Swarthmore RAs Have a Seat at the Negotiating Table After 46-5 Vote to Unionize

Swarthmore Resident Assistants voted to unionize 46-5 in an election held by the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday afternoon. RAs will now be represented under the Local 153 branch of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, giving them a seat at a table with the administration to negotiate their employment contract with the college. 

Emotions ran high on Thursday evening, where RAs gathered in Kohlberg room 116, the location of the election, to hear the results. After briefing students on the counting procedures, a representative from the NLRB counted each ballot out loud. RAs tallied the results on a whiteboard and in notebooks, marking the historical significance of the moment. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, David Kemp RA Leia Immanuel ’26 described the feeling in the room as the ballots were being counted.

“The energy was palpable,” Immanuel said. “I could feel the excitement and relief from the RAs. There was a sense of achievement that was so noticeable, like our efforts actually made a difference. It was happening.”

In an email to The Phoenix, Vice President for Communications Andy Hirsch stated that the college is committed to cooperating with RAs to ensure that they are fairly compensated for their work.

“One of the reasons our residential experience is so exceptional is because of the contributions of our Resident Assistants,” Hirsch wrote. “All along, we have fully supported their choice on whether to unionize. We appreciate all of the students who participated in this process, and we look forward to working with RAs to reach an employment agreement that continues to treat them fairly and equitably and supports the College’s mission.”

The efforts of the Swarthmore Workers’ Union is a significant moment, as it marks the first time that Swarthmore students have ever organized in a union. 

“Unionizing was introduced from a shared feeling of frustration among RAs, and the idea that we are now legitimately organized and in solidarity with one another is fantastic,” Immanuel said. “I think the solidarity that we share is better than my whole experience as an RA.” 

OPEIU Local 153 representative Scott Williams explained that Swarthmore students are now joining a wave of union efforts among college students across the country. Now that Swarthmore has won their union, Local 153 represents seven student unions at colleges including the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts University, and Wesleyan University.

“What we’re seeing is a growing movement of people who want to organize a voice at work, particularly among RAs, who are underpaid and often don’t have any voice at all,” Williams said. 

The election came after RAs filed for union recognition with OPEIU Local 153 in early November and delivered letters of petition to the administration asking for voluntary union recognition. The petition had broad support, having been signed by 52 out of the 56 total RAs. In response to their request for voluntary union recognition, the college informed RAs that they would hold an election hosted by the NLRB. 

Of the seven student unions organized with Local 153, only one has been voluntarily recognized by their employer. Williams said that the decision to withhold voluntary recognition and opt for third-party recognition by the NLRB is seen as a “delay tactic” to postpone contractual negotiations between workers and employers. 

“It was completely unnecessary to hold an election, because we already know that a vast majority of workers supported this,” he said. “We think that deciding to hold an election was … to delay RAs from getting to exercise their rights as workers to sit down at the table and negotiate the terms of their employment.”

According to Williams, union organizing among students has been successful at other colleges, as some students have been able to negotiate their contracts for fair compensation. In January, student workers at Wesleyan negotiated with their employers to change the terms of their contract. The new contract included increased pay stipends and added protections for workers, including a non-discrimination clause stating that the university would be prohibited from targeting individual workers. 

Swarthmore workers have cited similar grievances regarding pay and protections, claiming that they are underpaid, overworked, and unfairly penalized by Area Coordinators and administrators in the Office of Student Engagement. 

Actions from the administration and Area Coordinators have raised alarm for the union. On Wednesday night, hours prior to the election, two RAs were sent official warning letters from their ACs penalizing them for falling behind on RA duties. According to the letters obtained by The Phoenix, the first letter stated that the RA failed to submit a “program proposal” on time, and the second letter to a different RA stated that they failed to complete their monthly bulletin board for November. Both letters threatened “job action” for failing to complete normal RA duties. 

According to the RA Handbook, ACs should give formal verbal warning to RAs before pursuing written warnings. Only the second letter cited a previous verbal warning. The first letter mentioned previous communications about the “program proposal,” but not a specific verbal warning, as is required in the RA Handbook.

OPEIU has filed federal charges through the NLRB against the college for the letters, claiming that the timing of the letters the day prior to the election could be considered illegal union busting. 

“The alleged infractions that [the] warnings cite do not seem to be worthy of rising to the level of written warnings,” the Swarthmore Workers’ Union wrote in a post on Instagram. “We understand this to be a clear example of union busting.”

The Instagram post also raised concerns that the letters might have been issued in response to the RAs’ political activity on campus. The Phoenix is investigating these claims.

Now that RAs have won their union, they will be able to negotiate provisions into their contract that would protect union members from future discriminatory action. Williams explained that the timeline for negotiations depends on a number of factors. 

“Negotiations depend on the administration’s willingness to meet [the union’s] demands,” he said. “Our intention is to do this as quickly as possible, and we’ve learned a lot from the other six student groups that negotiated contracts.”

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