Labor board sets historic precedent by defining university resident advisers 'employees'

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision Friday recognizing resident advisers at the George Washington University as employees of the university, granting them the right to vote on forming a collective bargaining unit.

The decision sets an important precedent for the future relationship between private universities and academic labor, according to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 500.

“The university fragmented the academic community into professors, adjuncts, graduate student workers and RAs,” SEIU communications director Christopher Honey told On Events, “but this decision will get back these student workers a seat at the table.”

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The decision from the NLRB determines the status of student workers at private universities throughout the country as employees of those institutions, Honey said. Private universities curtail the organizing rights of “contingent academic labor,” by emphasizing student workers’ statuses as students before employees, thus negating student workers’ abilities to form a collective bargaining unit.

GWU requires all students other than seniors to live in on-campus housing. Currently, the resident advisers (RAs) ‒ student workers who provide support and resources to residents in campus housing ‒ are paid a stipend that they say doesn’t account for proper compensation because it comes out to below minimum wage when distributed over the amount of time they put into the job. However, RAs don’t pay for their housing because they have to live on campus.

If they were to form a collective bargaining unit, they’d have union representation to win a contract that pays them more and clearly defines both the hours they work and the reprimand process, which former RAs told the GW Hatchet is used unfairly by management.

GWU’s RAs filed to form a union in the fall of 2016. The university challenged the petition and the case went to the NLRB for review. If the university hadn’t filed an appeal challenging the resident advisers’ efforts to unionize, pushing the process back by months, the workforce would have been the first unionized student collective bargaining unit at a private university at that time. Such a union would set a precedent for thousands of other student workers at private universities to be able to officially voice their rights as a legally recognizable body of employees, Honey said.

The Washington, DC-based university told the NLRB that the ability for students to unionize would have “profound effects on the inherently educational nature of the relationship between the RAs and the Employer.” However, the NLRB did not accept that argument.

“[T]he Board concluded that such potential conflicts should be left to the parties to resolve through the bargaining process,” wrote Sean R. Marshall, the NLRB acting regional director headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland.

The resident advisor model at GWU is typical among many major private universities across the country. Even if the RAs at GWU don’t vote to unionize, the NLRB decision still provides a national precedent establishing these kinds of student workers as employees of their university and therefore entitled to the right to organize a union to win better contracts for themselves at other private universities.

Marshall stepped in as regional director in overseeing this case because the official who would have performed that function was recused, he said. The NLRB will set for the newly-recognized a date for employees to vote on forming a union.

If the RAs come in union, they will join SEIU local 500, which has represented adjunct professors at GWU since 2004.


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