Tufts administrators on Wednesday declined to recognize the United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants (ULTRA), setting back the RAs’ push for benefits like wages, a meal plan and more scheduling flexibility. Within hours, ULTRA responded by filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for an election to become the certified bargaining representative of Tufts RAs.
The university’s decision comes despite pressure from Tufts Community Union Senate and the city councils of Medford and Somerville, all of which passed resolutions urging Tufts to recognize ULTRA voluntarily.
Tufts RAs’ bid to form a union comes amid a wave of organizing efforts among undergraduate student workers. Since 2016, unions have formed among student workers at Grinnell College, Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University.
The request came a week earlier, on Nov. 9, when resident assistants walked into Ballou Hall and delivered a letter seeking union recognition from the university. More than 85% of RAs have signed union authorization cards.
What’s next for ULTRA?
Voluntary recognition from the university would have allowed ULTRA to nominate a bargaining committee and begin negotiating with the university right away.
“There is value in making sure that administrators understand the amount of work that goes into this,” junior David Whittingham, an RA and union organizer, said. “If Tufts really does stand by and really does believe in civic engagement and active citizenship … then it would certainly be my hope that they would respect … organizing activities of their students in all forms, including organizing as workers.”
Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations at Tufts, affirmed the university’s support for the RAs to conduct elections through the NLRB.
“We respect our community members’ right to petition the National Labor Relations Board for recognition and to seek an election to decide for themselves whether unionization is in their best interests,” Collins said. “We think it’s fair that all have the opportunity to fully understand their rights and responsibilities in this process, and to cast a vote regardless of their position on the question, and we will respect the outcome of an election held in accordance with the Board’s procedures for an appropriate bargaining unit of Tufts RAs.”
The Wesleyan Union of Student Employees (WesUSE) became the first undergraduate student worker union to win voluntary recognition this past March, by entering into a card-check agreement with the university.
At Barnard, undergraduate student workers were denied voluntary recognition after moving to unionize earlier this fall. Barnard students are expected to hold an election through the NLRB Friday.
Employers can contest elections through the NLRB. Resident assistants at George Washington University petitioned the NLRB to unionize in December 2016. University officials appealed the decision on the grounds that being an RA is part of students’ academic experience, not an employee position. The NLRB decided George Washington RAs count as employees of the university and would be eligible to unionize. Shortly before a vote was scheduled to occur, however, the labor group representing the RAs withdrew their petition for an election without consulting RAs, citing the scheduled vote’s proximity to final exams.
If ULTRA wins certification, it will become the bargaining representative for all Tufts RAs — including those who are hired in the future, due to Massachusetts law. The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), which represents Tufts RAs, has created a reduced-fees structure for student workers, where each worker is responsible for $270 per year in union dues. The dues go toward things like legal representation and strike payment. RAs hope to negotiate with administrators to receive much more than $270 in the form of a stipend or paycheck from the university, from which union dues would automatically be taken.
How did ULTRA form?
During one week of RA training in late August, summer RAs were expected to work and be on call for as much as 20 hours on some days.
“We would have training from 9 to 5, and then be expected to be making door [decorations] or bulletin boards and preparing for our residents and such, and then they would want us to be on call from nine to nine when training starts at nine,” junior RA Julie Francois said.
The issue, for Francois and other summer RAs, wasn’t only the workload. They’d never agreed to continue their summer jobs concurrent with fall semester training, in what Residential Life and Learning Director Christina Alch described in an email to the Daily as an “oversight” on the part of her office. The contract signed by summer RAs had them working from late May until Aug. 12.
“I would say that [being a summer RA] really burned me out with Res Life, and I had a lot of frustrations with how they were operating,” Francois said.
Francois circulated a Google Form among her coworkers to gauge how they felt about their working conditions. Most of the questions — about workload, pay and training — garnered mixed feedback. Some said it’d be nice to receive more pay and compensation. Others said they were excited to become RAs.
But a question at the bottom of the form gauging interest in forming a union received overwhelmingly positive responses. Whittingham reached out to Francois and offered to help organize the RA workplace. Whittingham has been a longtime member of the Tufts Labor Coalition and attended a conference hosted by LaborNotes, a nonprofit media organization that offers resources to workers on unionization, during the summer of 2022 where he met a Wesleyan student who had helped organize WesUSE.
During RA training in late August, Whittingham began reaching out to unions. On Aug. 26, after organizing a meeting which about half of the approximately 145 RAs attended, RAs decided to work with OPEIU Local 153.
