Editor's note, Aug. 29: Click here to read our updated reporting on resident assistants' strike.
Tufts resident assistants are prepared to go on strike Tuesday if the university doesn’t agree to pay them a stipend for their work.
United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants, the union representing undergraduate RAs, began negotiating a new contract for RAs in February. But the two sides reached an impasse in July, union representatives told the Daily, when the university told RAs it would not agree to pay them in the form of a stipend — which they say is the fairest, most flexible way to compensate them for their responsibilities.
During bargaining, the university offered to cover RAs’ housing and meal plan costs, according to Kalimah Redd Knight, Tufts’ senior deputy director of media relations. This represents a step up from RAs’ current compensation plan, which only covers housing, but falls short of their request for a stipend.
On Wednesday, Aug. 23, the union voted by an overwhelming 89% margin to authorize a strike beginning Aug. 29 — a day they’d otherwise be spending on duty, moving first-years into their dorms as they arrive on campus.
Attorneys for Tufts and representatives from Student Life met with RAs on Friday for another bargaining session, and once again rejected their demand for stipends. The union called the move “a stunning bait-and-switch” in a post on X (formerly Twitter), saying that Tufts invoked a “minor technicality” to delay the negotiations.
Tufts disputes this claim. Redd Knight told the Daily the university is negotiating in good faith, writing in an email that its offer to cover RAs’ room and board is fair and aligns with industry standards.
In a stunning bait-and-switch, Tufts administration agreed to meet for a bargaining session this morning in which they refused to make any response to our compensation demands.— United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants (@TuftsRAUnion) August 25, 2023
The Daily spoke to Anisha Uppal-Sullivan and David Whittingham, two Tufts RAs who are members of the union’s bargaining committee, on Saturday. They said the union offered to meet with Tufts again over the weekend to keep negotiating, but if the university doesn’t agree to pay RAs some sort of wage, they’re ready to strike.
Redd Knight said Tufts also wants to reach an agreement, and has proposed another meeting this Thursday (after the RAs’ Tuesday deadline). As of Sunday evening, the two sides have not reached an acceptable compromise.
Why did RAs authorize a strike?
In a vote authorized by the National Labor Relations Board — the federal agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act, which grants private sector employees the right to form and join unions — RAs voted to establish ULTRA and make OPEIU Local 153 their certified representative during contract negotiations with the university.
From the outset, RAs said their main goal in forming a union would be to secure monetary compensation from Tufts in the form of a stipend. The university currently covers their room costs, but RAs argued they deserved more, given the extent of their responsibilities.
The pandemic was the tipping point for many RAs, the Daily reported last November; more RAs were quitting, and those who remained were expected to enforce social distancing and mask mandates while stretched thin.
Bargaining sessions for a new contract between ULTRA’s bargaining committee and the university began in February and continued through July. This wasn’t abnormal; first-time contract negotiations can take months. But by summer, Uppal-Sullivan and Whittingham said, it became clear Tufts was not going to budge on offering RAs a stipend.
“We’re doing this so that we can do our jobs better, and because we do deserve to get paid for the work that we do.”
Redd Knight said Tufts made an effort to engage with ULTRA during that time.
“Since July, the union has been unresponsive to multiple requests to meet and settle a contract before the beginning of the year,” she wrote.
ULTRA countered that Tufts knew the RAs’ position from the outset, and never offered “a single counter-proposal…that includes wages,” in Heyne’s words.
“It’s not accurate to say that we have not responded to their requests for bargaining,” Heyne elaborated.
Since February, ULTRA held firm that RAs should be paid with stipends. The university disagreed, bringing the negotiations to a standstill.
“The university and us had very fundamentally different beliefs about what compensation looked like,” Uppal-Sullivan, a junior, explained. “They were only willing to give us a limited amount of meal swipes, and we really thought we deserved — and still do think we deserve — a stipend.”
