Resident advisors at GW may not be part of a union now, but they have the chance to make history this Wednesday when they vote on whether to become the first unionized undergraduate student group nationwide at a private university.
Two weeks ago, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that GW RAs are employees and can form a union. This decision comes after a local division of the Service Employees International Union filed a petition with the NLRB on behalf of some RAs last fall, claiming that their contracts and job standards are vague and that it’s unclear what actions can cause them to lose their jobs.
The Hatchet’s editorial board believes that RAs should vote in favor of unionization to receive better guidelines about what their jobs entail and what they can be terminated for, and to improve their relationships with their residents and the University. It is also necessary that all RAs join the union if they vote in favor because even those who don’t join would be subject to the decisions proposed and negotiated by the union.
RAs at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst have been unionized since 2002 and serve as an example of how RA unionization should work. Their contracts provide necessary information like binding grievances and arbitration procedures for unfair firings and discrimination, and outline what times they’re expected to be available every day. Meanwhile, RAs at GW have spoken up about various disciplinary actions – like immediate termination – that can be taken against them for not upholding their ambiguous contracts.
Unionization isn’t a cure-all to the problems RAs are currently facing, but it’s a path toward improvement. If RAs vote in favor of unionization, they should approach the negotiation process with caution, while still being realistic and firm in what they want. RAs should come to a consensus on their goals and priorities so they can work toward measures that will bring about real change in their professional lives. A successful RA union would need to focus on asking for tangible and realistic demands to help RAs do their job better. The RAs should first negotiate clear guidelines regarding the grounds on which they can be fired. A lack of clarity about the firing process and what RAs are expected to do for their residents only creates confusion and prevents RAs from fulfilling their duties. Having responsibilities clearly outlined will increase job security.
RAs would also be able to use the union to ask for higher wages, but this shouldn’t be a top priority. With budget cuts across the University – including the decrease in wages for some summer student employees from the D.C. minimum to the federal minimum – a wage increase isn’t a realistic demand for the near future. If RAs do attempt to negotiate for a higher wage and are successful, however, then some RAs might not need to find another job to make ends meet and would have more time to devote to their residents.
If the vote passes and the union forms, RAs shouldn’t ask for specific work hours because they don’t work a typical 9-to-5 job. They’re on the job all the time. The role of an RA is always evolving and expanding to include more responsibilities, like training on topics related to sexual assault prevention and Title IX. Being an RA has continued to encompass more and more obligations, and specific work hours don’t fit with the job description. With a constantly evolving position like this, it’s vital that all aspects of the role are clearly defined.
Although some are concerned about the possible effects of unionization on the relationship between residents and RAs, unionization could considerably improve the experience that residents receive. Better outlining an RA’s job duties may require some RAs to hold new events for their residents and be more available to them than they are now. But more importantly, it would provide them with clarity about what is expected of them, ensuring that residents have more present and helpful RAs.
In terms of the effects unionization would have between RAs and the University, the relationship can only get better. The relationship between the two has been rocky, and unionization would hopefully improve communication so that both RAs and administrators have clearer expectations of the other. Of course, the move towards unionization may shift how RAs are seen by University officials, from “student” first to “employee” first. As an employee first, this can change the relationship between the two to become more formal. But that’s OK, since a more formal relationship – if handled well – would reduce ambiguity.
Although we wholly support unionization, we also realize that the union might not bring about immediate changes for RAs because negotiations take time. But if the vote passes, we will hopefully see a marked improvement in communication between GW and RAs within a couple of years. This decision would make way for a clearer hiring and firing process that allows RAs to know the specific job responsibilities they should be fulfilling and the reasons they could be terminated. This will make life better for RAs, residents and the University in the long-term.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Irene Ly and contributing opinions editor Shwetha Srinivasan, based on discussions with managing director Melissa Holzberg, managing editor Tyler Loveless, sports editor Matt Cullen, copy editor Melissa Schapiro and design editor Anna Skillings.