An organizing committee of RAs began meeting weekly with Grace Reckers, lead Northeast organizer with OPEIU, who also represents WesUSE and the Barnard RAs. Organizers began having conversations individually with RAs, working to get a majority of the workplace in support of a union. Once this was achieved, the organizers and Reckers held a meeting on Oct. 23 where RAs began to sign union authorization cards. From there, RAs worked to get as much of the workplace to sign authorization cards as they could, with the goal of requesting voluntary recognition from the university before Thanksgiving.
RAs cite stressful working conditions during pandemic, poor communication from ORLL
During the 2020–21 academic year, RAs reported an increased workload and conditions they said threatened their mental and physical health as a result of responsibilities like enforcing mask mandates and social distancing. According to senior RA Lee Romaker, the university’s housing office struggled to fill resident assistant positions during the pandemic since more RAs were quitting, leaving remaining RAs responsible for more residents than usual.
Alch confirmed RAs were expected to enforce COVID-19 safety policies, and wrote that ORLL communicated about changes the pandemic would bring to the position to RAs during summer 2020, offering RAs the chance to not take the role and still receive housing.
Following RA training for the spring 2021 semester, 48 RAs wrote an email to Josh Hartman, the director of residential life at the time, requesting changes to the position. One of those requests was increased compensation, stemming from the belief that RA compensation did not match the responsibilities that were added to the position during the pandemic. Hartman agreed to help push for increased compensation, but said ORLL did not have the budget to fulfill the request at the time.
The RAs’ email did result in the formation of an RA Council, where RAs can voice concerns to the university. However, according to Francois, the RA Council has been ineffective in addressing the concerns of RAs, and meetings are frequently held during times when many RAs are in class, despite requests to meet at more convenient times.
Alch wrote that the council meeting rotates between days of the week, in an effort to accommodate different students’ schedules. “Scheduling meetings for larger groups is always a challenge, particularly when everyone has different schedules and demands,” she wrote.
Frustration over the lack of response from ORLL led some RAs to explore the possibility of unionizing during the spring 2021 semester, but they realized the probability of success was low. The effort didn’t move forward at the time.
Part of the frustration that’s resulted in the current union bid stemmed from what RAs characterized as limited flexibility in the position. The RAs hope to advocate for things like paid sick leave, Whittingham said, and for more control over their own work schedules. In the past, mandatory attendance at training weeks each year forced some RAs to weigh quitting other jobs that paid, Francois said.
RAs were given about a day to review and sign their contract during training, Whittingham said. Last year, RAs were given the option of which semester to stay past the move-out date for dorm closing, but this year, all RAs are required to stay for both semesters.
“Attempting to close the campus with half of our staff members proved to be an extremely inefficient process last Spring, which made the need to have all RAs for closing periods more clear,” Alch wrote. “We sent this update regarding our closing expectations to RAs on August 8th and requested any feedback or concerns from staff. We did not receive any communication in response at that time. We remain open to exploring this issue.”
At the start of this semester, RAs who oversaw sophomores, juniors and seniors were informed they were responsible for helping with first-year move-in, despite being under a different impression, Romaker said. Alch wrote that RAs have been traditionally expected to help with move-in and pointed to the RA contract, which mandates that RAs be available for training and move-in in both fall and spring.
This summer, RAs assigned to The Court at Professors Row repeatedly asked ORLL for updates on the construction status of the dorms, but received no information until about a week before move-in, when they were told they would have to live in temporary housing until construction was complete, according to Francois.
In bargaining with the university, the RAs’ highest priority would be to secure some form of monetary compensation, Whittingham said, in addition to the room credit they currently receive. Other requests may include a meal plan and microfridges in their rooms.
“It’s not like the RA job lets me pay for groceries,” Romaker said. “Something else is gonna do that, because I don’t have a meal plan. I think the number one thing would be some kind of food or stipends so people can support themselves off the RA job, not just have less loans later on.”
Undergraduate student worker unions are relatively new, but there is some precedent for how they function and what working conditions they negotiate for.
RAs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who have been represented by the United Auto Workers Local 2322 since 2002, pay 2% of each biweekly payment they receive in union dues, for example. They also receive a stipend and a waiver for the cost of housing, and $150 in dining dollars each semester which can be used at any retail location on the UMass Amherst campus, similar to JumboCash.
Negotiations are nearing an end between WesUSE and Wesleyan University, according to Reckers. WesUSE recently won the right to grieve reappointment, meaning if a qualified RA applies and is not rehired, they can grieve, or contest, this decision and begin a conversation with the university over why the decision was made. Reckers says she is currently working with six to seven other undergraduate union campaigns in addition to Wesleyan, Barnard and Tufts.
Francois, the RA organizer, hopes a union will create a better future for Tufts RAs.
“I just want to make the job better for generations to come,” she said. “I don’t necessarily want anybody to go through what we're going through right now. And I want our voices to be heard. Because I feel like Res Life has been dismissive to a lot of our concerns and requests up until now.”