While Yale’s graduate student teaching assistants continue to try to mobilize their numbers for unionization, undergraduate residential assistants at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have angered UMass officials with a large showing of support for the first ever RA union.
RAs, who are student life advisers, filed a union election petition to the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission with two-thirds of UMass’ 360 RAs signing their names last week. In response, UMass officials have promised to contest the move.
UMass sophomore David Synnott, an RA and a leading member of the union movement, said RAs have two main grievances — “arbitrary discipline and termination and low compensation packages.”
“We just want uniform procedures, and we want progressive discipline, which means if you screw up a little bit, you’re not at risk of losing your job,” he said. “The other major issue is our compensation issue. We get paid $50 a week for 20 hours a week.”
UMass actually gives RAs $137 a week, but Synnott said students must use much of this money to cover the cost of living on campus.
“We use our room for a lot of our duties like counseling residents,” Synnott said. “It’s like a company hiring you to work for them and saying, ‘Yeah, you have to rent your cubicle.'”
Officials at UMass would not comment individually on this unionization movement, but University Chancellor David K. Scott issued a press release stating that RAs were students, not employees, and should not attempt to unionize.
“Undergraduates at the university are clearly students,” Scott said. “The administration does not support the effort to unionize, and will follow established procedures expressing our position on the petition for recognition to the state Labor Relations Commission.”
He added that RAs will receive an additional $6 per week next year.
At UMass, a public university, graduate students won the right to unionize in 1989, and the graduate student union has expressed support for the RAs.
“There’s no way to really challenge the certification on the grounds that we’re students,” Synnott said. “We aren’t going to negotiate over academic issues. We’re only negotiating over work issues.”
If the state Labor Relations Commission grants the RAs permission to hold an election, then the body will only need a simple majority to unionize. With two-thirds of the students signing the initial petition, UMass officials will need to win their contest to prevent unionization.
At Yale, Graduate Employees and Students Organization member Carlos Aramayo ’03 said that although he could not speak for GESO, he believes the RAs at UMass should have the right to unionize.
“I don’t know the details of their situation, but my sense is that if they’re making money from the university and they feel they’re employees, then they have the right to form a union,” he said.
Although there are no residential assistants at Yale, the position most closely resemble that of freshman counselors on campus. Freshman Counselor Chris Edwards ’01 said there was no chance freshman counselors would ever try to follow in the UMass residential assistants’ footsteps.
“I think most freshman counselors would do [the job] whether there were any benefits or not,” he said. “I would do it whether I got paid or not.”