Sam Betsko quickly realized that being a resident assistant in a college dorm would require more than helping stranded students and begging sophomores to, for the love of God, turn down the music.
In his position at Boston University, there were days of mandatory, unpaid training and the specter of arbitrary discipline from bosses. He had to prepare to respond to emergencies like a student’s anxiety attack or sexual assault. She later learned that some resident assistants had been assigned to work much harder than others (with no additional compensation) in a job that offered nothing more than housing, a meal plan, tickets to school events, and a weekly stipend that barely covered to buy a drink.
Resident assistants, he thought in 2021, needed a union. Last March, they voted overwhelmingly to have one. Contract negotiations began Friday, capping a week in which residential life workers at Swarthmore College and Smith College voted to unionize.
Resident assistants, known as RAs, are on the move, part of a wave of unionization of college students who work in places like dining halls and libraries and attend schools like Harvard, the University of Oregon and Western Washington University. This year alone, about 20,000 college students, many of them from California State University, the nation’s largest public four-year university system, voted in union elections or gained the opportunity to vote.
“It’s really not hard to see that, up to this point, the universities have had all the influence,” said Ms. Betsko, now a senior majoring in English. “We see that students have been exploited by this.”
The students who have joined the labor movement represent a fraction of the country’s roughly 15 million college students. But the movement is nonetheless a glimpse of how college culture is changing. As families increasingly question whether a college education is worth it, college workers, like RAs, often ask the same question about their on-campus jobs. And RAs, who have often been compensated with benefits like free housing, are now seeking salaries and job protections that were scarce a decade ago.
“We’ve spent most of our lives navigating systems that weren’t built for us or in our favor,” said Nathan Duong, a junior at Boston University. “So if we take that and put it in the context of a broader increase in labor organizing across the country, I think it makes a lot of sense.”
Many university leaders believe they already offer generous enough benefits to working students, such as housing that can be worth $15,000 or more a year. And some have at times undertaken aggressive legal efforts to try to derail unionization.
But they face a generation of students much more receptive to organized labor than young people even in the recent past. A Gallup poll found that 60 percent of people ages 18 to 34 approved of unions in 2013; this year, that figure was 78 percent, the highest in more than two decades of polling.
And students, having watched organizing campaigns unfold at cultural mainstays like Amazon and Starbucks, have wondered if they, too, could benefit from the job surge.
“For most people, it wasn’t a hard sell,” said David Whittingham, a senior who helped build a new RA union at Tufts University, outside Boston. “I think the fight has been less about convincing and more about getting people out.”
With the help of groups like the Service Employees International Union and the Office and Professional Employees International Union, students solidified their support for the elections, contract negotiations, and headline-grabbing protests. Its strength has surprised longtime observers of the labor movement, some of whom have wondered where, exactly, young adults learned some of the finer points of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. (Part of the answer: messages Instagram directs with organizers on other campuses.)
“These students have clearly studied this and used those procedures in a very sophisticated way,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.
A central challenge for students has been to reframe decades of institutional preaching about the purpose of student work. “It was a fundamental divide,” said Anisha Uppal-Sullivan, a junior at Tufts. “We saw ourselves as workers while the university saw us as having a student leadership capacity.”
A Tufts spokesperson said administrators were not available for interviews, but other universities have questioned whether unions were necessary for resident assistants.
The University of Pennsylvania, where RAs voted in September to unionize, told the federal government that collective bargaining was “incompatible with the unique nature” of the job, which it described as an opportunity “to learn how to be effective student leaders in a educational environment”. atmosphere.”
At Tufts, RAs said some school negotiators seemed not to understand their work and downplayed their contributions.
RAs there and at other schools told how they had helped crime victims go to police, enforced coronavirus protocols and faced mental health crises. Their job, they said, didn’t fit neatly into one shift.
“Kids are missing sleep, kids are missing studying,” Ms. Uppal-Sullivan said of resident assistants. “That’s something that should be compensated.”
At Tufts, RAs struck on one of the busiest days on campus: student move-in day. The university, which had provided them with housing, soon reached an agreement that promised a stipend of $2,850 per academic year, nothing more than nothing.
That money can be crucial, the AIs said, because universities sometimes limit, explicitly or implicitly, their ability to hold second jobs. And many RAs said they are struggling to get by.
“I have a kitchen and I love it, but that’s not what I need,” said Boston University junior Jasmine A. Richardson. “I need food.”
Ms. Richardson understands why people are often stunned to learn of the unionization effort, in part because she herself had not initially understood the scope of the role and was not fully prepared for it. A restaurant prepared its workers better, she suggested, than Boston University prepared its RAs.
“If training here makes me feel like my training at Red Lobster was the best thing I could have done, there’s one problem: nothing against Red Lobster,” he said.
Colin Riley, a spokesman for Boston University, declined to comment on the union, beyond writing in an email this fall that the university anticipated “soon to begin negotiating in good faith for a fair contract with them.” He did not respond to a question about the accounts of some of the university’s R.As.
Students only gained the national right to organize in 2016, under President Barack Obama, when the National Labor Relations Board concluded that university workers could be classified as employees with unionizing rights. (Federal law does not cover public institutions, which are governed by state statutes and rules. The RAs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for example, unionized in 2002, but their effort did not spark a much broader movement.)
According to Mr. Herbert’s data, at least 41 new bargaining units involving students, graduates or university students have been formed since the beginning of 2022. In the previous nine years, Mr. Herbert’s center reported, there were a total of 21 new units.
Union officials know they may have limited time to organize on more campuses, as a future labor board could reverse the 2016 ruling, particularly if a Republican wins the presidency next year. But Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, predicted that even then, few schools would rush to get rid of the new unions.
“Regardless of one’s philosophy on the issue, universities are interested in achieving stability,” said Pearce, who was president of the labor board and was in the majority in the 2016 decision.
One of the biggest challenges for new unions is the constant flow of members, as students graduate, drop out, and change jobs. At Tufts, RAs are trying to determine what their union should look like on a day-to-day basis, knowing that the next bargaining battle will come after many current students have left.
And at Boston University, students like Betsko know they will have a limited time to enjoy the benefits of any deal. She was philosophical about the lack of time.
“It’s not just for us,” he said of his potential contract. “It would be for all the res life workers who come after us. There is no point in being selfish.”