By Oriana R.
Medford, MA – Undergraduate resident assistants at Tufts University voted to unionize on December 14, 2022 after a semester of organizing, certifying United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants (ULTRA) as the bargaining representative of all Tufts RAs.
Years of complaints and inaction from the university came to a head during Fall 2022 RA training. Working conditions had become a public issue in the previous 2020-2021 academic year, when 48 RAs banded together to ask for better communication, compensation, anti-racist training, and vaccine prioritization from the Office of Residential Life, with no material results. An RA Council was formed as requested, but it has been purely advisory and not effective in securing financial or communication improvements.
One student worker, Julie Francois, was aware of all of this background when she was becoming frustrated this fall with working conditions. Instead of trying the same thing, she conducted a survey of her peers on their feelings regarding working conditions. This survey quickly turned into an underground union campaign, then to a public petition for recognition, and finally to a vote and victory. With a new semester starting on the heels of the December victory, the resident advisors and their new union now turn to the task of bargaining for a fair contract.
Unpaid Fall Training Complaints Jump Start Union Interest
The 80 hours of unpaid training for resident advisors mandated by the university hit student workers hard this year, with inflation increasing and wages stagnating, especially as the position typically attracts lower income students who have to take on second or third jobs. The administration’s rigidity on training attendance meant that RAs had to forego two weeks of pay at other jobs. This could have been ameliorated by flexibility for returning RAs or simply providing paid training. Under their current contract, RAs receive free housing but no wages or meal plan. Tensions had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as RAs had to police their fellow students with new pandemic policies, without adequate support, hazard pay or safety protections.
Non-economic issues also played a major factor in spurring unionization, including the mishandling of the impacts of ongoing construction on campus and chaotic working conditions. For instance, Julie had to move between dorms while she was on duty handling fall RAs moving back to campus. While trying to manage her own stress of moving dorms, Julie was answering calls all around campus while students didn’t have access to their dorm buildings or the correct room assignment. All of this, and she had no break between the summer RA position and fall, “It was just like – the summer RA role ended on Sunday and training started on Monday” she told Working Mass.
Student Workers Waste No Time Getting Organized
The turnaround from going public to winning an election was quick, thanks to over two months of preparation. During training, Julie sent out a survey to her coworkers to see if they had similar concerns and were interested in unionizing. The result? An overwhelming majority of respondents answered the final question about unionizing with a yes. From there Julie found an organizing partner in David Whittingham, a fellow RA and Junior. They had conversations with their coworkers and reached out to a union organizer at the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) for help.
On November 9, ULTRA went public with their union campaign, with over 85% of workers signed on, delivering their petition to the president asking for voluntary recognition. ULTRA then received Somerville City Council’s support urging Tufts to voluntarily recognize them on November 10, and Medford City Council’s on November 15. Members of the Democratic Socialists of America sit on both city councils.
Tufts RAs heavily used the tactic of gaining community support, reaching as far as the wider student body’s parents and friends at home. ULTRA members were surprised that on the first day their petition was open for community support, they received 1,000 signatures. Julie said the outpouring of community support was heartwarming, and helped with the nerves and uncertainties about going public.
On November 16, Tufts administration announced that they would not entertain voluntary recognition. With only two weeks left in the semester, student workers rapidly organized and negotiated to get a National Labor Relations Board election before winter break. The student workers were able to secure an accessible location, centrally located, and on a reading day when no one had class. Making the whole process as open and democratic is one of the major goals stated by worker organizers Julie and David. And that they did, not only democratically, but quickly. In just a semester they went from underground grumblings to official recognition.
Julie advises other undergraduates considering organizing to not use school emails for organizing and to get the personal contacts of coworkers, because of the possibility of university surveillance.
What’s next? Bargaining Democratically
Returning to campus after the recent victory, ULTRA now turns to the task of bargaining for a first contract. RA training for the spring semester started on January 14. From there, ULTRA will elect their bargaining team.
Julie and David’s stated goal throughout that process is to make sure there is lots of back and forth between the negotiating team and the rest of the union to hear and fight for people’s concerns. This will include many more conversations with coworkers, with the end goal being more say over their contract and getting everyone’s needs met. More specifically, the RAs have been asking for increased wages, compensation in the form of meal plans, and flexibility in scheduling RA Council meetings and RA trainings.
“I think this is just an exciting time for workers. And I think everyone deserves to be in a union,” Julie relayed. She stated that since the administration was reasonably cooperative in getting the NLRB election done before finals, she hopes that the trend of cooperation will continue with Tufts bargaining in good faith.
The Wider Significance of Undergraduate Unionization
The win at Tufts comes amidst a wave of graduate student worker unionization, and a smaller and newer wave of undergraduate worker organizing. This vote makes Tufts only the eighth union of undergraduate student workers in the country after recent wins at Wesleyan and Barnard. The wave seems related to the pandemic, changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and young socialists learning from each other.
David Whittingham took up organizing in his workplace after attending the 2022 Labor Notes conference, and workers at Dartmouth were inspired to organize after attending a YDSA National Labor Committee panel by Kenyon College student workers. Youth militancy in recent cafe organizing such as at Starbucks also has cross-pollination with student workers as many baristas are also undergraduate students. Labor education and young socialist consciousness therefore seems to be a key ingredient to spreading this movement.
The changing understanding students have of the world and their role is clear in how they describe their struggle. The Tufts RA’s petition for recognition included a sophisticated analysis of the links between labor history and social justice, including gender and racial equity movements, stating “labor unions have been a core pillar of civic life in the United States for decades, playing key roles in the movements for women’s suffrage, civil rights, and environmental protection.”
The NLRB changes also impacted the ability of Tufts workers to turn their complaints into a union, as RAs had reached out to unions in the past but not found one willing to take them on. Since the 2021 withdrawal of the Trump era proposal that would have excluded student workers at private universities from unionizing, unions have initiated more drives like ULTRA. This change was primarily seen in the resurgence of graduate student worker campaigns such as at Boston University and MIT, with undergraduates picking up speed. However, the importance of radical and militant labor movements should not be lost, as the first private university undergraduate union drives were run by the more militant United Electrical Workers at Kenyon, and an independent union at Grinnell. Mainstream unions didn’t seem to take on public campaigns for these kinds of workers until a precedent was set.
Graduate and undergraduate student workers could further serve as a backbone to university student and youth movements. Youth protests are fleeting by nature, but a union and its resources have the potential to create some permanence. Student worker unions also provide an avenue for traditional student issues to become worker issues. For example, the Harvard Graduate Student Union’s demands for real recourse in harassment and discrimination is an attempt to transform what has previously been dealt with as an academic issue into a union grievance, bringing with it greater power in negotiating and accountability.
As for ULTRA winning a first contract, many experienced labor organizers and socialists in DSA would advise young radicals that it will take more than relying on Tufts administration to be cooperative to win a strong and timely contract. Tufts was finally cooperative in November, but only after the RAs had shown a significant amount of strength with impressive community support including tuition paying parents, and clear unity of the workers in signing cards and marching on the boss. Many one-on-one conversations are a crucial component to a winning campaign, but history has shown that fully open bargaining sessions combined with a credible strike threat are what gets the goods.
Oriana R. is a union member, Allston resident and part of the Boston DSA and the Marxist Unity Group.