A resident adviser’s job description wouldn’t fit into one sentence. The responsibilities don’t fit into a simple eight-hour period. But as a student in a residence hall, I don’t want an RA’s job description to ever include a clocking in and a clocking out.
These sorts of predetermined work hours could become a reality, though, if RAs unionize. Some RAs have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to allow them to become the first RA union at a private university. The RAs cited their hours, compensation and vague contracts in their petition as reasons why they should unionize. Although the question of whether the NLRB will approve the request is still undecided, the idea of an RA union at GW is harmful to the student-RA relationship. If RAs do eventually unionize, it’s possible their negotiated on-the-job hours could keep them from fully serving their residents.
RA unionization would negatively affect the student body as a whole because it would shift RAs’ focus away from their residents to wages, and it could constrain the ways in which RAs can be resources to their peers. GW and other private universities consider the RA position to be an educational experience that is, at its core, something students who apply should want regardless of how much they are paid or the hours they work.
Instead of unionizing, GW officials and RAs should discuss the reasons RAs want to unionize and address their issues. The best solution isn’t unionization – it is better communication with GW. Communication will help RAs understand the objectives they must accomplish, and it will avoid renegotiation of their obligations as student leaders.
Even though I do not advocate for RA unionization, I realize that RAs have tough jobs. One of the chief concerns RAs who want to unionize have is the vagueness of their contracts, specifically when it comes to their hours, which could be solved through conversations with GW. If RAs have a concrete idea of what officials want them to accomplish, it may eliminate their fear that they could be unexpectedly terminated.
GW’s RA contract doesn’t detail specific hours because officials know that effective RAs need to be available to students at any time. I know that, especially as a freshman, my RA was “on the job” and willing to talk whenever residents needed to. This “on-call” nature is why students are able to rely on the RAs and foster strong relationships with them. But an RA can’t take a break when they want to clock out or become busy with school work. Always making themselves available is stressful for students who choose to become RAs.
That’s where more effective employer-employee communication comes in. Without unionizing or renegotiating hours, RAs could ask that officials clarify points in their contracts that some now feel are subjective. While GW shouldn’t assign specific time limits for RA duties, officials could make clearer exactly what they expect RAs to do to uphold their end of their contracts. The Center for Student Engagement could also hold office hours to help clear up any part of the contract that seems vague or that could lead to misunderstandings down the road. That way, RAs don’t feel as though their objectives are vague or that they could be terminated on a whim. Plus, designated office hours for RAs to talk to full-time CSE staff would help both parties understand each other better in the future.
RAs and officials need to figure out how RAs can be happier students while still serving as peer mentors. As a student who has counted on my RA, I don’t think this comes from unionization. This comes from better communication and understanding. And for the RAs who want to unionize, I hope they understand that they took on a responsibility that is more than a 20 hour workweek.
Unionization works for certain groups of employees. But it’s not the best way for RAs to address their worries about wages and job security. An RA’s primary role is as a student leader. And if RAs negotiate with the University to form a union, they will hinder their relationships with their peers and residents.
Nate Muramatsu, a sophomore majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.