Editor’s note: The writers are Resident Assistants.
To the Editor:
Resident Assistants (RAs) are important to the success of our on-campus students, especially freshmen and first-year students. RAs are educators, attempting to inform and empower students to make responsible decisions. They are counselors, programmers and community leaders, and often the first responders to a residence hall crisis. It’s this level of responsibility that RAs tackle that makes people in the University of Massachusetts community agree that they should receive fair payment for the vital job they perform. Unfortunately, the University administration does not agree.
In 2002, the RAs of UMass unionized, becoming the first group of RAs in the country to do so. However, this was accomplished only after a series of battles with the University, including a protest at the UMass President’s office in Boston and the arrest of over 30 students and community members during a protest at the Whitmore Administration Building.
Although RAs are now recognized as union workers, the administration refuses to grant RAs basic union rights, such as minimum wage and just cause. Bargaining on the current contract has been ongoing for the last year and a half, and the administration refuses to address the issues.
RAs are contracted for 20 hours per week, and receive bi-weekly paychecks of approximately $170. These paychecks state that RAs work eight hours per week at approximately $11 an hour. However, RAs are contracted to work 40 hours in those two weeks. The resulting hourly wage is closer to $4.50 per hour, way below Massachusetts’ $8.00 minimum wage. Frequently, RAs work more hours than the 20 for which they are contracted, and far more than the eight for which they are paid.
So how does the administration get away with it? One of the reasons is that RAs are granted a room waiver as part of their payment. However, RAs are required to live in the residence halls, making it a place of work. If at any time a resident knocks on an RA’s door, the RA must respond. RAs are required to keep their door open when in their room on duty and are encouraged to talk to residents in their room. Housing legally should not factor into payment as the RAs room functions both as private and professional space.
Furthermore, even if housing were to factor into payment, the University cannot deduct more than $35 per week per room, according to Massachusetts labor laws. The University grants RAs $2,781.50 for a room waiver per semester. RAs are on campus 17 weeks per semester, or $163.67 per week, far exceeding the $35 per week standard.
Just cause, which protects workers from unfair termination, is overwhelmingly standard in union contracts, and is very rarely negotiated. Every other union contract on campus contains just cause. For RAs, termination means not only loss of work, it also means loss of housing. And in this economic climate, coupled with the high cost of higher education, termination could mean loss of an education.
The UMass administration’s refusal to bargain in good faith is extremely concerning, especially given the basic and fundamental nature of these demands. However, the University and the RA union are meeting with a state mediator on Wednesday. The possibilities of a settlement seem close. The administration needs to sign a contract that the union deserves: a fair contract.
Chris Hoel, Frank Jackson and Annie Mombourquette