Swarthmore RAs File for Union Recognition with OPEIU-153, NLRB, Join Wave of Undergraduate Union Organizers

An overwhelming number of Swarthmore Residential Assistants filed for union membership under the Local 153 branch of the Office and Professional Employees International Union and the National Labor Relations Board on Monday, Nov. 6. The efforts come amid a wave of unionization efforts from undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, Wesleyan University, Tufts University, and Barnard College

52 of the 56 RAs signed the petition, which was presented to President Valerie Smith on Monday, requesting voluntary recognition from the college. Swarthmore RAs will not be able to enter into contractual negotiations with the college until they are legally recognized as a union.

RAs and their supporters will be holding a rally on Friday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. on Parrish Porch pushing on the administration to voluntarily recognize the Swarthmore Worker’s Union. Organizers have also encouraged students to send letters to the administration through Action Network.

David Kemp RA Chris Folk ’24 told The Phoenix that the college will have until before Friday’s rally to respond to the petition. If they choose not to acknowledge the union by that time, the NLRB will hold an election at Swarthmore, likely in mid-December, where RAs will cast secret ballots on the question of unionization.

“While we’re confident we can win an election, it would be an act of good faith if the school would avoid delaying the inevitable. By voluntarily recognizing the union, we can skip the entire extra voting process,” they said. “Typically, employers refuse to voluntarily recognize unions so they can delay and stop the unionization process. We expect the school to give us paltry pay increases and small benefits, but we don’t just want a one-off win. We want to ensure all RAs, from now on, can demand fair treatment from the school. OPEIU also has a legal team that is on stand-by and ready to ensure Swarthmore is following every bit of the law.”

In an email to The Phoenix, Andy Hirsch, vice president for communications said the college received notice from a union representative on Monday, and the administration is working to review the information. 

“We did receive notice from a union representative yesterday indicating that many of our residential assistants have expressed interest in a union. We are working to review the information that was shared with us,” Hirsch wrote. “I think it’s important to share that Swarthmore’s resident assistants are valuable members of the community who serve an important role in supporting the residential experience we offer students, and we are committed to ensuring that they are treated fairly and equitably.”

According to a press release from OPEIU Local 153, Swarthmore RAs cited an “unjust” work contract that “gives broad, sweeping power to management,” including Area Coordinators, leaving little room for RAs to control their work conditions.  

“[RAs are] hired by the College to live in the dorms and oversee anywhere between 20-40 residents. Although the college administration claims that this job requires 15-20 hours per week, as stated in the RA Manual, RAs have seen the position become an overwhelming, 24/7 job,” the press release states. “Meant to serve as a touchstone between residents and campus resources, RAs live where they work and often feel the edges between their personal and work lives blur out of their control.”

Folk said that the group’s primary grievance is with their compensation. Currently, RAs get paid a stipend of about $4,700 per semester. The stipend is meant to cover the cost of housing, which is $9,578 for the 2023-2024 academic year. After tax, the stipend falls short of covering all of the housing costs. RAs are not given a stipend to cover the cost of board, which is common at peer institutions. 

Beyond compensation, RAs feel that they are overworked. According to the press statement, RAs are required to attend weekly staff meetings and bi-weekly meetings with ACs, host monthly programs, work frequent “on call” shifts, and create monthly bulletin boards for residents. Some RAs have reported that if they are late to weekly meetings, they may be assigned additional work, usually in the form of an additional “on call” shift.  

As of this year, RAs have been instructed by ACs to create “sociograms” of their residents, which “map the social and highly personal relationships of residents,” according to the press release. Folk said that the sociograms have been widely unpopular among RAs, making many uncomfortable. 

“I think the ACs understand this as a method for us to continue building community and make sure certain residents are getting support,” they said. “But for the RAs, it feels like our job is to surveil our residents.”

RAs would frequently discuss forming a union every year, as early as 2021, but it wasn’t until RA training week in August that RAs began serious discussions about forming a union. The treatment of RAs during training week is another example that RAs have cited as a needless and patronizing form of control.  

“We are subjected to a very miserable week of training,” Folk said. “It’s disrespectful because you get one day to [move in], and then the next day, you’re expected to be in the training site, usually in the Matchbox at 8 am. You don’t get to leave for lunch because it is taken up with activity. So you’re just getting spoken to.” 

By forming a union, RAs will be able to organize as a group and form collective grievances that they would like the college to address in their contracts. Once legally recognized as a union, RAs will vote to elect representatives and leadership, who will spearhead efforts to negotiate with the college. 

Folk explained that the group is interested in advocating for specific demands, like better pay and increased job security, but beyond that, they believe that forming a union will empower RAs as a collective and enable them to stand up to the administration as a more “enduring force.”

“We don’t want to keep fighting particular battles. We want to have this permanent force of organizing effort and the ability to constantly negotiate as an equal with the school, not from a position of weakness,” Folk said. 

Correction: This article originally stated that 53 RAs signed the unionization petition. The article has been changed to reflect that 52 RAs signed the petition.

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