Op-Ed: RA statement on organizing movement

This letter was written by a group of current and former resident advisers who are petitioning to unionize GW’s RAs.

To the community that we are honored to serve,

It is with great excitement for our future as Resident Advisers that we have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for an election to form a bargaining unit to improve our position as student workers at the University. This is the culmination of over two years of organizing in our community. We take pride in our jobs, which allow us to help serve and improve our community, but we are disempowered through an ambiguously written contract that allows for arbitrary enforcement by our supervisors.

Through the process of filing for an election, we have been able to air our concerns about the nature of our current relationship with the Center for Student Engagement, and the way the ambiguities of our contract create real anxieties for us. In a meeting on Dec. 2, RAs expressed overwhelming concern for one another and for the lack of organizational support that has come to characterize the day to day reality of the job. Now we ask that you publicly hear these concerns and join us by adding your support to the power of our collective voice.

The nature of our contract leaves room for administrative interpretations that heighten anxieties over job security. The ambiguity of the simple four-page contract states that any violation of the text will result in “job action” being taken. With no standardized review or use of precedent, the vague nature of our contract leads to concern over a nuanced application of its power. In practice, many policies are not universally upheld. This creates further ambiguity for RAs to navigate. Moreover, the contract limits all outside commitments, including leadership positions in student organizations and outside jobs, to 10 hours per week. Many RAs take second jobs out of financial necessity, as the small stipend we receive in this role – which is not intended to sustain a D.C. student’s expenses — does not make ends meet. The existence of this policy, as well as the general ambiguities of the contract, makes us question whether or not our employer truly supports our well-being.

We acknowledge that RAs – and leaders, in general – must be flexible. However, the nature of our contract allows our employer to demand flexibility far beyond the scope of a typical student position. Furthermore, there is no semblance of equal pay for equal work. We agree with our employer that different populations require different engagement strategies, and that such support will inevitably translate into time commitments that vary across residence halls. For example, Resident Advisors in first-year communities are required to complete two cycles of one-on-one meetings with their residents each year. This translates to an additional 40-60 hours of work each year without additional compensation. RAs in upperclass communities are not subject to this requirement. All RAs, however, receive the same stipend that, when broken down over the 20 hours we contractually devote to the job, equates our pay to $3.12 an hour. This stipend is lower than the compensation that RAs at both American and Georgetown universities receive, though we all receive free housing. The only difference is that at GW, RAs are always on duty. In fact, there is no “off- duty” for a RA at GW. We are always, in every situation, in and outside our residence halls, on and off campus, at the discretion of our employer — an RA.

We seek to emulate the RA union that was formed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2002. It is not a construction of lawyers and third-party negotiators. Rather, it is a democratic organization of, for and by RAs to promote their well-being.Union representation at Amherst looks much like the executive board of a student organization, relying on elected resident advisers to represent the needs and demands of the collective. It will function much like a student organization, relying on elected resident advisors to represent the needs and demands of the collective. Relationships between both RAs and their residents, as well as RAs and their supervisors now thrive at Amherst, as student fears over arbitrary firings and the accumulation of uncompensated work were eliminated through the negotiation of a 22-page contract detailing their rights. We at GW have partnered with SEIU Local 500, the DMV-area affiliate of a national union that currently represents the part-time adjunct faculty at GW. They are supporting us in our petition to the NLRB and will work with us to negotiate next year’s contract.

We believe that the rhetoric used by the University speaks for itself. The Center for Student Engagement is currently disputing our status as employees of the University, despite our contractual label as such. On Friday night, Dean of Students Peter Konwerski referred to us as “students who are participating for a period of time in a program as part of their educational experience.” It is this very failure to recognize the value of the work we do to promote the physical, mental and emotional health of students as real work, that furthers our belief in our need to form a bargaining unit.

We, as RAs, have determined that in order to be able to fully empower the student body as we are committed to doing, we need to feel supported. This campaign is not in opposition to the CSE or its staff, as we genuinely believe that we have the same goal of connecting, supporting and empowering our community. We look forward to embracing our rights under federal law to democratically bargain with our employer. Ultimately, we look forward to coming to the table with the CSE to negotiate a contract that will allow us to continue to better the student experience.

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