RAs at UMass form labor union; not recognized

By Staff Writer
May 2, 2002

Resident Assistants and Community Development Assist-ants at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst voted 138-88 on March 5 to form the first undergraduate labor union in the country. As of April 9 those in favor of the union are protesting the university’s refusal to negotiate with them.

“The university is breaking the law, and they’re using public money to hire union-busting lawyers,” Kendra McDade, a union member, said. “They’re not acting with integrity.”

Approximately 360 RAs approached the local United Auto Workers Local 2322 in January 2001 because they said that university officials would not address complaints of low pay and an open-ended contract.

“This is a group of workers who want to make a change in their job and they went about a legal process to do that,” UAW local president James Shaw said. “We’re going to go to the bargaining table and make those important changes.”

At the University of Massachusetts, RAs have said that they are underpaid for the required 20 hours of work per week that they work. After their regular $50 paycheck from the university is divided by those 20 hours, they are being paid and hourly wage of $2.50 an hour. The minimum wage in Mass. is $6.75.

“What they want and should get are better wages and compensation for being on call 24 hours a day,” Tim Scott, the organizer for the United Auto Workers, said. “It’s like sweat shop labor, but not as harsh.”

The university’s current RAs also feel that their contracts are very unclear and want to have a more defined system of discipline that is just and fair. “The way we are reprimanded is very unclear. There is not set process, ” Ann-Marie Watt, a union member, said. “We don’t have the judicial processes that the residents have, if an RA breaks a rule, he or she is automatically fired.”

The university does have an RA Grievance Committee but many feel that the group is not set up fairly because it is run by the management and the university. The RAs feel that they still have no voice.

On March 27, the administration stated that they would not negotiate with the RAs. The university released a statement saying that they did not agree with the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission’s decision to recognize the RAs bargaining unit under the support of United Auto Workers.

In response to the university’s decision over two-dozen RA union activists took over several campus offices on April 8. The protest began around 11:15 a.m. when 26 protesters entered the chancellor’s office and demanded to speak with Interim Chancellor Marcellette Williams. After being told that Williams was not in the office, the protesters sat down and began chanting.

Union members are maintaining that the university’s refusal to bargain is illegal under Mass. labor laws. They feel that the administration is refusing to comply by the law. The RAs refuse to stand by and allow them to break the law.

Union members did not leave when asked by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Javier Cevallos, who was accompanied with two plain clothed officers. Protesters said that Cevallos had promised to fight them in court and that several years would go by before it was resolved. “That was a mistake on my part,” Cevallos said. “These things take time.”

At 11:35 a.m. the activists were told they had five minutes to clear the office or they would be arrested. The protesters then marched through the provost’s office and continued to march to other parts of their campus while they shouted slogans and chanted. After marching through the office of Michael Gilbert, director of housing services, and returning to Cevallo’s office, Cevallo listened to a union member read him the state statues. After Cevallo listened to him, acting chief of police Barbara O’Connor and two uniformed officers arrived.

Now that the word is out about the groundbreaking RA union at UMass, one of the leaders in the unionization movement, Chris Fierro said he has been in contact with students at six other colleges about starting RA unions there. “We have been in touch with other RAs at other schools who are having some of the same problems we are having,” he said.

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