When a resident assistant (RA) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst lost his job after missing a single staff meeting fall semester, about 138 of his coworkers decided to protect their positions by unionizing.
In late March, the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission set a new legal precedent by upholding the right for undergraduate employees at Amherst to join the United Auto Workers local 2322.
The precedent in Massachusetts has already inspired undergraduate assistants at Columbia University to begin organizing, posing the question as to how far the new RA union will reach in other campuses.
In Washington, legislation passed around the same time as the Massachusetts debate recognizes the right for graduate students serving as teaching and research assistants to unionize. Washington state law also contains a provision allowing undergraduates working as researchers or graders to join a union.
However, the new labor law does not specifically mention residence-hall employees, explained Marvin Schurke, executive director for the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission.
"This statute gives a very limited coverage," said Schurke. "It's not an 'everyone's included' approach. I don't know, with the exclusion of readers, tutors and graders, if there would be room in this bill for undergraduates."
Several UW undergraduates have already signed union cards for the Graduate Student Employee Action Coalition/United Auto Workers. According to the group's spokesperson, Brian Mello, all the undergraduates now in the union are represented as researchers or tutors, not residence-hall employees.
"Oftentimes they are working on projects similar to graduate students'," Mello said. He added that after the Amherst decision no RAs have yet contacted the graduate student union.
Resident advisers at UW receive free room and board in exchange for both enforcing dorm policy and acting as mentors and role models for residents. The positions are competitive, requiring assistants to commit from fall quarter to spring quarter of the following school year.
This year, 185 people applied for 98 positions, said Bryan Verity, a manager of human resources for Housing and Food Services. About 35 candidates were new hires and 25 others became alternates who will fill vacancies throughout the year. The UW turnover rate is lower than at Amherst, where Union President James Shaw estimated that 50 percent of RAs left their positions after one year.
UW President Richard McCormick made no comment about the administration's reaction to the Amherst decision. However, he did mention that labor unions are moving from representing just blue-collar workers to also including knowledge workers.
"The next century will not see an increase in auto workers joining the United Auto Workers," said McCormick. "You can't blame the union for wanting to swell their ranks with knowledge workers, and what better place to begin than with graduate and research assistants?"
Ansel Olson, president of the Residence Hall Student Association, has nothing but high regard for UW's RAs, whom he considers important and prominent.
"What better job could you have than to get the perks of room and board but also get the chance to build community and help educate residents about life?" Olson said.
Please read our Comment policy.