead of convincing us that we should dress up and put on a show for companies and organizations that won’t even pay us a living wage, our institutions of higher education should have a central role in preparing students for the workplace. Just as they’re active in teaching us marketable skills, they should be teaching us about how to negotiate fair pay and benefits.

A core part of our General Education curriculum should be focused on learning about the history of unions and collective bargaining and current federal, state and local labor laws and protections.

The concept of collective bargaining is simple. Workers come together as a group to negotiate their salaries and benefits. With collective bargaining rights, workers have the chance to form a union and elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf, based on the needs, desires and values that all the union’s members decide democratically.

Thankfully, organizers across campus are fighting on our behalf. University of Maryland graduate students have been advocating for the right to collectively bargain in order to protect themselves from unfair conditions. Student Government Association President Jonathan Allen worked with Del. Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) to introduce a bill that would give college athletes collective bargaining rights, which could prevent another death like Jordan McNair’s from happening.

With a union, student athletes might be able to organize to negotiate for better health care, shorter practice hours, or even a salary. Graduate students could negotiate for a higher stipend. Yet students at this university come and go without instruction in the basics of workplace organizing, collective bargaining or even the bare minimum of individual salary negotiation. As a result, we enter workplaces powerless and vulnerable.

For example, did you know that both national and state law require that bosses pay their workers overtime 1.5 times their hourly wage for every hour worked over 40 hours a week? What about that in 2017, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring paid sick leave?

Teach students how to demand that their managers make wages public. Empower us to go into job interviews confident and prepared, practicing salary negotiation just as much — if not more — than our elevator pitch. Heck, give students scholarship in practice credit for organizing on campus to put that learning into action.

In 2018, AFSCME won a raise for its employees. In 2019, athletes and graduate students could win collective bargaining rights. If we come together and commit to actively learning about labor rights now, who knows what we could win in 2020?

Olivia Delaplaine is a senior government and politics major at the University of Maryland. She can be reached at odelaplaine15@gmail.com.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue via flickr (cc-by)