A group of resident assistants at Barnard Faculty in New York Metropolis walked into the workplace of faculty president Sian Beilock on Monday to ship a letter and a message: 95 % of them had voted to unionize. They requested for the school’s “assist”—or voluntary recognition—inside 5 enterprise days.
“Our duties and lack of pay influence our skill to each successfully serve our residents in addition to care for ourselves as college students,” the letter learn. “Now we have collectively determined that forming a union will empower us to higher pursue our shared mission not just for present RAs, however all generations that comply with.”
The faculty responded with an announcement: “Barnard deeply values our Resident Assistants and the Faculty is dedicated to making sure they’ve the very best expertise of their roles as pupil leaders on campus,” it learn. “We’re reviewing this petition.”
Katie Cherven, a junior and an RA, mentioned she’s optimistic that the school will voluntarily acknowledge the union.
“Barnard very a lot positions itself as a social justice–oriented establishment, and I’m very hopeful they may middle that of their choice,” she mentioned.
However she added that RAs aren’t asking for permission; if the school doesn’t give the union its blessing, they’re ready to strike.
Undergraduate unions are exceedingly uncommon, and unions representing residential assistants at non-public schools are even rarer. However the occasions at Barnard are a part of a slowly rising development.
Days earlier than Barnard college students delivered their petition, pupil Resident Life staff at Mount Holyoke Faculty filed for union recognition with the Nationwide Labor Relations Board after the school failed to reply to their request for voluntary recognition.
Keely Sexton, Mount Holyoke’s media relations supervisor, instructed Inside Larger Ed by e mail that the school “appreciates the exhausting work and dedication that our pupil staff carry to the roles they carry out whereas pursuing their educational careers” and “helps the appropriate of employees to decide on what they imagine is greatest for them.”
In March, Wesleyan College voluntarily acknowledged a union of undergraduate residential life staff, making it the second such bargaining unit within the nation. Just a few months later at Grinnell Faculty in Iowa, group advisers (Grinnell’s time period for RAs) had been introduced into the fold of the expanded undergraduate employee union, which initially solely included pupil eating employees.
RAs at peer establishments try to grab the momentum from these victories, hoping to capitalize on the stress for his or her progressive liberal arts faculties to reside the values they declare to espouse. Cherven credit the rising reputation of unions amongst younger individuals with propelling the current undergraduate bargaining campaigns.
“It’s a really thrilling time for the unionization motion,” Cherven mentioned. “I feel there’s been a extremely thrilling resurgence amongst younger staff, and that’s actually motivating.”
She added that it took a while for the Barnard union marketing campaign to win widespread assist amongst RAs, however finally they purchased in.
“There was and is a few hesitation, as a result of we work the place we reside and the specter of shedding our jobs would due to this fact imply shedding our housing,” she mentioned. “However the extra of us there are, the extra highly effective we’re. Now we have to do not forget that and acknowledge that it’s price taking that danger if we’re all taking it collectively.”
‘Primarily a Full-Time Job’
Resident assistants—also referred to as resident advisers, group advisers, corridor leaders and myriad different titles—play a vital position within the administration of residential life at schools and universities. They manage social occasions for underclassmen, report harmful or illicit habits, and even act as first responders throughout medical and psychological well being emergencies. Compensation for these roles varies, from free or diminished room and board to stipends and hourly wages.
Each RA or CA that spoke to Inside Larger Ed mentioned that, as pupil employees, they shoulder too heavy a burden and work way more hours than the job ought to entail. Furthermore, they mentioned they aren’t given the respect or compensation they deserve.
“We’re anticipated to have the ability to deal with something thrown at us,” mentioned Cherven, who works one other 20 hours every week exterior of her RA place. “It’s primarily a full-time job.”
“A giant a part of our job is being out there to our residents 24-7,” mentioned Libby Eggert, a sophomore group adviser at Grinnell, the place college students obtain a housing grant however no stipend or meal plan. “We deserve compensation for that.”
Hannah Yi, a Barnard junior and resident assistant, mentioned the highway to union organizing on her campus started this previous Could, when RAs who signed as much as work the summer time semester discovered they’d be on campus with no meal plan for over a month. Yi, who was scheduled to work 18 weekend shifts, was assigned to a corridor with no fridge; to economize, she ate granola with water virtually on daily basis.
Yi mentioned that when she and the opposite summer time RAs went to the workplace of residential life to ask for a meal plan and diminished hours, they had been met with condescension and resistance—so that they threatened to strike. Quickly after, they had been issued $550 meals supply app present playing cards for the remaining weeks earlier than their meal plans kicked in.
After that, Yi mentioned the RA organizing committee grew, and the objective modified from successful short-term battles to unionization. By the point the RAs delivered their petition to President Beilock, the aspiring union had received the assist of 95 % of the group.
