Sacramento Valley Union Labor Bulletin

Owned and Published by the Sacramento Central Labor Council and the Sacramento-Sierra’s Building & Construction Trades Council, official councils of the AFL-CIO


Office and Professional Employees win recognition at top private colleges

NEW YORK (PAI) — First, Wesleyan, then Barnard, and coming soon, Tufts.

The Office and Professional Employees, especially New York-based Local 153, is getting into the habit of winning organizing drives among resident assistants in dorms at prestigious private colleges.

The three organizing drives, announced in the local’s newsletter and on its Twitter feed, will bring hundreds of new members—145 at Wesleyan alone—to the union.

They’re also part of a growing movement nationwide among resident assistants, research assistants and teaching assistants at private and public colleges—all of them campaigning for better stipends, a voice on the job and enhancements to the quality of life for themselves, their families and the students they aid.

The Wesleyan win was a landmark: The first-ever union win among undergrad student workers by voluntary recognition, also known as card check, by the university administration. Prior union wins among undergrad workers, notably by the Teamsters among students working at the University of Chicago libraries, came only after management resistance and a National Labor Relations Board-supervised election.

Some 84% of Wesleyan’s resident assistants signed union election authorization cards. And more than 1,000 community members, including faculty and students, signed a pro-union petition to management. It then flip-flopped in its attitude towards the RAs.

At  both Wesleyan and Tufts, the university’s insensitive responses to the resident assistants’ needs during the coronavirus pandemic—and university decisions to keep them on campus while everyone else went home—played a big role in the organizing drives’ success.

“In fall of 2020, there was a rise in [Covid] cases on campus, and students were advised to leave early,” resident advisor Ruby Clarke told Local 153. “But ResLife (residential life) staffers were forced to stay on campus.

“Over 35 student workers signed a petition asking for hazard pay. And the school said no, and they gave out fuzzy socks instead. I think insensitive moments like that speak to the way administrators haven’t really listened to the concerns of students.”

Pay is a problem, too, Clarke added. The advisers, who let locked-out students in, help evacuate them during fire alarms and even help students through mental health crises, received stipends that paid at most 50% of their room and board. “At a lot of colleges, ResLife staff don’t have to pay for housing at all,” Clarke said. Now, with Local 153 at the table with them, the administrators and staff are now “totally different” in dealing with the student workers. “It felt really powerful.”

The RAs at Tufts listened, and announced in late November they too want to unionize at the Medford, Mass. school. There was such a supermajority of signed cards that they also sought card-check recognition, but as of Dec. 1 had yet to get a response.

The Tuft administration’s pandemic response mimicked the initial Wesleyan response, the students, self-organized as United Labor at Tufts RAs (ULTRA), told Local 153.

“For the past several years, RAs have been bringing forward concerns and requests to the Tufts Office of Residential Life & Living and are often met with inaction.” ULTRA said in its mission statement. “This was particularly exacerbated during the  pandemic, when RAs were faced with the duty to enforce Covid-19 policies within the residential halls amid the health risks the ongoing public health emergency introduced into the job.

“Concerns voiced to administration were met with mixed responses, and residential assistants weathered the pandemic with inadequate support and no additional hazard compensation,” ULTRA added.

RA Clarence Yeh told the local that for years they put up with “a lack of support,” which is “taxing on a lot of my fellow RAs, but we suck it up because we need the housing. Being an RA is an important position and responsibility, so it’s important that we also have a way to make our voices heard.”

The Tufts RAs get a room credit, but no pay, and must attend 80 hours of unpaid training yearly. Without the room credit, many—especially students of color—couldn’t attend Tufts. Even with it they must take second and third jobs to meet expenses. Meeting schedules are erratic and Tufts can arbitrarily change employment contracts without notice.

“They answer calls in the middle of the night. They handle incidents of alcohol poisoning, mental health crises, roommate conflict, and everything else that keeps the resident halls running,” OPEIU Lead Organizer Grace Reckers told the local. “Union representation will ensure the protection these workers deserve to speak up for themselves and their coworkers and to earn the kind of compensation necessary in such a strenuous job setting.”