The meal swipe offer was inadequate, Whittingham, a senior, said, because not every RA is on a meal plan. A stipend is more flexible, he explained: each RA can use it as they need.
Whittingham and Uppal-Sullivan didn’t specify an exact stipend amount RAs want Tufts to pay, but they believe something in the ballpark of a few thousand dollars a year would be fair.
“There are a number of ranges that we would find acceptable, really our demand right now is to just hear from them what they would propose paying us in a stipend,” Whittingham said. “We’re not asking for the sun, the moon and the stars, so to speak. We’re asking for some modest payment.”
Tufts, for its part, maintains that its offer to cover meal costs “both aligns with our values as an institution and is in line with industry standards across higher education,” according to Redd Knight.
It’s not unprecedented for universities to pay their resident assistants a stipend. Johns Hopkins RAs receive a $5,100 stipend on top of the university covering their food and housing costs. At Wesleyan — where undergraduate student workers unionized in spring 2022 — sophomore RAs are paid $7,828.62 and junior and senior RAs are paid $9,787.68.
“The university, from the beginning of this process, has been diligent in meeting with, following up with, and engaging in collective bargaining in good faith.”
But no two schools compensate RAs the exact same way; there’s plenty of variation between Tufts’ mid-size, private peer institutions. Vanderbilt pays its RAs $235 a month; at Northwestern, RAs’ housing is discounted and they get a stipend, on top of free meals; Georgetown offers its RAs free housing and a meal credit, similar to Tufts’ proposal.
ULTRA hand-delivered a petition signed by 86% of Tufts RAs and more than 2,000 community members to the office of University President Sunil Kumar on Monday, Aug. 21.
“The Tufts administration has repeatedly rejected the union’s proposal that would provide RAs compensation in the form of a stipend,” the petition read. “RA work is work, and these student workers deserve to be paid for their labor!”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the RAs voted to authorize the strike and notified Tufts. In response, the university offered to meet on Friday morning.
RAs accuse Tufts of unfair labor practices during contract negotiations
Ahead of Friday’s negotiations, the university sent an email to the Tufts community with updates on several ongoing campus collective bargaining efforts, including those between Tufts and ULTRA.
At the end of the email, signed by dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser, dean of the School of Engineering Kyongbum Lee, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Bárbara M. Brizuela, dean of the SMFA Scheri Fultineer and dean of students Camille Lizarríbar, the administrators warned against any collective bargaining strategies that could potentially disrupt the campus environment.
“As we continue our negotiations with each of these bargaining units, the units may conduct various communications strategies to promote their positions. This is an expected and acceptable part of the process,” they wrote. “We anticipate everyone involved will respect our community values and one another’s right to enjoy the new semester without disruption. While we support the units’ engagement with our campus, any actions or activities that create a hostile campus environment, endanger public safety, or violate our Student Code of Conduct will be addressed by the appropriate members of our staff.”
Sam Heyne, a staff organizer with OPEIU Local 153 who uses she/they pronouns, said that email constituted a threat against RAs, in violation of the federal labor law that protects workers from threats or coercion during collective bargaining.
“We are confident that the administration has violated the National Labor Relations Act,” they told the Daily.
In response, Heyne says OPEIU Local 153 has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board
It could take weeks to get a response, she said, but if the NLRB finds that Tufts broke the law, they may be compelled to publicly admit wrongdoing, pay a fine or do both.
Tufts disputes the charge: “The University denies any allegations that it has violated the National Labor Relations Act and will respond to any charges that may be filed with the Board,” Redd Knight wrote in an email to the Daily. “The university, from the beginning of this process, has been diligent in meeting with, following up with, and engaging in collective bargaining in good faith.”
Negotiations break down
About 40 Tufts RAs joined the ULTRA bargaining committee in-person and virtually at Friday’s bargaining session, Uppal-Sullivan said. Across the table representing the university was Damien DiGiovanni, an attorney at the employment and labor law firm Morgan, Brown & Joy, and Dana Fleming and Abra Francois from the Office of University Counsel.
