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News ::
UMass RA's Form a UNION!
06 Mar 2002
UMass Resident Assistants vote union yes, win first union election for undergrad university employees in US.
UMass Resident Assistants vote union yes, win first union election for undergrad university employees in US.
UMass dorm monitors OK union

Backers hail move as start of US trend

By David Abel, Globe Staff and Andrew C. Helman, Globe Correspondent, 3/6/2002

MHERST - After years of opening their doors to find everything from threatening notes to smeared shaving cream, students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst voted yesterday to form the nation's first union of undergraduate dorm monitors.

To a booming round of applause, hugs, tears, and the chanting of ''Union! Union!'' a crowd of resident assistants, or RAs, packed into the campus's student center late yesterday afternoon and learned their fellow dorm monitors had voted 138-88 in favor of joining the local chapter of the United Auto Workers.

''This is a great day for union organizing and campus organizing,'' said James Shaw, president of the local UAW that organized the RAs. ''We opened the door today for RAs around the country to consider unionizing. And I think slowly but surely you're going to see RAs everywhere trying to walk through that door.''

The decision, closely watched by activists and colleges across the country, represents a new chapter in the nationwide campus labor movement. Graduate-student instructors across the country have unionized in the past decade, often over the objections of their universities. At UMass-Amherst, administrators have campaigned against the RA union for a year. Last month, university officials suggested that the 30-year-old RA program might be eliminated if the RAs voted to unionize.

''The university is disappointed in the election results and will consider its options over the next several days,'' said Kay Scanlan, a spokeswoman for UMass-Amherst. ''Those options would include all appropriate legal and administrative steps, which could include going to court. The university feels very strongly that this is an educational program incompatible with a union.''

The school's 360 RAs won the right to unionize in a January ruling by the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission. After the vote yesterday, students said they intend to seek higher wages, a clearer contract, better benefits, more job security, and a fairer system of justice for those RAs accused of breaching campus rules. The drive to unionize gained momentum two years ago after RAs complained that the administration had unfairly fired two RAs.

The next step is for the union to start negotiating its first contract with the university. Before negotiating with administrators, which students said they intended to do this semester, they said they would elect leaders, form a bargaining committee, and precisely define their goals.

''I'm ecstatic,'' said Chris Fierro, 22, a senior who has been an RA for five semesters. ''It's a victory for the 360 RAs who will now have a voice in their workplace and for all undergraduates around the country.''

Not all the dorm monitors were overjoyed by the vote.

Over the past year, some have expressed concern at paying union dues, which would be 2 percent of their wages. Some said they didn't want to be represented by a large union. And others said they were content with their compensation, the equivalent of $5,100 for the academic year, which includes a subsidized double dorm room, a waiver of residence hall and technology fees, and a small weekly stipend.

''They've made a bad decision and they're going to see the results, as tragic as it may be,'' said Mel Parker, 21, a senior in her sixth semester as an RA. ''This is not a union-appropriate situation as far as I'm concerned. This is giving their voices to someone else.''

Some of those who voted against the union said the split between pro- and anti-union RAs could cause future strife. The demanding job ranges from quieting drunken students to counseling neighbors in need of help.

Those students who voted for the union believe they'll eventually win over the objectors. ''We weren't fighting for the union for our personal benefits - but for what the union stands for and what it's trying to achieve,'' said Alexis Rosenblatt, 21, a senior in her fourth semester as an RA.

Campus officials yesterday would say little more about their plans. They argue that although the RAs are being paid, they are serving in ''leadership'' positions, not jobs that qualify for union representation.

Marcellette G. Williams, the campus's acting chancellor, did not return calls seeking comment. But last month in a letter to RAs, she took a hard line, writing:

''Collective bargaining with an outside entity will, in my view, inevitably collide with core educational and administrative decisions ... The University simply cannot and will not bargain with an outside union about these core decisions.''

Advisors to Williams have floated several proposals to alter the RA program, but pro-union students yesterday said they weren't worried. The threats and posturing of the past year, they said, now will be transformed into serious negotiations.

''I feel vindicated,'' said Pat Colvario, 22, a senior and an RA for five semesters. ''Our ideals have been proven right. The administration will now have to recognize that.''

David Abel can be reached at dabel (at)

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/6/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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