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RAs push to be first union at private university

Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor
Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor

Updated: Dec. 5, 2016 at 9:23 a.m.

Resident advisers at GW are petitioning to become the first unionized student group at a private university.

A local labor group filed a petition to unionize on behalf of the student workers with the National Labor Relations Board last Monday after two years of planning, claiming that because the students are referred to as “employees” in their contracts that they have the right to form a union. University officials filed an appeal Friday, challenging the petition under the charge that students are not explicitly employees and therefore do not have the right to organize.

If the attempt succeeds, GW’s RAs would be the first in the nation to unionize at a private university, setting a precedent for thousands of other student employees across the country.

In August, the NLRB issued a decision asserting that student assistants working at private institutions or universities are considered “statutory employees” eligible for coverage under the National Labor Relations Act. The decision came in response to an election petition filed by a group of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants at Columbia University.

But such labor decisions are often in flux: the NLRB has changed its take on whether or not students are employees several times over the past years.

Calla Gilson, a former RA in Shenkman and Somers halls, said a group of current and former RAs began handing out and collecting “cards” from current resident advisers last year asking if they would be in favor of an election about unionizing and if they would vote “yes.” But those students suspended the movement at the end of the year when a new class of RAs was hired, nullifying all the previously collected cards.

When students resumed their efforts this year, the level of support was “overwhelming,” Gilson said. After collecting enough cards to present to local unions last month, union leaders officially filed a petition for election and the NLRB contacted the University about the filing last week.

This Wednesday, several RAs will testify in front of the NLRB. If the NLRB rules in favor of the RAs, organizers can then set an election date, place and time, which Gilson said is tentatively planned for Dec. 12. More than 50 percent of RAs who participate in the election would have to vote in favor of unionizing for the measure to take effect.

Gilson said she and others involved in the movement first reached out to Service Employees International Union 500 last fall. The organization, which filed with the NLRB on behalf of the RAs last week, already represents some part-time faculty at the University.

“It’s a union that is not unfamiliar to GW, and we wanted to work with them for that reason. They’re familiar with GW’s politics,” Gilson said.

The union would mainly advocate on behalf of the RAs on their salaries, legal matters and contract negotiations.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said in a statement that while officials recognize the value of RAs and that they have worked well with unions for part-time faculty, they will contest the RAs’ efforts to unionize.

Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said in a letter sent to all RAs Friday that was obtained by The Hatchet that unionizing would “insert a third party” into their relationships with residents, resident directors and staff at the Division of Student Affairs. He did not explicitly say in the letter whether or not RAs are considered employees of the University.

“The University does not believe that it would make sense to apply a federally regulated system of collective bargaining to students who are participating for a period of time in a program as part of their educational experience,” Konwerski wrote in the letter.

Konwerski said he is concerned that a union would limit the hours RAs can spend with their residents and the additional cost of union dues.

Leaders of the initiative said RAs, not the union, would be in charge of any hour limitation decisions, and that the union fee will be no more than $5 per paycheck – no more than 1 percent of an RA’s total salary.

The students leading the movement also wrote a letter explaining they would like to meet with staff in the Center for Student Engagement to negotiate contract terms as a bargaining body.

“We want to sit down with the CSE. This is not a middle finger to the Center for Student Engagement,” Gilson said. “We want to work with them, because I think we have the same goal in mind: we all want to support this student body, and I think that we are very good at doing that, but we could be even better if we felt more supported.”

Celeste Aguzino, a former RA in Hensley Hall, said she and other involved students were most concerned about what they described as ambiguous contracts, which lack specificity about what actions merit review or possible termination. She said the lack of standardization leaves RAs with anxiety that individual judgement decisions could lead to them losing their jobs.

“It depends on the RA’s resident director and their area coordinators. We have seen in the past two years a spectrum of disciplinary action is taken if a RA does not uphold to conduct,” Aguzino said.

The four-page contract states that the assigned hall and room number are “subject to change at any time” and that failure to perform the outlined duties could result in “corrective action, including but not limited to immediate termination.” Listed responsibilities in the contract include building strong relationships with residents and serving as role models.

Gilson, the former RA who is helping lead the effort, said the contracts should include a schedule of events RAs must attend, like the annual Vern Harvest. Currently, RAs receive notice on a case-by-case basis, she said.

If RAs are unable to attend an event, they are unsure if that would be considered terminable action because of the ambiguity of the contract. RAs are concerned about not receiving a positive resident director review for re-hire if they do not attend one of the events, Gilson said.

“There are things that are talked about in the contract, like being a good role model. What does that mean?” she said. “And what does it mean that job action can be taken if you’re not a good role model?”

RAs are paid a stipend of $2,500 in biweekly installments of $125 each academic year, breaking down to about $3.12 an hour, Gilson said. RAs also receive free housing, which can cost anywhere from $10,530 to $15,200 on campus.

RAs also shared concerns about the rehiring process for their positions: They said the process has changed each year in recent years, sometimes including cover letters, resumes, question-and-answer sessions and self-evaluations in the form of 20-minute-long PowerPoint presentations.

An RA who works on the Mount Vernon Campus who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing her job, said rehiring this year will be based on a recommendation from the resident director and possibly the area coordinator and metrics the RA described as subjective. RAs are generally not allowed to speak to the media about their jobs.

The RA also cited a discrepancy between the job duties of freshmen RAs and second-, third- and fourth-year RAs. Many annual events, like the Return to Recess Bazaar and GW First Night, are solely geared toward freshmen and only RAs for freshman housing have to attend.

“There’s just a huge discrepancy,” the RA said. “There’s no compensation for the extra work that first-year RAs have to do.”

Makenzie Briglia, a first-year RA in West Hall, said that in the event of a successful unionization, RAs would have a better pathway to negotiate their contracts and a “collective bargaining tool.” Despite possible benefits, she said unionization may hurt students’ relationships with officials.

“It seems to put us more at odds with GW, which could potentially negatively affect us,” she said.

This isn’t the first time RAs have pushed back against their requirements: Last year, the University proposed a controversial training course for resident advisers. At the time, RAs largely opposed the course, which school officials declined to clarify in terms of who would teach the course, if it would count toward students’ credit limits and if current RAs would be excluded from the course.

Setting a precedent
While GW would be the first private university to have a union of RAs, it wouldn’t be the first with a union of RAs overall: The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has the only recognized undergraduate RA union in the country, which formed in 2002. Students there negotiate three-year-long contracts and sign off on a 28-page contract.

Lily Wallace, a third-year RA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said RAs have a union representative on campus who can provide expertise and legal knowledge if there are any grievances and who can be present in disciplinary sittings with university officials.

“The union has given us so much strength here and been such a great tool to help protect our rights and advocate for us,” Wallace said. “I don’t think there would be a contract negotiation if we did not have the union.”

Wallace said that prior to unionizing, RAs at her university could be terminated without just cause, the same concern GW’s RAs have now. Officials there also made clear to the RAs that if there was a mistake made, RAs were easily replaceable by a long list of people who had applied for the positions, she said.

“To have a good employee and a good RA you don’t want them to constantly be worried about their job,” Wallace said. “Our jobs are not just our jobs, they are where we live. They are our communities.”

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Gilson was an RA is in Hensley Hall. She was an RA in Somers Hall. We regret this error.

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