RAs left in the dark about decision to cancel unionization election

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Lisa Blitstein | Contributing Photo Editor

The local labor group set to collectively bargain on behalf of RAs withdrew its petition to organize the day before the unionization election. The decision left RAs and organizers confused and frustrated with the cancellation.

The local labor group set to collectively bargain on behalf of GW RAs withdrew its petition to organize the day before the unionization election – set for Wednesday – canceling the vote and leaving RAs and organizers confused and frustrated.

In November, RAs partnered with the Service Employees International Union Local 500, who filed a petition on their behalf and brought their case to the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled last month that RAs qualify as University employees, allowing them to hold an election to decide if they wanted to form a union, but it is now unclear if or when that election will take place.

Anne McLeer, the director of higher education at the SEIU Local 500, said in an email that the decision to withdraw the petition was difficult but that the union did not feel it made “strategic sense” to hold the election this week.

“It was our professional assessment – having run many union organizing campaigns, including many in higher education – that having an election would not have been either in the RAs’ interests or those of SEIU Local 500 and its members,” she said.

McLeer said the group did not consult RA organizers in the decision and contacted them yesterday to share the news.

“We work as closely as possible with groups seeking representation by Local 500, but our decision-making is guided by our professional judgment on what is in the best interests of those groups and also our existing members,” she said.

McLeer said the union decided to pull the petition because it didn’t have much time to reach out to RAs between the NLRB’s decision in favor of unionization April 22 and the election scheduled to take place Wednesday.

She added that the withdrawal now means the union must wait six months before it can file another petition on behalf of RAs and that the organization will evaluate the situation in the summer.

“Our door remains open to higher education workers who want to form a union and who want to work with us through what can be a contentious, unfamiliar process,” she said.

If the RAs voted and decided not to unionize, the SEIU Local 500 would have been required to wait a year before filing another petition to organize on their behalf, according to NLRB rules.

Now that the union has withdrawn its petition, it must wait at least six months before it can refile.

Students said they were caught off guard by the decision to cancel the election so soon before the vote was set to take place.

Lauren Mouacdie, a junior and an RA in Guthridge Hall, said she opposed unionization efforts because she views RAs as students not employees and was wary of RAs forming a governing body among themselves if they voted to unionize. She also worked closely with another RA to mobilize a counter-unionization group – Students for RA Freedom – following the NLRB’s decision.

She said a representative from the SEIU Local 500 called her Monday night – two days before the scheduled election – to ask questions. She said she is unsure how the representative found her phone number and that the conversation felt guided instead of informative.

“He kept on asking me like, ‘Is the information I’m providing you going to help you change your mind at all?’” she said. “He just kept trying to lead me to vote yes on the union, and it was kind of a conversation that I don’t think was necessarily authorized to go in that direction.”

Moucadie said the call seemed to indicate that the union was scrambling for support ahead of the vote.

McLeer declined to say if representatives from SEIU Local 500 contacted RAs directly about the election.

Mouacdie said that the election still should have been held regardless of the timing and the decision to cancel it shows the union “didn’t really have the best interest of our students at heart.”

“The fact that they didn’t even allow the students to use their voice to vote – regardless of what the outcome would’ve been – I think just kind of indicates the fact that the union wasn’t really for us to begin with,” she said.

Calla Gilson, a former RA in Shenkman and Somers halls and a unionization organizer, said she heard that the union had been contacting RAs Monday and confronted the representatives.

“We had asked that SEIU not bother RAs with calls during this stressful pre-finals period,” she said in an email. “We had explained that outreach to each RA was being facilitated by the organizing committee and that no further engagement was necessary.”

Gilson said she was “devastated” when the SEIU Local 500 called to tell her the election had been called off Tuesday.

“We had worked really hard to reach out to all RAs and felt confident that everyone was going to vote and that no matter the outcome, it would truly represent what the RAs needed to feel supported,” she said in an email.

Organizers mounted about a two-year-long effort to gather support and launch a campaign for unionization, Gilson said. She said they achieved an unprecedented victory over the University with the NLRB’s decision, but with the SEIU’s decision this week, the campaign is now on hold indefinitely.

Gilson said that because the soonest a petition could be filed again is in six months, there will be no future steps toward unionization until at least then.

“There has been no discussion by the current organizing committee to move towards this,” Gilson said. “It will be a question for future RAs.”

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