Learning Commons student employees took a stand against the University of Cincinnati (UC) by organizing and orchestrating a strike in September. Peer leaders and peer facilitators are student employees who are responsible for running the first-year learning experiences, typically through a learning community.
These students began their training for the role on Aug. 9th, according to an organizer of the strike, who asked to remain anonymous over fears they will lose their job. Many of the student employees had not completed onboarding and had no way of getting paid by the university.
The strike organizer estimates that 40 out of the 120 students did not have access to the clock-in system for the first few weeks. That’s about 33% of the student employees.
According to M.B. Reilly, spokesperson for the University of Cincinnati, the number of students was even greater: about 50 peer educators.
The situation intensified three or four weeks into the semester, not including the weeks of training, when some of the employees had yet to receive their first paycheck.
Students raised their concerns by scheduling a meeting with Gisela Meyer Escoe, vice provost of undergraduate affairs, during the fifth week of the semester.
While some students had been paid, the strike organizer estimates 25 student workers – about 21% – had yet to receive a paycheck. Some of those student employees were not even fully onboarded.
During the meeting, students were promised payment through specifically allocated money in the Bearcat Emergency Fund. As unpaid student workers began to apply, it became apparent that no money had ever been intended for the Learning Commons student employees, nor were the student workers qualified for the funds.
“At that point, it's unethical to have these students who aren't getting paid continue working with no funding, no promise of a paycheck, no definite date for that, '' said the strike organizer.
According to section 4113.15 of the Ohio Revised Code, while the situation may be unethical, it is still technically legal.
“If at any time of payment an employee is absent from the employee's regular place of labor and does not receive payment of wages through an authorized representative, such person shall be entitled to said payment at any time thereafter upon demand upon the proper paymaster at the place where such wages are usually paid and where such payment is due,” the law states.
Students brought their payment concerns to their supervisor, Stacy Martin, who presumably took those concerns to human resources. Little action was taken, and unpaid students were told to “just wait,” according to the strike organizer.
At this time, some students did not have access to clock in and out and none of the peer leaders or peer facilitators had been paid for their August training, which was supposed to be manually added to the clock-in system for students.
While not all the Learning Commons student employees were without compensation, coordinators wanted to “stand in solidarity” with the unpaid students and asked peer leaders and facilitators to join them. About 80% of these employees went on strike.
“These student workers were literally asking for the bare minimum,” said the strike organizer. “I think though we all would agree that the bare minimum of having a job is getting paid.”
As the strike began, Escoe sent an email out to students enrolled in first-year experience courses to inform them of the situation.
“As we diligently worked to rectify the situation, several peer leaders opted to cancel classes,” said Escoe. “I want to apologize for the disruption to your learning.”
After the strike was announced, an emergency meeting was arranged with strike coordinators, Escoe and Learning Commons Director Michela Buccini.
The four demands that the peer leaders and facilitators proposed were met by the administration. Those demands included that every student gets back pay, all student employees get access to the clock-in system, there should be an emergency fund created for students, and an apology from the vice provost be sent out to the Learning Commons.
The meeting put an end to what was ultimately a single-day strike of student workers.
The formal apology issued was sent out to all Learning Commons student employees as well as the first-year students involved via email. The email, sent on Sept. 23, cites the loss of “several key staff members” as the reason for the payroll issues within the Learning Commons.
“As of today, nearly all impacted students have received payment for some hours worked or supportive resources and there is a pathway for assuring all student employees receive compensation,” said Escoe in the recent apology email.
While the financial issues were resolved, the strike organizer believes that the root of the problem, lack of communication, remains to be an issue.
“It's kind of sad that they [students] were taken advantage of in this way and for so long,” the strike organizer said. “And that it had such a negative repercussion on them ... it kind of just makes you ashamed to be a student at the university.”
Reilly described the strike as a “partial work stoppage.”
“A small number of peer educators helping with First-Year Experience briefly opted to forego work duties beyond that, while technical and paperwork issues were still being resolved,” said Reilly. “At this time, all Learning Commons peer educators have returned to their roles.
In contrast to that perspective, the strike organizer believes that the story should be viewed from a different angle.
“How I would like to frame it, you know, these workers, working for up to two months without pay because they care about their first-year students so much instead of, you know, them deciding to stop working,” said the strike organizer. “Let's talk about how they decided to keep working for this long without any compensation”
According to Reilly, the last student workers were paid on Sept. 28 and the Learning Commons has resumed its daily operations.