The Forum

Commentary

Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 5:56 p.m.

Op-Ed: RA unionization does not make financial, logistical sense

Austin Hansen is a senior and a resident adviser in District House.

Despite the enthusiasm inferred by a recent op-ed on resident adviser unionization, it should be noted that there is meaningful opposition within the RA community to unionize. My hope with this letter is to give voice to the concerns many RAs have with the unionization proposal as it stands.

I agree that unions can be effective organization structures in many scenarios. Unions add tremendous value when seeking to advance fair labor practices, advocate for job security and secure employment benefits, like pensions. However, these features do not readily apply to the temporary RA position.

After attending an information session on the union proposal, an impression is that the chief grievance of the RAs in the room is the notion that the yearly stipend of $2,500 per year was not enough to live on. This is absolutely true. In fact, it is customary for RAs, like me, to find another source of income through a part-time job or paid internship. The RA stipend has never been presented as a life-sustaining income. Many view it simply as a bonus to the primary form of compensation: free housing. When considering even the most conservative estimates of potential housing values an RA could receive – $10,530.00 per year – the compensation for the average 20 hour work week is not $3.12 per hour, as suggested, but typically more than $16.29 per hour. This is an incredibly competitive wage for a part-time student position.

I’d also like to draw attention to the specific labor union that is proposed to represent the RAs. Service Employees International Union 500 is the same labor union that represents adjunct faculty members at GW. Adjunct faculty members pay dues of around $28 per month, yet are in an arguably worse off position for it. Despite its unionization, GW adjuncts are paid notably less than the adjuncts at both Georgetown and American universities. Not only that, this union has limited GW’s ability to pay adjuncts different rates across disciplines or increase rates for performance or experience. Since GW is constrained in paying competitively for talent, the union has effectively limited the opportunity for adjuncts to receive competitive wages and perhaps decreased value of education received by GW students as a result. Why should RAs expect a better result?

While some RAs are under the impression that the union dues required to cover the expenses of their union representation would be less than $5 per paycheck, simple math suggests that this could be problematic. There are about 130 RAs, if dues are mandated as a condition of employment at $5 every two weeks, as suggested in the informational meeting, that amounts to about $13,000 for the entire 10-month academic year. It is highly improbable that union resources will be able to effectively renegotiate better terms in a contract with GW’s top lawyers for $13,000. One might expect that the union would seek to recover its expenses in some form from those it represents. Dues will likely be higher for relatively limited benefits in return.

Compensation aside, the most significant concern I have with this proposal is how it could fundamentally change the dynamic between RAs and their residents. By formally unionizing and recognizing RAs as statutory employees, the collective bargaining process will likely establish terms and conditions with respect to hours and practices that could place limitations on how RAs are allowed to support residents in a variety of situations. Anyone who has been or is friends with an RA knows how unpredictable the role is. Many RAs make sacrifices to maximize support for their residents at odd and inconsistent hours. Limiting the role to a defined punch-in, punch-out window would dramatically decrease the flexibility RAs would have to support their residents.

Although there are additional concerns that could be raised and discussed, the fact of the matter is it doesn’t make sense financially or objectively to unionize a temporary student position. It’s no secret the University is in tremendous debt: There are pay freezes and budget cuts across every department. Unionizing to increase RAs’ $16.29 per hour compensation will increase the total costs experienced by the University as a whole and in turn either increase the price of tuition or decrease the number of RA positions available in future years.

I have tremendous respect for my peers who have put forth the work to bring this proposal to the table. However, I hope we all take these points into consideration when making decisions that have implications well beyond the scope of our individual experiences. This is a significant decision and should not be taken lightly. Noting how it would be nearly impossible to reverse such a decision if adopted, it is my belief that every current RA has an obligation to participate in this process and become as informed as they possibly can prior to casting their ballots.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.