As graduate student unions spring up across the country’s campuses, administrators at nearby University of Massachusetts-Amherst are confronting the even more frightening reality of a student labor force composed of undergraduates. The resident assistants (RAs) there voted last March to unionize, meaning that their compensation and conditions of employment would be determined by collective bargaining. These undergraduates, who enforce dorm rules, advise students and coordinate events, are demanding a voice in how their job is done and what they get in return. The university ought to welcome them to the bargaining table.
Instead, UMass-Amherst continues to deny the RAs’ right to organize. In response, on April 19, 15 students and workers held a sit-in in the office of the vice chancellor for student affairs, demanding recognition of their union. All were arrested, including those who locked arms to block a police van.
The university’s continuing refusal to recognize and bargain with the union showcases its priorities: pocketbooks over principle. The RAs are students employed by the university, performing services for which they are paid a certain amount. In the relationship between the university administration and the RAs—the latter represented by their democratically selected union—power should not rest solely on the side of the administration.
The university, however, insists that RAs are only students and not employees and have no right to organize. The Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission ruled against the school last January and ordered that a vote on unionization be conducted among the RAs. The commission pointed to several facts: RAs sign an employment contract, work about 20 hours a week and receive weekly paychecks. Also, their compensation is calculated to meet the minimum wage, and taxes are deducted. To distinguish RAs from the graduate students at UMass-Lowell who had not been deemed employees, the commission pointed to the fact that RAs undergo rigid training and supervision, including exit interviews if they are terminated. It concluded that the university’s interest in RAs is primarily in the services RAs provide—services that are completely divorced from academic duties.
Because of the power disparity between the students and the university, UMass can return the RA employees to student status. Such a move to skirt the possibility of a union would be incredibly manipulative and highlights the very imbalance of power between the administration and the RAs that make unionizing necessary.
The university should respect the prerogative of its student-workers to band together. Instead, it has threatened to drag the issue through the courts for four to five years, according to the students. If RAs had been able to communicate their concerns to a responsive administration through their union, they would not have had to sit in. Denied such a forum, disruptive but non-violent civil disobedience was among the only methods of negotiation RAs had available. Now, the university is continuing to press charges and is threatening expulsion and other disciplinary action against the students involved. The 34 arrests marked the first time the university has sent its own students to jail in over a decade.
Despite this concern with law and order, the administration continues to refuse to recognize the union—the now-legally-required mediator for negotiating with RAs. The university would be wise to stop punishing protesters and instead model the behavior it asks of them: calmly sitting down at the bargaining table.
—Emma S. Mackinnon