A New Union Battle

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff |  4/13/2001

AMHERST - Their doors have been smeared with shaving cream and ketchup, urinated on and glued shut, and one had his set on fire. Other insults include slanderous notes scrawled on their message boards and throughout their halls. And then there's the bullying, death threats, and violence: A drunk student threw one headfirst into a cement floor.

It's not easy to be a resident assistant at the University of Massachusetts.

This week, the university's RAs declared they had enough. In a move to win better pay, job security, and other benefits - such as a clear contract - students who represent the school's 364 dormitory RAs told university officials they intend to become the nation's first undergraduate RA union.

"A lot of us have just become disgusted with our working conditions," said Chris Fierro, a 21-year-old junior and one of the RAs who in the past week helped file a union election petition with the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission, which will probably rule in May. "We are sick of questionable firings, a vague contract, and working for less than minimum wage."

The move opens a new front in the national battle over whether university students have the right to unionize. So far most of the legal fights have been waged by graduate teaching assistants, who argue that they are employees of the university, not just grad students.

At UMass, where graduate teaching assistants unionized 11 years ago, chancellor David K. Scott said the university would not tolerate an RA union.

"Undergraduates at the university are clearly students," Scott said in a prepared statement. "The administration does not support the effort to unionize, and will follow established procedures expressing our position on the petition for recognition."

About two-thirds of the campus's RAs have already signed cards saying they want to join the union, which is backed by the United Auto Workers and would be affiliated with the graduate students union. Part of what's fueling their campaign, they say, is that many RAs believe the university has misled them on everything from their compensation to their rights.

Instead of earning $137 for 20 hours of work a week, as the university asserts, they say they're really earning only $50, or $2.50 an hour, after residence officials subtract the cost of their rooms, which the RAs say are supposed to be free. The RAs also say, despite university denials, that they are at risk of being fired and thrown out of their rooms without due process.

Their union movement has been fueled mainly by a 30-page manifesto published last spring by a senior who spent three years as an RA at UMass. Citing a 50 percent turnover rate among RAs, Gregory Essopos issued a call to arms to his fellow dorm monitors: "If workers are happy with their jobs, there is no need to unionize," he wrote. "It is clear, however, that in this situation workers are not happy, and it's time to do something about that."

Not long after the dense paper was published, the university fired two RAs, a move students in the budding movement called "questionable" and "arbitrary."

"It started to occur to a lot of us that we had less rights than our residents," said Mark Griffin, 22, a senior who has been an RA for two years. "It was wrong and it was time to act."

When Fierro and about 40 other RAs marched to the provost's office last week to demand recognition, they weren't welcomed. On Monday, UMass associate provost Susan Pearson met with nine of the disgruntled RAs, they said, and declined to act on any of their grievances. The students left and, according to the RAs, said, "We'll see you at the MLRC."

Before the RAs can take a formal vote to unionize, the Labor Relations Commission must rule on whether the students are legally eligible to form a collective bargaining unit.

University residence officials say they go out of their way to make sure the job is completely clear to RAs before they start. And they add that students are thoroughly screened, trained, and supported by the administration throughout their term.

As for compensation, UMass officials say it is misleading to suggest RAs earn only $50 a week. Unlike other undergraduates, RAs live in a double room alone and are provided with a free high-speed Internet connection. The price for other students to live in such accommodations would be about $3,200.

It is also wrong for RAs to suggest they are subject to an arbitrary disciplinary process, they say. In the past two years, the university fired only 13 RAs out of more than 700 on the job during that time. All of those, they add, had the right to appeal those decisions.

"They're definitely putting a twist on the issues," said Michael Gilbert, director of the university's housing services, who said that, despite the difficulties, twice as many students this year applied to be an RA than there are slots open. "We don't believe we're hiding things. We tell them clearly at the beginning what our expectations are. But I guess sometimes their expectations aren't met."

Not everyone feels exploited. Some RAs scorn their fellow students' efforts. Union foes also warn that all students will end up paying the price for a union, subsidizing higher wages and benefits for a small group on a campus with 18,000 students.

"It would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic," wrote Rob Schulze, 20, a junior RA, in an editorial headlined "Kill the Union" in the campus's student newspaper. "The reasons for an RA union are either flat-out wrong, simply hilarious, or beyond the scope of organized labor."

An hour or so before midnight this week, in a dingy dorm office plastered with posters of Che Guevara and Noam Chomksy, about a dozen RAs mulled their movement and did their best to answer why they would want to spend so much time in a thankless job that often requires undergraduates to write up neighboring students for drinking or blasting music.

For some it was about being part of a support network that helps students overcome personal academic problems. For others, it was about the extra cash and a large subsidized room. And for some it was about the camaraderie they share with other RAs.

For Tanya Herron, who was once shoved onto the floor by a drunk man in her hall, it's about the ultimate reward. "I guess it's like being a parent," she said. "The thank yous aren't always clear. But you know people appreciate what you're trying to do."
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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