GW Resident Advisors remain divided over unionization

On Nov. 29 a group of resident advisors filed to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. A few days later, the group of RA's in support of the union released a letter explaining their reasoning for wanting to be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500. There is also a letter of support circulating on social media for non-resident advisors, former resident advisors, GW students, and anyone else to sign. Former RAs Celeste Aguzino and Calla Gilson are some of the students spearheading the union. Gilson won Resident Advisor of the Year for the 2015-2016 school year.

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Representatives from both sides spoke at a hearing on Dec. 7 at the NLRB headquarters. Both parties had until Dec. 16 to submit their claims post-hearing. It is not known when the decision will be made as to whether or not the RAs can unionize. The Rival obtained the university's post-hearing brief as well as the amicus brief. Both are explained below.

As one would imagine, this is a hotly contested subject on campus now. This is not a black and white issue; there is debate on both sides over the best ways to handle salaries, contracts, and work policies as a whole. The thought of fighting the university has invigorated some. Others strongly believe this is the right thing to do in the interest of protecting student-worker rights. Some can’t vocalize opinions due to university obligations. And then there are those who don’t understand the implications of a union. This article is an attempt to bring to fruition these voices.

Leah Cohen, a senior, was an RA her sophomore and junior years in West Hall and Guthridge Hall, respectively. She loved being an RA, but had a mixed experience. There was talk of a union when she was an RA, but nothing formal. In an interview with The Rival’s Samantha Shah, she talked about she supports the idea of a union because RAs are the ones who know best what their needs are and how the can best serve students.

She stated, “I really think that this has never been about screwing over the CSE or making a point or raising hell just to raise it. It was always about: how can we do our jobs to support our residents better?”

“I really think that this has never been about screwing over the CSE or making a point or raising hell just to raise it. It was always about: how can we do our jobs to support our residents better?”

Cohen pointed out the contradictory nature of the GW administration’s handling of RAs. She explained how RA's are trained that every situation is a judgment call, yet judgment calls are the very reason they are fired. Cohen reflected, “When you see RAs get fired for judgment calls, when you are told ‘we trust your judgment’, when we are told ‘they are all gonna be judgment calls’, it really makes you question your own ability to be an RA.” She stands by the RAs unionizing in the interest of protecting job security.

The link between employment and housing puts RA's at risk when making key decisions because the pressure to remain RA can prevent one from helping a student in need.

“If I pass someone on the street that’s not my resident, not my immediate responsibility. I could just walk past them and no one would ever know. But if I take it upon myself to engage in that situation, [and] if I handle that not the way the CSE would have wanted me to, I put myself in job action risk,” Cohen explained.

A former male RA, who will remain anonymous in to protect his identity, spoke about his experience as an RA his sophomore year. He liked the job itself, his residents, and the programming. However, he found the rules for attending parties and being seen out on campus frustrating. “They stop caring right when you make a mistake,” he said about the administration.

This former RA was involved in a situation in which there was no direct judicial action, but rather an allegation from another person about an event months earlier. He was amazed how quickly the university reacted, which resulted in him getting fired. With no regards for this student’s housing situation or mental health, GW offered him no support or redemption. He cited how other RAs were getting away with far worse.

He thinks the union is a good idea because he believes the university takes advantage of its students. However, he noted that there could be reverberating effects for those who support the union and are currently employed by GW. There could be an issue if the union falls through. He pointed out the potential conflict of interest for students organizing against GW with the union while still being students of this private initiation.

The former RA also spoke of the hardships scrambling to find housing and leaving his residents that he worked so hard to build a community with. He criticized GW for emphasizing the community-building aspect of residential hall life and then with the drop of the hat, replacing the one person who did just that.

Another former RA, who remains anonymous to avoid conflicts of interest, spoke to The Rival about the financial disadvantages of being an RA. Upon becoming an RA, she had her financial aid package changed. She said GW lowered the amount of money she received by the amount that it would have cost her for housing, since RAs get “free housing.”

“As an RA, I was paid $119 bi-weekly. This does not even being to cover the losses from the reduction in my financial aid package. This wasn’t a livable wage in DC,” she stated.

