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RA organizers celebrate labor board ruling on unionization

Yonah Bromberg-Gaber | Graphics Eidtor

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Friday that GW resident advisers qualify as University employees and can form a union.

The decision allows GW RAs to become the first unionized undergraduate student group nationwide at a private university, if a majority of RAs who participate in an upcoming election vote in favor of unionization. Leaders of the unionization movement said the decision opens the door for RAs to have clearer job standards and could set a national trend for RAs – a fixture at campuses across the country – to become unionized student groups.

The board ruled RAs are employees because they are paid to perform a service to the University and officials are able to supervise their work, according to the ruling handed down by Sean Marshall, the acting regional director of the NLRB’s Baltimore office.

GW RAs are hired by the Center for Student Engagement to help students living in University housing. Advisers hold meetings with their residents, plan events, monitor student conduct, connect them with University resources and build community in residence halls.

They receive free housing and a $2,500 stipend for their work.

An economic relationship
GW RAs filed a petition last fall to unionize, saying their contracts were vague and they were unsure what actions could cause them to lose their jobs.

Some RAs said advisers who work with freshman get paid the same but do more work than RAs who work with upperclassmen. They said the University’s $2,500 RA stipend was too little.

The University filed an appeal in December arguing that because there was an academic focus to their position, RAs should not legally be classified as employees, a claim the board rejected in its ruling.

The dispute went to the NLRB for a hearing in December.

In his ruling, Marshall rejected the University’s argument finding that there is an “economic relationship” between RAs and the University. Marshall wrote in the ruling that because RAs don’t receive academic credit for their roles, there was no basis behind the claim that they have an educational relationship with the University.

“Plainly, the RAs are not providing these services voluntarily – the RAs unquestionably receive something of value in exchange for their services,” he wrote.

‘An incredible victory’
In a statement posted to Facebook Friday, the organizers of the unionization movement said the NLRB’s decision represented a major milestone for RAs nationwide.

“After two years of organizing, this ruling marks a national precedent,” the post said. “No other private university has gotten this far in unionizing its RAs, a victory in itself. Thank you to the many RAs and allies for their patience in awaiting this decision.”

Calla Gilson, a former RA in Shenkman and Somers halls who led the efforts to unionize last fall, said unionization organizers are hosting several town halls over the next few weeks to inform RAs about the effort.

She said these events will address concerns that unionization would have a negative impact on the relationship between RAs and their residents.

Gilson said the election is tentatively set for May 5 but organizers are trying to push the date to May 17, so it will not conflict with final exams. If more than 50 percent of RAs who participate in the election vote in favor, then they will be able to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union and collectively bargain their employment contracts with the University.

Gilson said she will support whatever decision the RA’s make in the election.

Celeste Aguzino, a former RA in Hensley Hall who was a part of the unionization movement, said the decision acknowledged the important role RAs serve on a campus.

“They are not just students participating in an extracurricular activity but work deeply to lead and guide our university community and have rights,” she said.

If the students decide to organize, GW could set an example for RAs at other universities looking to unionize, Aguzino said.

“It’s an incredible victory in itself to see this advocacy grow, develop and strengthen over the past two years leading up to today’s decision,” she said.

A ‘fundamental change’ in RA’s work
University spokeswoman Candace Smith said Friday that GW was notified of the NLRB’s decision and will cooperate with the process, but stands behind its original position that RAs should not form a union and collectively bargain with the University.

“While the University will continue to cooperate with the NLRB in this process, the University continues to believe that the NLRB’s union election process should not be applied to students in our residential life program, which is an integral part of the educational experience of our undergraduate students,” she said in an email. “We will continue to share our views with resident advisers as this process moves forward.”

Stewart Robinette, the assistant dean of residential engagement in the CSE, said in an email to RAs Friday, obtained by The Hatchet, that he thinks a vote should occur as quickly as possible to avoid putting added stress on RAs during final exam season

“In all of my time serving residents, even going back to my time as an RA, I have not been involved with such a significant policy question,” he said in the email. “This vote is important, and I hope that all of you will exercise your right to cast a ballot.”

Austin Hansen, an RA in District House, said he did not support the effort because it will change the relationship between RAs and their residents. He said RAs are supposed to be available to their residents at all times, but a union could impose restrictions on how and when RAs could interact with residents.

“Limiting the role to a defined punch-in punch-out window would dramatically decrease the flexibility and support RAs could provide to their residents,” Hansen said in an email.

Although unions can be helpful in advancing fair labor practices for many workers, these benefits are not applicable to RAs, who hold a temporary position at the University, Hanson added.

Following a national trend
Friday’s decision ruled that RAs at private universities across the nation – not just at GW – are employees and have the right to organize. The decision only applies to private universities because the NLRB only can decide cases involving private employers.

Beth McCuskey, the president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International, which represents campus housing professionals, denounced the decision saying it “undermines” the role RAs play on college campuses.

“The connections that RAs enjoy with other students in their residence halls, classes, or student organizations make a very difficult translation to ‘working conditions’ that will need to be negotiated in any labor agreement,” she said in the statement.

The decision follows a string of other labor disputes on college campuses in recent years.

In his ruling, Marshall cited an NLRB ruling last August that found teaching and research assistants at Columbia University were legal employees and could form a union.

Only one other university in the United States has a recognized union of RAs: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which formed the union in 2002.

Elise Zaidi contributed to reporting.

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