UMass passes first undergraduate RA union

By Ken Campbell, Collegian Staff

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Resident Assistants and Community Development Assistants at the University of Massachusetts voted 138-88 to form the first undergraduate labor union in the country.

The University has seven days to challenge the results of the election.

“We’re disappointed at the result I think the vote showed that a lot of people are actually not in favor of a union; 88 votes is a significant number,” Javier Cevallos, vice chancellor for Student Affairs said. “We’ll take a few days to assess the situation and think about it, and then we’ll decide what the next steps are going to be.”

Housing Director Michael Gilbert declined to comment.

The Massachusetts Labor Commission reported that there had been no objections filed as of press time. Elections specialist Shirley DeMarco-Siciliano explained that 12 ballots were challenged during the election.

“All of the graduate students votes were challenged by the employer,” DeMarco-Siciliano said. “Even if all of them went toward the “no-union” side, the result would not have been affected.”

The RA union will be affiliated with United Auto Workers Local 2322.

“We’re very excited, and we feel as though that the RA’s have spoken that they want a union once again like they did when they signed the original petition,” Tim Scott, a union organizer, said. “We look forward to sitting down and having RA’s bargain a good contract to improve their working conditions.”

“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.”

RA’s had mixed emotions over the results.

“Today is the proudest day of my life so far. We’ve been with this thing for like a year and a half and finally we see it’s completion. It feels so incredible that we actually did this,” David Synnott, a junior Arts and Sciences major said. “If the University doesn’t try and do any union busting challenges to our union, if they don’t challenge it then we go to collective bargaining. We’re students too and students should not be worried about fee increases, we are students and we care about that as well.”

Other RA’s weren’t so happy.

“I think it’s a bad idea and I think they’re going to have to face the consequences later. I don’t think that this is a union appropriate situation,” Melissa Parker, a Political Science senior said. “It’s going to change the culture of [Residence Life], I don’t think it was well thought through enough. I generally think it’s a bad decision.”

“I’m really disappointed,” Jen Mehmed said. “We had a pretty good open dialogue with RLM before this, and that unionizing really wasn’t appropriate in this situation because our voices could have been heard if we tried hard enough.”

“It’s disappointing,” Jen Casavant, a senior Psychology major. “I think it’s going to create a very adversarial relationship on a campus where there is already not a great relationship between the admin and the students and this department was one of the departments conducive to change and responsive to change and to communication and this really isn’t going to help.”

But the overall mood in room 1001 of the Campus Center was jubilant.

“I think it shows how great we are and we are looking forward to an exciting union,” Cristal Cruz said. “I am so excited. This is the happiest day of my entire semester.”

Patrick Colvario is a senior History major who began working on the RA union three semesters ago along with senior Social Thought and Political Economy major Chris Fierro, Synnott, and UMass alum Asif Sayani.

“I think that for the first time in my life that something I believed in from the start was the right thing to do,” Colvario said. “We worked hard on it and it came true. I knew this was the right thing to do, and I feel like those things have been validated.”

Colvario said that the waiting was the hardest part.

“At the end of every block [of votes] I knew that we won the block but every ‘no union’ vote was like a needle through the heart; it’s tough to sit there and hear that,” Colvario added. “We’re RA’s just like they are, we understand what they go through everyday as RA’s, and that’s why we did this, we did this so that RA’s can stand up for other RA’s.”

Students stayed after the counting, celebrating or lamenting the result.

“Hi mom,” Colvario said into his cellular phone. “We won.”

Shaw feels that the union’s next steps are pretty clear.

“The RA’s will elect their representatives to the bargaining table, we create proposals, those proposals will be reviewed by the membership at large for ratification, and then we sit down with the University,” Shaw said. “If the University fights us, we’ll fight back and guaranteed we get to the table someday. The University has fought us every step of the way, literally.”

Ira Sills, an attorney for Siegel, Roitman and Coleman of Boston, represents the fledgling union. He doesn’t think that the University would win an appeal.

“It would be highly irresponsible to spend taxpayers’ money on an appeal that, in my view, they will lose,” Sills said. “The democratic process has happened and it is over. Appeals will do nothing but delay the process.”

But for now, some RA’s are just happy to enjoy this victory.

“I’m ecstatic. It’s the culmination of three semesters of work,” Fierro said. “Hopefully the University will do the right thing and bargain with us.”