“That actually galvanized the motion as it’s now, as a result of the quantity we had been in a position to obtain by way of collective motion and by threatening to strike was so nice,” Yi mentioned. “It confirmed us that the one factor that’s going to make this type of change sustainable is a union.”
Solidarity Takes Endlessly
Till the victory at Wesleyan, just one establishment’s undergraduate resident assistants had been unionized: these on the College of Massachusetts at Amherst, the place pupil employees organized the primary such bargaining unit in 2002. Twenty years later, extra are lastly, slowly beginning to win assist and recognition.
Public college staff are ruled by state legal guidelines, and personal schools are topic to the coverage selections of the Nationwide Labor Relations Board. College students at Barnard and Mount Holyoke are performing on a precedent set by that board in 2017. After ruling that graduate pupil employees at Columbia College certified as union-eligible staff, the NLRB additionally dominated that resident assistants at George Washington College may unionize, paving the way in which for different undergraduate employees at non-public establishments to take action.
However the union election at GW was in the end canceled, and regardless of the groundbreaking precedent, no undergraduate RA union marketing campaign succeeded for the following 5 years.
William Herbert, govt director of the Nationwide Heart for the Examine of Collective Bargaining in Larger Training and the Professions at Hunter Faculty, mentioned frequent turnover—learn, commencement—and the NLRB’s waffling on its pupil employee coverage have hampered RAs’ skill to run profitable unionization campaigns.
At Georgetown College, a four-year unionization marketing campaign ended unsuccessfully when its leaders graduated in 2020. In 2018, a union petition submitted by pupil housing advisers at Reed Faculty in Portland, Ore., was withdrawn after the NLRB below President Trump proposed reversing its Obama-era ruling that made pupil employees eligible for union illustration.
And, in a case that might have broad implications for undergraduate labor, group assistants and different pupil employees at Kenyon Faculty in Ohio have been locked in a heated battle with their establishment since Kenyon refused to voluntarily acknowledge their union in 2020. In 2021, the administration efficiently filed for a movement to postpone NLRB-mediated union elections.
In its movement, Kenyon argued that following the election guidelines of the Nationwide Labor Relations Act would power the school to violate its college students’ rights below the Household Instructional Rights and Privateness Act by requiring the school to undergo the NLRB an inventory of unit members’ “full names, work areas, shifts, and job classifications.”
Kenyon spokesperson David Hoyt wrote in an e mail to Inside Larger Ed that earlier than any election might be held, the NLRB “has to work by way of, amongst different issues, the challenges that FERPA presents within the context of its proceedings.”
However Kat Ellis, a group adviser at Kenyon, mentioned she suspects that this argument and different actions taken by the college are disingenuous, designed primarily to present the school a leg up in its combat to cease a union vote. She mentioned CAs at Kenyon had been paid an hourly wage till this semester, once they switched to a stipend—a transfer that Ellis says may assist Kenyon make the case that its CAs are extra like college students than staff.
“It’s very odd,” she mentioned. “I feel their current change to pay us with stipends provides them a stronger argument to the NLRB.”
Herbert mentioned that whereas the compatibility of the NLRA and student-college authorized relations is below assessment, RAs’ skill to discount collectively is, for now, largely within the palms of faculties and universities.
“Every establishment will look at every case and resolve what’s of their curiosity, based mostly on what their values are in direction of labor points and the thought of representational democracy, which is what collective bargaining is,” he mentioned.
Pupil Employee: Oxymoron or Actuality?
The NLRB’s 2017 choice to permit undergraduates at non-public schools to unionize had detractors in increased training: a gaggle of organizations, together with the American Council on Training and the Affiliation of Faculty and College Housing Officers–Worldwide, filed an amicus temporary in assist of GW and later condemned the NLRB’s ruling in opposition to it.
Steven Bloom, the assistant vp for presidency relations at ACE, mentioned his group’s place on undergraduate employee unions hasn’t modified: he nonetheless believes that classifying college students as staff with collective bargaining rights was a mistake—one he hopes is overturned.
“It’s not as a result of we don’t assist the notion of collective bargaining. We simply suppose that, at their coronary heart, these are college students, not staff,” Bloom mentioned. “Being an RA is a part of the tutorial expertise … [unionizing] is a troubling intrusion into the connection of the coed to that establishment, and brings into that relationship a 3rd celebration that complicates it in ways in which aren’t useful to reaching the tutorial mission.”
Each pupil employee interviewed for this text mentioned that whereas they loved organizing group occasions and serving to their friends, being an RA was, for them, a job—one which they felt was rewarding, however whose primary function was to assist them and their households make ends meet.
“That is our livelihood,” mentioned Eggert, the Grinnell CA. “We need to have a say in it.”