Some RAs raise concerns about unionization process, outcomes

Media Credit: Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor

Some resident advisers say they are not in favor of unionizing. The National Labor Relations Board has yet to make a decision on the potential RA union.

While some resident advisers continue to push for unionization, other RAs disagree with the attempt, some saying they didn’t know about the push until it was underway.

Some RAs, all of whom are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the students are employees and can unionize, say the group is divided, with a few current and former RAs leading the charge and others left out. Some RAs said after the filing with the NLRB that unionization could strain their relationships with residents and supervisors and that issues RAs have with the job could be resolved by working with the Center for Student Engagement.

On Dec. 16, following a day-long hearing, the University and Service Employees International Union 500, a local labor group representing students, both submitted briefs detailing their arguments to the National Labor Relations Board. The case currently remains open with no set deadline for a decision.

Students leading the unionization push said they were most concerned with what they described as ambiguous contracts, saying RAs must be available to attend on-campus events without specified notice and act as good “role models” without specification. These current and former RAs want a more detailed, standardized contract to avoid the anxiety that individual judgement calls could merit review or termination.

Ben Strongin, an RA in Potomac House, said that although he is generally pro-union for long-term workers, the RAs’ short-term positions don’t require collective bargaining power.

“We did sign this contract and we did say, ‘I agree to work for $2,500 a year and free housing.’ I signed it knowing what I was getting,” Strongin said.

The more detailed contracts proposed by the students in favor of unionizing could result in a more rigid protocol for advising residents, limiting RAs’ judgement autonomy, Strongin said.

“It would make me more of an authority than I already am over the residents and make it harder for me to engage with them and be candid and take every situation as it arises,” Strongin said.

Officials have made similar arguments against unionizing, saying a third party union in the contract process could limit individual RAs’ freedoms.

A current RA who spoke on the condition of anonymity – RAs are not allowed to speak to the media – said she opposed unionization because it would add “a lot of red tape” and limit efficiency in working with the CSE.

“Not everything in the CSE is perfect and I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture, but the people that I met through it, they are very willing to listen,” the RA said. “If you don’t include them in the conversation and you jump tons of steps to ‘let’s unionize,’ you never really give them a chance to help you.”

The RA added that while they all benefit from their stipends and free housing, some rely on them to be able to attend GW. On-campus housing can cost up to $15,200 annually, and families that would have had to pay for a child to live on campus can use those funds for tuition, instead.

If the NLRB concludes deliberations in favor of unionization, more than 50 percent of RAs who participate in a subsequent election would have to vote in favor of unionization for it to take effect. Then, the local labor group that already represents some part-time faculty would advocate for RAs’ salaries and contract terms.

Matthew Grimo, an RA in Amsterdam Hall, said while he originally signed a card in support of unionization, he is no longer convinced it’s necessary.

“Not every RA is in support of this,” Grimo said. “When there is a system in place you need to find a way to work within the system first, rather than bust it to pieces.”

Many RAs felt “blindsided” when the unionization plans were publicly announced because they didn’t know a group was pushing for unionization or were unclear about what unionization could mean, Grimo said.

“There’s been a real lack of communication with a lot of the RAs who were not already on board. They really just have no idea what’s happening,” Grimo said.

While some RAs voiced concern over unanswered questions regarding unionization, others still remain in favor of unionizing. Student leaders in the unionization movement said RAs who raised concerns did not directly approach them during the collection and filing process.

Celeste Aguzino, a former RA in Hensley Hall, said students concerned that a third party influence will strain relationships with the CSE should know that RAs will negotiate their own contracts with the assistance of the union, the union would not be setting terms without their input.

“If anything, unionization would improve RAs’ relationships with supervisors. A negotiated contract is the best and the only legal way RAs can communicate honestly and openly with supervisors,” Aguzino said.

Auguzino added that without the legal protection of the union, RAs are unable to honestly voice concerns to supervisors, in fear of potentially losing their jobs or not being rehired later.

Calla Gilson, a former RA in Shenkman and Somers halls, said pro-union RAs will be “exploring avenues” to hold more private information sessions during the spring semester for RAs who originally felt uninvolved.

The $5 dues would be the maximum amount up for negotiation, Gilson said, adding that the union group has been supporting the movement pro bono for the past two years. There has been “no conversation” regarding any potential hour restrictions on time RAs can and cannot spend with residents, she added.

“We will be putting measures in place to make sure that these informal interactions are an integral part of our contractual role, instead of being sidetracked by other responsibilities and mandatory volunteer obligations,” Gilson said.

Gilson added that unionization will make RAs more comfortable using individualized, case-by-case judgement when dealing with resident issues without fear of CSE repercussions if their actions are deemed insufficient.

Rebecca Durango, a current RA in Somers Hall who spoke at the NLRB hearing on behalf of pro-unionization students, said all RAs, regardless of their current position, are free to reach out to student leaders in the unionization movement and are encouraged to use their voting power, if the NLRB allows.

“We will make every effort to reach out to our fellow RAs to make sure everyone feels well-informed and confident in casting their anonymous ballot,” Durango said.

Cayla Harris contributed to reporting.

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