Students

Resident Advisers Gain the Right to Unionize

April 21, 2017

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A regional officer of the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Friday that undergraduate students who serve as resident advisers at George Washington U. (pictured) are employees with collective-bargaining rights.
The right to unionize has been extended to resident advisers at private colleges, thanks to a National Labor Relations Board officer’s decision involving George Washington University.

The unprecedented ruling, by Sean R. Marshall, acting regional director of the NLRB’s Baltimore office, could open the door to efforts to unionize resident advisers and other undergraduate employees throughout private higher education.

In the decision he handed down on Friday, Mr. Marshall declared that George Washington’s roughly 110 resident advisers fit the definition of employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. He rejected the university’s argument that its educational relationship with its undergraduate resident advisers provides compelling reasons to deny them the same labor-organizing rights that the board recently granted to graduate teaching and research assistants.

George Washington’s resident advisers "exchange services desired by the employer in return for compensation," Mr. Marshall’s decision held, and since they do not receive academic credit for such work, "there is no basis to conclude they provide these services as part of their educational relationship with their employer." Although they might find that they learn from their work as resident advisers, "the same can be said for many of one’s life experiences," the decision said.

Resident advisers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a public institution, were allowed to unionize under state law in 2002, but the NLRB has never ruled on whether such advisers at private colleges are eligible to do so federal labor law.

George Washington’s resident advisers are the only ones considering unionization, but that may soon change as a result of Friday’s ruling, said Christopher Honey, a spokesman for Local 500 of the Service Employees International Union, which the university’s pro-union resident advisers hope to join. "These things often tend to snowball, often faster than we expect," he said.

Major Opposition

Steven Bloom, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, which had signed a legal brief urging the regional NLRB office to rule the other way, on Friday denounced Mr. Marshall’s decision as "very troubling" and "bureaucracy run amok."

Should the full National Labor Relations Board accept the logic used by Mr. Marshall in the George Washington University decision, Mr. Bloom said, other private colleges can expect to see the unionization of not just resident advisers, but also students who take part in work-study programs or earn money for their work with campus organizations such as student newspapers.

“You can envision a whole host of undergraduates at private universities who could potentially be eligible now to unionize.”
"You can envision a whole host of undergraduates at private universities who could potentially be eligible now to unionize," Mr. Bloom said. He asked, "Who thinks it is a good idea that you get union organizers in the middle of undergraduate education?"

Beth McCuskey, vice provost for student life at Purdue University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers — International, said in an email that the ruling "devalues the student communities that we are striving to foster on our campuses." She said the leadership role played by resident advisers is far more important than their employment status, and it is difficult to translate their connections with fellow students into "working conditions" to be negotiated in labor agreements.

Candace Smith, a spokeswoman for George Washington University, said its administration plans to wait on the outcome of its resident advisers’ vote on unionization before deciding whether to appeal the regional NLRB office’s decision.

The university issued a statement that said it "continues to believe that the NLRB’s union-election process should not be applied to students in our residential-life program, which is an integral part of the educational experience of our undergraduate students."

"We will continue to share our views with resident advisers," the statement said, "as this process moves forward."

Calla Gilson, a student and former resident adviser at George Washington who is helping lead the unionization effort, said in an email, "We are ecstatic to have been recognized as employees by the NLRB — it is a reinforcement of the hard work that RAs at GW and all over the country dedicate to supporting their communities."

She added that the vote on unionization is planned for May 5, "but we are trying to negotiate to see if we could change it to be after our final exams."

Worker or Student?

When the NLRB regional office held a hearing on the George Washington case, in December, the university argued that its resident advisers’ jobs are inseparable from their role as undergraduate students, and that they represent a distinct population that should be seen as excluded from the board’s recent decision allowing the unionization of graduate research and teaching assistants at Columbia University.

In contrast to graduate teaching assistants, who often play roles akin to faculty members, and research assistants, whose work is associated with grants that bring the university substantial income, George Washington’s resident advisers are undergraduates who live in student housing so they can have informal, peer-to-peer mentoring relationships with other undergraduates, to whom they serve as role models. They have wide discretion over how they will establish such relationships and what activities they will engage in with the other students.

Similar arguments were subsequently offered in brief submitted to the labor board by the American Council on Education and 12 other higher-education associations. That brief described resident advisers as "student leaders judged as students, not workers," and said a ruling categorizing them as employees eligible for union representation "would do enormous damage to the educationally enhancing nature that this position occupies in university life across the country."

The associations’ brief also argued that whether resident advisers are eligible to organize under NLRB oversight is too important a question to be decided by a regional office.

Matters of Control

Mr. Marshall rejected such arguments in his ruling, in which he held that resident advisers meet the common-law definition of "employee" applied in the board’s recent Columbia decision because they perform services for payment and are subject to their employer’s control. He noted that the advisers are each compensated with a $2,500 stipend and housing valued at more than $12,000, and sign an employment agreement specifying how they are expected to allocate 20 hours per week to fulfilling assigned duties.

"Through the employment agreement, the employer controls where RAs sleep, when they may have overnight guests in their rooms, and who they may maintain an intimate relationship with," his ruling said. Although the advisers have some discretion over how and when they will interact with their advisees, the programs that they design to do so are subject to oversight by a residence director. They "have little discretion in deciding how to complete the administrative, training, or emergency-response duties that are associated with the position," and they can be fired if those regularly monitoring their performance deem it unsatisfactory.

In rejecting the university’s arguments that union involvement would hurt its educational relationship with its resident advisers and complicate its efforts to protect the privacy of student records, Mr. Marshall said the NLRB had held in its ruling on Columbia’s graduate employees that such concerns can be resolved through the collective-bargaining process.

Mr. Bloom of the American Council on Education said the Columbia decision itself had quietly opened the door to the unionization of undergraduates, because they were among the teaching assistants in the proposed collective-bargaining unit there. Friday’s decision "is the kind of step that we feared" would follow, he said.

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, said the University of Massachusetts’ experience with a resident-adviser union "might inform what approach should be used in the private sector."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.