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Push to unionize at college dorms is growing

Student resident assistants who oversee campus life — and who say their responsibilities have ballooned with time — have joined forces at BU, Tufts, and Mount Holyoke

Sam DosSantos is an organizer at Wesleyan College, where resident assistants ratified their first union contract in December 2022.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Among residential advisers at Wesleyan University, “the flood” is something of lore.

The infamous catastrophe happened on the first day of classes in fall 2021, when Hurricane Ida filled three freshman dorms with rainwater around 2 a.m. Nearly 400 students evacuated to the athletic center. And undergraduate RAs shuttled back and forth to dorms for hours in the wind and rain to accompany residents to shelter.

The night was grueling, and administrators provided little support. Sam DosSantos, a second-year RA and Arlington native, recalled Wesleyan president Michael Roth walking into the shelter, grabbing a doughnut from a table of food, and leaving — without saying a word to the student staff. (A university spokesperson said Roth talked to workers in the aftermath.)

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But “the response from the university was underwhelming,” DosSantos said. “Eventually, there was residual unrest that was brought about by so many of these incidents. The idea of a union gained ground.”

In fact, it snowballed. Around 100 RAs at the small Connecticut college voted to unionize in March 2022.

And the push only grew from there.

By New Year’s, Wesleyan had ratified an RA contract that included increased compensation and protections. In the months that followed, a cadre of frustrated undergraduate students in New England worked to organize unions in a decidedly unconventional workplace: the college dorm.

Students who oversee campus life — with job titles like resident assistants, community advisers, or house managers — joined forces at Boston University, Tufts University, and Mount Holyoke College. Similar drives took root at Emerson College and Northeastern University. Look slightly south, and grass-roots efforts are forming at Columbia University, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The movement is not entirely new. Undergrad RAs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst formed a union in 2002. But Sheen Kim, vice chair of the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth College, pinned the newfound energy on “the mass radicalization of students” during a daunting and sometimes dangerous era of university life.

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By organizing a union, they hope, student workers can have a clearer voice in what it means to be an RA, as well as standardized rules about everything ranging from compensation to what happens to an RA’s housing if they’re dismissed from their post.

Colleges have been a breeding ground for illness and social havoc since the pandemic began, and much of the onus has been placed on RAs, who are appointed to shepherd the well-being of an entire floor of younger students.

In the past, that has typically meant hosting events, mediating roommate disputes, and perhaps guiding an overserved first-year safely to bed. For this, RAs are compensated with free or discounted housing and meal plans.

But in recent semesters, and especially since schools reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic, those responsibilities have ballooned. RAs who spoke with the Globe describe being deputized as “COVID police” to enforce masking and social distancing, and wrangling students whose university — or even high school — experience was stunted by lockdowns and remote learning. Several schools later assigned RAs to longer overnight “on-call” shifts and additional check-ins with residents.

Spencer Hart-Thompson (left) and Sam Betsko, members of the ResLife union organizing committee, sat outside Boston University's Warren Towers.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Clare Hammonds, a professor of practice at UMass Amherst, also noted RAs are the first line of defense at schools experiencing a stark rise in mental illness and behavioral issues. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has consistently shown that people between 18 and 29 experience the highest rates of anxiety and depression of any age group throughout the pandemic, with roughly one-third of people reporting one or both conditions.

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“It’s not just that [RAs’] physical presence in the dorm is enough,” Hammonds said. “They’re providing support services to students who often have very high needs. They’re dealing with alcohol issues, they’re dealing with issues of sexual assault, they’re dealing with mental health crises.”

Yet as the workload increased, compensation and support did not, said Mount Holyoke RA Gillian Petrarca. Her fellow RAs banded together early last year to boost their pay from $4,000 to $8,000 per semester. (They do not receive a discount on campus housing, which costs around $18,000 annually.) Then they officially unionized in October, hoping for a stronger voice in what the job actually entails.

“If we didn’t get the formal protections of a union,” she added, “we realized they could always change our job descriptions at will.”

Many RAs themselves are also first-generation or low-income students, who see the job as an essential path to survival. Without a union, these students would be flirting with housing insecurity and left with no safety net if they were abruptly terminated, said Sam Betsko, a second-year BU RA. Administrators can rip away their RA status, and their dorm room, with little reason or notice.

“These student workers are the least protected and most exploited,” she said.

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Students at private colleges were not allowed to unionize until 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board permitted the practice in a ruling against Columbia University. That sparked a wave of union activity among graduate students — teaching assistants and researchers — at schools including Boston University, Harvard, and MIT.

RAs nodded to those efforts, as well as unions at national corporations like Amazon and Starbucks, for helping them recognize the power of their voice. Then, of course, there’s record-high tuition and the unsettled economic climate.

Sam Betsko, a second-year RA at Boston University.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“These students are operating under crippling student debt. They have concerns about the environment, racial justice more broadly,” said Matthew Donlevy, a union representative at United Auto Workers Local 2322 who works with the UMass RAs. “A lot of them see unions as an avenue by which to address those issues.”

Students are inking deals that go beyond their housing reimbursement to include semesterly stipends and pay for training before school even starts. Others are trying for broader meal plans, standardized discipline procedures, and medical leave. Almost all hope to codify what colleges expect of their RAs, and what are reasonable grounds for termination — which four RAs from different schools said was applied inconsistently in the past.

And while those parameters may sound excessive to some, the job warrants it, said Tufts RA David Whittingham.

“The room is essentially part of the job. I would compare it to an office,” he said. “We’re encouraged to meet with students there. You’re living in the workplace, and that workplace should be covered. Our compensation, our protections — that should be considered beyond that.”

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(In statements, spokespeople at Wesleyan, Tufts, and Mount Holyoke said the schools respect RAs’ right to unionize and want to set up students for success. BU did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

All the while, a wider crusade to bring undergraduate students to the bargaining table is brewing. Underground talks about unionizing workers in libraries and mail rooms have begun at multiple schools. Dartmouth employees, for example, secured a $21 minimum hourly wage for student dining workers in a February contract.

And the RA movement is far from done. At Emerson, senior Isabel Moon circulated a union interest form to RAs after winter break. It piqued interest, but fizzled out.

Then Ari Dinh entered the picture.

Housing officials at Emerson, who oversee the RA program, fired Dihn, 20, in February after she reached out to college police to help an inebriated friend at the end of a night of drinking. Dinh was given a week to move out, and considered taking out yet another loan to pay tuition next year, since her housing and meal plan would no longer be covered.

Worst of all, it sent Dinh into a spiral of depression — with little to no communication from the college, except for a short text from her direct supervisor, she said.

Dinh wondered, why were RAs in other buildings given a slap on the wrist for offenses far worse than hers?

(Emerson spokesperson Michelle Gaseau declined to comment on Dinh’s termination specifically, but said RAs are fired due to a “failure to abide” to the expectations of the position.)

Together with another RA who was recently fired, Dinh is considering ramping up the union effort again to clarify reasons RAs can be terminated, and what Emerson might offer those booted from dorm staff.

“It made me think that a union might be able to help,” Dinh said. “I shouldn’t have been punished this way, and no one else should be either.”

Students ate lunch outside on the Wesleyan University campus.BEA OYSTER/NYT

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her @ditikohli_.