Around 140 undergraduate resident assistants at Tufts University moved to unionize last week, though the administration declined to voluntarily recognize the union on Wednesday.
The students have their housing paid for by the college in exchange for supervising dorms, but many hope that organizing formally will lead to additional compensation and fairer working conditions, said union leader and Tufts junior David Whittingham. Around 85 percent of the school’s resident assistants have signed union authorization cards.
”The position allows the university to get free labor from students, many of whom take the job because they can’t afford rent anywhere else in Boston,” Whittingham said. “It’s exploitative.”
In a letter, the resident assistants complained about the lack of wages and benefits and the expectation of attending 80 hours of unpaid training before the academic year begins. A paycheck or stipend would benefit RAs, especially those who are first-generation or low-income students forced to take on second jobs — on top of classes and clubs — to stay afloat, Whittingham said.
Student housing at Tufts costs between $9,100 and $11,400 per year, depending on the accommodations. RAs receive a credit for that, but not for a meal plan or any other compensation.
Julie Francois, another union organizer and Tufts junior, said RAs are also looking for job security and broad support from the administration.
In February 2021, several RAs outlined changes they would like to see to university officials and were met with resistance, the Tufts Daily reported. They requested the establishment of an RA council, mandated anti-racist training, COVID vaccine prioritization, and increased compensation. Many ideas were shot down.
Francois added that the incident is evidence that RAs are not listened to on campus.
“We want to have a voice,” she added.
Though graduate students at MIT, Harvard, Boston University, and more have voted to unionize recently, the push among undergraduates is relatively new. In recent months, RAs at Barnard College in New York and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut have successfully organized.
In an e-mail Tuesday, Patrick Collins, Tufts’ executive director of media relations, said the university respects “our community members’ right to petition the National Labor Relations Board for recognition ... We will respect the outcome of an election held pursuant to and consistent with the Board’s procedures for an appropriate bargaining unit of Tufts RAs.”
The push to unionize undergraduate students who monitor the halls and rooms of college dorms could be partly rooted in how difficult the RA job has become in recent years. RAs — typically juniors and seniors — were tasked with enforcing COVID-19 policies the past two years, and many are the first line of defense when it comes to handling growing mental health issues on campus, said Grace Reckers, the lead East Coast organizer for Office and Professional Employees International Union. (The trade union is representing the Tufts and Wesleyan RAs.)
”An RA union is certainly not something you see everyday,” she added. “But the job now comes with a whole lot more work. If a university hired a staffer to do the same things RAs do, they would be paid a lot more.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of resident assistants at Tufts.