The 2022–2023 HarperCollins strike, the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike and the ongoing 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike are shaking the foundations of industries, proving that united voices can move mountains. But these movements aren’t just about workers in established careers — they hold a vital lesson for the working college students of today: it’s time to unionize.
One of the fundamental reasons why students should embrace unionization is the need for fair wages. Depending on the study, research shows union workers typically make 10 to 20% more than non-union workers. Many students are no strangers to the grind of grueling jobs while juggling their studies. Often, these low wages barely keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living—minimum wage or slightly above it—leaving students struggling to cover their educational expenses, rent and basic necessities. The 2022–2023 HarperCollins strike was led by publishing employees such as editors and publicists for the purpose of fair salaries and working conditions. With 50 workers on strike, they were successful in increasing starting salaries and even implementing more standard workplace regulations. Their strike serves as a reminder that collective action can lead to significant improvements in employee satisfaction and the quality of workplaces. By unionizing, working students can negotiate for better wages that reflect the rising cost of living and the value of their labor as well as their environment.
But money isn’t the only reason to unionize. Creative industries like publishing, screenwriting and film are notorious for their gatekeeping practices. Entry-level positions sustainable as a full-time job are rare, and access is limited, often favoring those with privileged backgrounds or connections. With so many working students and even Gen Z entering the professional workforce, it’s crucial to address these barriers by unionizing to make the industry sphere more equitable.
Unionizing can also make industries representative of their consumers. The publishing industry, for instance, has long been criticized for its lack of diversity and inclusivity. Unionization can be a means to challenge these inequalities and create a more level playing field for aspiring creatives. For students working hourly wage jobs, unionizing demystifies the idea of strikes and self-advocacy for the creatives, while strikes like WGA and SAG-AFTRA give us hope that unionizing is possible for everyone. It’s a win-win for both ends of the professional spectrum; the establishment of one union will enable the establishment of another. Achieving equity and justice in the workplace — especially in creative fields — will be impossible without union efforts.
Unionization also offers students a platform to voice their concerns about exploitative labor practices. Many students in low-wage jobs endure unpredictable schedules, inadequate benefits and limited job security. By forming unions, they can collectively advocate for more stable work hours, improved benefits and protections against unfair treatment. This not only benefits them but also sets a precedent for better working conditions in these sectors.
Although a common misconception about unions is that they are divisive or disruptive, these recent labor movements have shown that unions can bring about positive change while maintaining a constructive dialogue with employers. In the case of HarperCollins, the strike ultimately led to a new contract that addressed the workers’ concerns, demonstrating the potential for compromise and cooperation between labor and management. This collaborative approach can help students understand that unions are not about confrontation but rather about achieving fairness and justice in the workplace. Some critics often argue that unionizing can lead to higher prices or job losses, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Unionized workers tend to have better job security and income, which in turn contributes to stronger local economies. When workers are paid fairly, they have more disposable income to spend in their communities, supporting local businesses and driving economic growth.
The recent labor movements at HarperCollins, WGA and SAG-AFTRA provide compelling examples of how organized labor can bring about positive change. And they aren’t just providing us opportunities—they’re calling us to action. Unionization is a tool to demand fair wages, break through industry barriers, and improve working conditions. Working college students should take inspiration from these historic events and consider unionizing in their respective fields, whether they’re pursuing creative careers or working in retail. Unionization is a powerful tool to demand fair wages, challenge industry gatekeeping, and improve working conditions. It’s time for students to stand up for their rights and shape a more equitable future for themselves and all workers.