RAs Walkout of Bargaining Session, Citing Bad Faith Negotiation

Courtesy of Solidarity at Swarthmore

Members of Swarthmore College’s Resident Assistants (RA) union walked out of their second bargaining session with administrators on Monday, March 4, protesting what they describe as undue delays and a refusal by the administration to negotiate in good faith. The meeting was the second in the ongoing collective bargaining process initiated when Swarthmore College’s RAs voted to unionize as a part of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). 

The first meeting, held on Feb. 12, was primarily spent discussing a set of nine preliminary proposals introduced by the union. The proposals are composed of structural elements typical for a collective bargaining agreement including formal recognition of the union by the employer and the inclusion of future employees in the negotiated terms of the contract. Many similar proposals were introduced during the current RA collective bargaining process at the University of Pennsylvania. UPenn was broadly much stronger than Swarthmore in its opposition to unionization, but similar initial terms were accepted by UPenn without challenge, according to Chris Folk ’24, a David Kemp RA and member of the bargaining team. 

Folk also stated that Swarthmore administrators asked basic questions about the meaning of the proposals, which Folk found unusual given the professional nature of Swarthmore’s negotiating team. The team includes Swarthmore’s general counsel and contracted attorneys specializing in labor and employment law. 

The sentiment that the administration’s team was uninterested in negotiating in a timely manner came to a head at the most recent meeting. One source of contention was General Counsel Sharmaine LaMar’s demand that RAs provide a full list of proposals before she can agree, even tentatively, to the most basic foundations of the contract. David Kemp RA Leia Immanuel ’26 attended the meeting and described the increasingly tense atmosphere. 

“General Counsel Sharmaine LaMar was growing audibly and visibly aggravated at our attempts to establish expectations for deadlines and progress in reviewing proposals,” Immanuel said. “The repetitive eyerolls, sighs, and raised eyebrows while hearing the union’s most basic proposals revealed how out-of-touch and apathetic she and the rest of the administration is to its own workers, which is incredibly hypocritical considering how they parade their progressive values.”

According to detailed notes of the meeting obtained by The Phoenix, it is clear that the two parties were interested in radically different timescales. In a statement to The Phoenix, Vice President of Communications Andy Hirsch referenced the 2021 statistic from Bloomberg Law frequently cited by administrators: “on average, it takes 465 days for newly unionized employers and their newly organized workers to ratify their first collective bargaining agreement. The RA union was formed less than 90 days ago.”

An analysis published in 2023 in the Industrial Relations Journal found that among the main factors impacting first contract certification, “employer opposition is the most important determinant of first contract achievement.”

Hirsch disputed the sentiment that the college was bargaining in bad faith.

“Any allegations that the College is deliberately slowing negotiations is simply untrue. We have consistently expressed our commitment to fully engage in this process and to do so in good faith. Keep in mind that first contracts can take a lot of time because, among other things, there is typically a lot to negotiate.”

Towards the end of the meeting, the detailed notes report Folk as commenting on the lack of substantive response by administrators.

“Our expectation is that we will reach an agreement by the end of this semester. This contract will impact many people in this room. We are aware of the impact this contract will have. Our expectation coming out of the last meeting was that you will give us comments on the proposals. We seemed to have agreements and minor corrections. You couldn’t even do that,” read the meeting notes. “Even the minor little details, you couldn’t even come to the table with those in hand. What are we doing here? We don’t have all the time in the world. We need to move forward with this process.”

After Folk’s comments, the notes describe LaMar stating that once the full contract proposal is prepared, the college will need three weeks to review it before meeting again. RAs present at the meeting expressed frustration with the timeline presented and decided to walk out of the meeting once LaMar described the proposed three-week timeframe as a generosity on her part. 

“When she said ‘I don’t understand why this progress has to be fast’ and ‘I could’ve said six weeks (to review proposals) but I said three,’ we were all genuinely shocked and in disbelief. We all walked out immediately after that because we realized that their timeline is entirely arbitrary,” explained Immanuel. “This session has shown me, face-to-face and eye-to-eye, that Swarthmore is an inherently hypocritical institution that wears social justice and progressiveness as one would wear an ill-fitted gown, ready to flaunt itself in front of investors but eager to rip it off behind closed doors.”

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