Christina Alch, director of Residential Life and Learning, and Richard DeCapua, senior associate dean of students, were also present.
At the meeting, the university’s representatives argued they would not be able to negotiate a compromise that day. Redd Knight told the Daily that Tufts had only received the latest version of the RAs’ demands Friday morning and needed more time to review them, offering to meet again on Thursday, Aug. 31.
But the RAs put forward a different version of events, contending that they shared their demands with Tufts at a July 6 bargaining session both verbally and in a shared Google Doc. They allege that Tufts claimed to have not received their demands until recently in an attempt to delay the negotiations past move-in day.
"Because we didn’t send [the document] to them as a PDF or a Word document directly as an email, they claim that they have not received it over the past two months,” Whittingham explained. “That, I would argue, is essentially an excuse for dragging things out.”
“The University is committed to bargaining with the RA union in good faith and reiterated on Friday, what it had informed the Union previously, that it is not able to exchange proposals via a shared Google Doc,” Redd Knight wrote to the Daily.
Heyne, who was in the room during Friday’s negotiations, told the Daily that Tufts threatened RAs with a lockout — a work stoppage initiated by employers, where the employees are barred from the worksite — in response to their demands that day. They called that tactic “really nefarious” in this case, given that RAs’ workplaces, their dorms, are also their living spaces.
Many of the RAs present at the meeting shared personal stories of financial need with the Tufts bargaining team, with some shedding tears.
“These RAs were really putting their hearts out there, and these lawyers were pretty ruthless,” Heyne said. “It was really disheartening to see.”
Redd Knight acknowledged that Tufts’ negotiators described a number of potential “consequences” to a strike during the bargaining session.
“Toward the end of the session, the Union asked what (if any) consequences could arise from a work stoppage,” she wrote. “The University answered that question with a range of possible outcomes, all of which are permissible under the National Labor Relations Act. The University is committed to minimizing the disruption caused by any potential work stoppage and looks forward to resuming negotiations with the Union next week.”
What would a strike look like?
Barring a new proposal from Tufts that includes a stipend, RAs are actively preparing to strike Tuesday. Their absence would be felt on the first-year move-in day, when RAs normally help check new students in, settle them into dorms and begin orienting them to campus. Instead, they would set up a picket line on the Residential Quad, where new students will be moving into their dorms.
On a day-to-day basis, RAs are responsible for conducting dorm walk-throughs and reporting facilities issues. Perhaps most importantly, they’re often the first to respond when a resident is in crisis — whether that means helping a resident who’s locked themselves out of their room or calling TEMS for an alcohol- or drug-related emergency.
All that work would grind to a halt during a strike, Uppal-Sullivan explained. The point is not to abandon residents, she said, but to show Tufts that RAs do important work.
“We want our residents to be safe. We want them to be okay. … We don’t want to have to take this step, we don't want them to feel like they're not supported,” Uppal-Sullivan said. “But we’re doing this so that we can do our jobs better, and because we do deserve to get paid for the work that we do.”
Redd Knight told the Daily that Tufts is prepared for the possibility of a strike.
“While we appreciate the valuable role our RAs have traditionally played, our staff is well-prepared and we have made robust contingency plans to step in and help to fully support our students should they need assistance, including with lockout requests and emergency situations,” she wrote.
Uppal-Sullivan said she and the other union organizers were spending the weekend planning the logistics of the picket line, making posters and creating guides to the picket line for community members, residents and RAs themselves. They’re also spreading the word to local elected officials and other unions.
“This strike effort is not just RAs, this has to do with everyone in the community,” Uppal-Sullivan said. “We’re prepared to strike for as long as we need to, until the university meets our demands.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that RAs voted for OPEIU Local 153 to represent their union, ULTRA, in contract negotiations.
Aaron Gruen contributed reporting to this article.