UMass grants housing waivers for all RAs and PMs after most are left without employment

Only 36 on-campus positions were offered


Courtesy of Aradhna Johnson and Stephanie Higgins/RAPMU Media Team

By McKenna Premus, Assistant Social Media Editor

During negotiations between the University of Massachusetts and the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union on Aug. 11, the University agreed to waive housing fees for all resident assistants and peer mentors for the fall semester.

“We have, through our collective power, prevented what could have been an eviction crisis, leaving potentially hundreds of students stranded and housing insecure overnight,” said RA/PM Union Co-Chair James Cordero, a senior English and social thought and political economy double major.

The memorandum of agreement settled upon by both the University and the union states:

“Any individuals whose offer is rescinded and is permitted to live on campus shall receive a full housing waiver and priority selection if additional RAs/PMs are required mid semester. Any individuals who had been offered a break housing RA position whose offer is rescinded and is permitted to live on campus shall receive a full housing waiver including for the break housing periods, if they receive a room assignment in a break housing hall.”

The University will be offering 34 RA positions and two PM positions.

The RA/PM Union organized a two-day protest on Aug. 12 and 13, initially attempting to protest on Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s lawn before moving to a different part of campus after the University of Massachusetts Police Department threatened to arrest the protesters, according to Cordero.

According to the University’s Demonstration Guidelines, “all students, undergraduate and graduate, have a right to demonstrate on university premises,” as long as the demonstration does not incite “immediate, violent action or represents a clear and present danger to the campus community.”

“Our response to that was we will not be silenced,” Cordero said. “And we demonstrated that when we showed up the next day with even more people, about 40 people for our second day.”

According to Cordero, members of the Democratic Socialists of America and an organization calling for the defunding of the Northampton Police Department, as well as graduate residential life staff and residence directors, attended the protests in support of the RA/PM Union.

“I think these protests were a great combination of community support and engagement from RAs and PMs in the area,” Cordero said. “Our community allies shortly arrived, and we were able to launch a successful rally, share testimonies and eat some food together, building community and making our voices heard.”

The protesters eventually dispersed after UMPD threatened arrest, Cordero said, but the union is already planning further means of protest.

“That doesn’t mean that we are done, that doesn’t mean that we will be silent and that doesn’t mean that we are willing to comply with a university that prioritizes its own revenue…over the lives of the people who make the University run,” Cordero said. “Further action, both legal action and direct action, will be taken to hold the University to high standards of being an institution that values the humanity and dignity of everyone who’s a part of it.”

The RA/PM Union formally filed a grievance against the University, as the union argues the University violated Article 22 of the Agreement Between the Board of Trustees of the University of Massachusetts and the United Automobile Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers, Local 2322 Resident Assistants/Peer Mentors Unit regarding layoffs. Article 22 states: “In the event the Employer/University Administration determines that it is necessary to reduce the RA/PM work force due to financial reasons, organizational/programmatic changes, or due to unforeseen catastrophic circumstances, no RA/PM shall suffer a loss in compensation or benefits as defined in Article 12, Compensation, of this Agreement during the RA/PM term of appointment.”

The union argues that the University violated Article 19 of the agreement pertaining to Health and Safety, as well, which states: “If a work site is closed for health or safety reasons and the RA [sic] or PM’s are not moved to an alternate work site, the affected RA’s or PM’s shall continue to receive their full stipends for the remainder of their contracted appointment period. Every attempt will be made by the department head to find alternative, continuing employment for the RA or PM if they are otherwise eligible for continued employment.”

Cordero said the RA/PM Union has proposed alternative means of work for RAs and PMs, such as providing remote support for students taking classes remotely this fall.

“This lockdown has been tough on everyone, and especially now we’ve got a lot of first year students entering their first year of college completely remotely,” Cordero said. “This kind of connection is crucial.”

According to Cordero, the RA/PM Union proposed this alternative to the University during a bargaining session regarding housing security for RAs and PMs, but the University denied the proposal, and said there are no current plans to support remote students.

“There are thousands of students without any remote support right now, and they deserve that,” said Cordero. “If [UMass is] not willing to grant us remote work, these are layoffs, legally speaking. We believe we have a strong argument, and we have filed a grievance to prove it. We’re happy to keep fighting for public health, and for the benefit of the community and the workers of that community.”