Last spring this former RA had to turn down her dream internship at the State Department. RAs sign a contract stating they will not work more than 20 hours outside their employment with the Center for Student Engagement. She was already working more than 20 hours at a coffee shop, and lost the potential for an internship stipend due to changes in her financial aid package.

The former RA’s justification for a union is the following:

“Being an RA at GW is only advantageous if you are wealthy. Free housing should mean free housing, not a massive reduction from your financial aid package. I loved my residents and RA team, but I would not recommend the job to a fellow student. If RA's had a way to push for reform without feeling that their jobs were threatened, they would be able to provide better support for their residents. Maybe then my resume would say ‘Department of State’ instead of just ‘Center for Student Engagement.’”

Seneca Anastasio, a junior, is a former RA who worked in Thurston for the 2015-2016 school year. She signed the petition, but has had second thoughts. Anastasio reflects the torn feelings many people feel about the situation.

Due to the fact that there is much subjectivity with the decisions RAs make, she would have liked more transparency from the CSE about how such decisions can lead to potential firings. She found students were more likely to be fired than staff members for certain subjective decisions.

Despite the fact that Anastasio believes the CSE could have handled some things better, such as the introduction of an RA mandatory 2-credit class, she stated, “There were times when I greatly admired the CSE, in particular Tim Miller, for his passion, love, and dedication to the students...He still gave us the opportunity to voice those opinions, whether it be via email or in person.”

"(Tim Miller) still gave us the opportunity to voice those opinions, whether it be via email or in person.”

Anastasio wanted it to be noted that not all RAs are in favor of the union. She hopes the variety of opinions on the matter will be recognized.

Austin Hansen, a third year student graduating in May 2017, has been an RA since the 2015-2016 school year. He says he has had a wonderful experience as an RA because it has helped him tremendously with his personal growth. Hansen described how RA's are in frequent communicate with their resident directors (RD's), graduate students who oversee the RAs. Above the RDs are area coordinators (AC's) who are full-time GW staff members.

Hansen is against the union because, “Limiting the role to a defined punch-in punch-out window would dramatically decrease the flexibility and support RAs could provide to their residents.” This would change the dynamic of the relationship between RAs and their residents. He testified on behalf of GW before the National Labor Relations Board on Dec. 7.

Hansen stressed that there is an open line of communication between CSE staff and RAs. “The RAs who lead the initiative never once communicated with the CSE about their concerns nor notified the university that they would be pursuing unionization until the process was completed,” he stated.

GW's post-hearing brief, dated Dec. 16, laid out the following arguments as to why the RAs should not unionize:

Side note: A post-hearing brief is submitted by both parties as "closing statements" to their oral arguments during the hearing.

  1. RAs are not considered employees and do not meet the common law definition of employee outlined in the Columbia University case this past August. The Columbia case did not cite RAs in their list of employees.

"As students, RAs live among their fellow students in the residence halls, which is an important and required part of the educational experience at GW. Because they live among their peers in the residence halls, RAs are better able to connect with their fellow students and offer a mentoring relationship and friendship that would be impossible to duplicate if the RAs were not undergraduates themselves."

2. RAs do not fit the "economic realities test" for employees.

3. There would be profound effects of a union such as privacy issues under the Federal Educational Privacy Rights Act (FERPA) and Title IX, hindered personal nature of the relationship between RAs and residents, unstable collective bargaining power (since there is a high turnover rate of RAs and the maximum amount of time one can be an RA is three years), and destruction of the "students" first, educational experience of being an RA.

The amicus brief was submitted on behalf of The Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I), the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), the American Council of Education (ACE) and nine other higher education organizations.

This concurring opinion stated that, "Converting the Resident Advisor experience, as it is universally conceived, to the status of “employee” within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act would do enormous damage to the educationally-enhancing nature that this position occupies in university life across the country."

It is still not known when a decision will be made about the union. Until then, it remains of the most hotly and emotionally debated issues on campus.

Despite the fact that many perspectives are shown in this article, this is by no means representative of the entire university nor does it necessarily reflect the view of The Rival. Want to submit an op-ed? Email the rival at gw@therival.news.

Originally published by Courtney Buble on gw.therival.news on 1.17.17

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