The college declined to voluntarily recognize Swarthmore’s newly-formed resident assistant union on Friday, Nov. 10. In an email to RAs on Friday afternoon, Vice President for Student Affairs Stephanie Ives told resident assistants that the college would support their decision to vote for unionization in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board.
The news came after 93% of RAs filed for union membership under the Local 153 branch of the Office of Professional Employees International Union last Monday.
In the email to RAs, Ives stated that RAs are trusted members of the community and that the college is committed to ensuring an open dialogue with them. She thanked the RAs for their dedication to Swarthmore, and stated that the college will abide by the results of the upcoming NLRB election.
“We believe our relationship with you is strongest when we are able to engage in open dialogue directly with each other,” Ives wrote. “Also, we fully support each RA’s individual, voluntary choice in an election to determine whether to move forward with a union. We will not stand in the way of that democratic process, and we commit to abide by the outcome of your election results.”
Ives also briefly mentioned that in September, the college’s Residential Communities Leadership Team began a benchmarking study to assess the compensation and residential programs at other colleges and universities. “One of our goals was to ensure the compensation and experience we offer RAs upholds our commitment to treat you fairly and equitably,” Ives wrote.
The email was sent prior to the RA union rally held on Friday afternoon, where students expressed their support for the union. Representatives from Swarthmore Pan-Asian Association, Campus Coalition Concerning Chester, Young Democratic Socialists of America, as well as various residents and RAs, gave speeches calling on the college to take the opportunity to voluntarily recognize the union. After the rally, students marched to President Val Smith’s residence to personally deliver the petition.
David Kemp RA Leia Immanuel ’26 told The Phoenix that despite the emotion of the moment, RAs were disappointed by the college’s response.
“It wasn’t a huge surprise,” she said. “We were expecting it and it was definitely disappointing.” She also stated that most other college administrations also declined to voluntarily recognize RA unions, with the only exception being Wesleyan University.
A group of RAs responded to Ives’ letter in a response on Friday evening. They pointed out the contradictory rationale in the college’s emphasis on direct, open dialogue, while refusing to voluntarily recognize the union, which would give RAs the opportunity to engage in dialogue as a collective.
“The union would give RAs the legal right to send a democratically-elected team of RAs to sit directly across from you at a table and negotiate what is in our work contract. We hope the administration does not think that calling RAs to engage in extra meetings … to give up the call for unionization is what you mean by ‘dialogue,’” the RA response read. “These sorts of meetings would be considered an act of bad faith, union busting, and could even be illegal. If refusing to recognize the union voluntarily and union-busting meetings are not what you mean, could you explain what you mean by ‘engage in open dialogue directly with each other’?”
Addressing the college’s mention of the benchmarking study, Immanuel told The Phoenix that she was not informed of the study that was carried out by the Residential Communities Leadership Team in September until Friday’s email from Ives. The RA response also touched on the benchmarking study and emphasized the unequal compensation of Swarthmore’s RAs compared to RAs at other colleges and universities.
“You must have seen that RAs who unionize at other institutions have been able to secure compensation that fully pays for room and board, [with] money on top of that. This is opposed to the compensation at [Swarthmore] that covers only 87% of housing costs after tax,” the email stated.
The college has yet to respond to the RAs’ response, and the exact date of the election has yet to be determined. Immanuel told The Phoenix that the college’s lawyer has been in contact with OPEIU Local 153 organizer Scott Williams as they negotiate a date and time for the election.
As RAs prepare for the upcoming election, they want to emphasize the historic nature of the union. Immanuel claimed that the moment when RAs delivered the petition to Smith’s residence marked a turning point in the history of the college.
“It is a historic moment, especially considering that it’s the first union in the history of the school,” she said. “The rally took on a tactical shape. People could hear us and see us, and that’s important for raising awareness to build the support that we need.”