While the University agreed to grant RAs and PMs housing waivers, some RA/PM Union members who were not offered a position have indicated concerns about facing food insecurity and the inability to pay for tuition, as they will not be receiving any wages. A mutual aid fund raised about $1,200 during the two-day protest for RAs and PMs who now face financial hardship.

“We intend to use those funds to meet any food insecurity needs that might arise during this time, but ultimately our goal would be to push the University to provide us with the dignity and the livelihoods that we were promised,” said Cordero.

Students who are enrolled in face-to-face courses which require them to be on campus and/or are facing housing insecurity were prioritized in the selection process of assigning the 34 RA and two PM roles. The RA/PM Union negotiated with the University that selected students could turn down the offer if they felt as though they did not need the wages, allowing other students to fill their positions. However, some RAs and PMs are still facing housing and food insecurities, as the University will not be providing the wages to all RAs/PMs, as was originally agreed upon in Articles 19 and 22.

Julia Oktay, a junior operations and information management major, was supposed to be an RA this fall, but is now facing housing insecurity.

“I have an Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Determination, which is what they call it when I’m basically a homeless student,” Oktay said. “My primary residence is on campus, or at least it was. There were many times in the last six months where UMass basically threatened to make me homeless. They use this wording that says ‘anyone with extenuating circumstances can appeal to stay in the dorms,’ so basically there’s someone in [UMass Amherst Residential Life Student Services] looking through all of these requests deciding if I have a place to sleep or not.”

Oktay was not sure she would be able to afford on-campus housing if she was not receiving wages, as she was not one of the 34 RAs chosen to work, and decided to sublet an off-campus property. It was not until after Oktay had signed the lease agreement that UMass agreed to grant housing waivers to all RAs and PMs, leaving Oktay unsure as to whether or not she will be able to afford her off-campus housing.

“I basically signed the lease agreement before I knew that we were going to have free housing,” Oktay said. “There were like three or four days of limbo where I didn’t know if that was going to be offered or not. I was in a position where I either signed this lease or I may not have a place to live.”

“I don’t know how I’m going to pay for that because they’re not honoring our stipends,” Oktay said. “I think some kind of financial compensation needs to be offered, because a lot of us rely on that income to put food on the table. Most RAs, as far as the people I know, don’t even buy a meal plan, so the money that we earned from that…we spend it on groceries mostly, and other essentials.”

Oktay said most of her friends who are also RAs are in a similar position, and rely on the University’s housing accommodations that are guaranteed with the position.

“A lot of us need the University housing accommodations, and that’s why we do this job,” Oktay said.

Oktay said she wishes UMass had communicated more with RAs and PMs since the initial transition to remote learning back in March.

“All of the information I have is from the RA/PM Union,” Oktay said. “Back in March when they sent everyone home, there was a solid week where I didn’t know if I was going to have a job or not. If it wasn’t for the RA job, I would not be able to afford on-campus housing, so there were a lot of times where I didn’t know if I was going to have a job, or if they did give me housing was I going to be able to afford it? [Was] I going to be able to eat?”

“It’s really stressful and honestly, I have lost a lot of trust and respect for the University,” Oktay said. “I used to love UMass, I used to be really proud of going to UMass, I used to wear a lot of UMass gear, but to be honest, I have never been so ashamed to be a UMass student in my entire career here.”

While Oktay is cognizant of the financial impacts the pandemic has had on UMass, and is unsure as to what the most effective type of remote work entails, she does think the University should provide some form of alternate work, which is guaranteed in Article 19 of the agreement.

“I don’t really know what the right answer here is, but I think the University needs to honor our contracts,” Oktay said. “We’re contracted employees, legally they have to, and a lot of people rely on this income, but at the same time, I know the University doesn’t have a lot of money to give out…There is no perfect solution.”

Cordero said the RA/PM Union will continue to advocate for its members and has engaged in conversations and received support from numerous community allies, including other staff and faculty unions, local teachers and professors.

“My faith is not in processes, it’s in people coming together and advocating for the change they need,” Cordero said. “We are building relationships with other stakeholders to make sure that we win a UMass that prioritizes the community and the people over anything else.

“This past reopening plan in our view was all about private revenue, and that’s been reversed,” Cordero said. “That’s a huge victory, and we need to keep reversing policies that prioritize the wrong things, and I’m looking forward to doing that.”

McKenna Premus is an Assistant Social Media Editor and can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter@mckenna_premus.