The Resident Advisors need a union. I did it. I just dropped the word which almost always rubs people the wrong way. Unions. They have a contested history, but denying that unions have attempted to protect workers for decades is to deny the history of labor in the United States.
Over the summer, I spent time working with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME is a national public sector union for workers where they create contracts with their employers in many fields. In three months, I went from thinking that contracts and representation were helpful but not necessary, to realizing that they are essential to protecting workers from many workplace harms. These protections include things like workplace safety, lunch hours, extra pay for extra work and more. I believe that these protections should be extended to student workers.
There are so many student workers on this campus who do fantastic things: students work in the library, EMS, dining services and even on Phonathon. These students help this campus function normally from day to day. However, the Resident Advisor (RA) position is exceptional because RAs are called to protect students and their interests 24/7. Not just in emergency situations, not just when they are on duty, but essentially all day, all the time.
I am not a RA, but I am aware of the ways in which students and workers can be manipulated and overworked, even unintentionally. I only seek to question if there are correct and sufficient protections for the students on this campus that go above and beyond every day.
This concern is not to say that the Resident Life office does not attempt to support their student workers and the wellbeing of this campus as a whole. I do wonder, however, what avenues and advocates Resident Advisors have, other than their direct employers, to have a voice in their work conditions.
Collective student power can ensure that students can have a voice when negotiating with people in administrative positions. Students should have an opportunity to join together, ask questions, and put forth a document that allows them to decide what working conditions are reasonable, safe and healthy. Contracts serve as a reference point if things go wrong or when power has been abused.
RAs should be protected by making sure that the team is fully staffed, especially during weekends or campus ‘holidays’ like Homecoming and St. Patrick’s Day. They should also have a say in how much they get paid. For the amount of labor that they are required to do, they should be able to negotiate how much that labor is worth.
I believe that RAs, as well as other student staff, would benefit from the ability to appeal to a separate body to review their contracts and work conditions. This would ensure that students don’t have to appeal to the Residence Life Assistant Directors if they do not want to or do not feel comfortable doing so. Each party might have different interests and it’s important to recognize that. I hope that these concerns become a part of a larger conversation to move towards student power, since we are the ones who make Ursinus operational.