Power in Unity: Tufts RAs Struggle for Fair Compensation


In December 2022, the Residential Assistants (RAs) at Tufts voted 99-3 in a united decision to form a union. In February 2023, the RAs began negotiations over financial compensation and contract restructuring with the university after a shared sentiment amongst RAs of unfair employment conditions prompted them to take action.
The RAs’ unionization was represented by the United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants (ULTRA), a coalition that was motivated by the employees’ sense of exploitation by Tufts without fair compensation. Some of their duties include directly overseeing and advising close to 30 undergraduate students, managing their disputes, and conduct violations. While these duties are expected for the job, RAs have reported that being asked to perform tasks beyond this scope, as well as their hours of pre-semester training, and the expectation to be “on call” regularly exceeded what is acceptable without compensation.
“One of the big ways that Tufts exploited RAs was through the jobs we do for free on campus,” said Harry Knight, a sophomore RA in Haskell Hall. “We have to be on duty for 24-hour shifts on the weekends and night shifts during the week, where we can be woken up at any time to let people into their rooms or perform other RA duties.”
RAs asked for a stipend and a meal plan, among other benefits, as part of the negotiations. According to Knight, the union felt that free housing should be an expectation rather than a perk. Before the ratification of their new contract, the RA compensation package only included a room credit. Neither meals nor financial compensation were covered for RAs under the previous agreement.
After months of back-and-forth with disappointing results, the union voted in favor of a strike on the Class of 2027 move-in day on August 29, historically the RAs’ busiest day of the year. The main strike occurred on the Residential Quad, and megaphones blasting chants filled the campus for the afternoon. Although this was the first time the RAs came together over a shared dispute, the union quickly picked up speed among the entire student body. The union produced a petition, website, and social media campaign, garnering solidarity among the student body. News also spread beyond the Tufts campus, with CBS News publishing an article detailing the strike and the RAs’ mobilization on campus in late August.
In response to the strike, the Tufts administration said that RAs would not receive a stipend and would have their employment and free housing revoked. As negotiation efforts continued, the administration’s sudden reversal on the RAs’ demands further pushed the union to press forward for a fair contract and adequate compensation. On September 26, after a month-long struggle, a deal was finally reached with the University, and the RAs emerged with a new contract. The most recent bargaining session between the union and the University was left on a 95-4 vote in favor of the union ratifying their negotiated contracts. The RAs’ vote to ratify their contract means a new wave of benefits for them. Knight said that these benefits are being enacted currently, as the RAs have already been allotted their meal swipes and stipends are expected to roll out in the coming weeks.
With these new changes, according to the ULTRA Instagram, RAs won a pay raise of 46%, a stipend of $1,425 a semester, and 80 meal swipes a semester. No RA will be responsible for more than 30 first-year students or more than 50 total students. RAs will no longer be required to arrive on campus three weeks early for summer training and instead can move in eight days before the first freshman move-in date. Every RA will receive a job description of duties and responsibilities, whereas previously, the university was not obligated to provide the RAs with any job description. A new Labor Management Committee has been established for up to five RAs and five university representatives to meet once or more a semester to discuss RA matters. Instead of no holiday pay in the past, RAs will also be compensated $50 in JumboCash per 12-hour duty shifts on holiday breaks.
“I hope the rank and file feels like they are starting to be adequately compensated for the work that they do,” said Anisha Uppal-Sullivan, a junior RA in Houston Hall and one of the leaders of ULTRA. The challenging road that led to the success of the RAs’ unionization efforts, as well as the presence of other labor struggles on the Tufts campus as a whole, continues to raise questions about the relationship between student workers and the administration.
The strike at Tufts marked a particularly invigorating and unique experience for the RAs and other students involved in the movement. Forming a union and voting to ratify a contract is difficult when students are up against an institution with significant resources to counter their efforts. Still, RAs consistently followed through on their grievances with the administration. “Being part of the RA strike was a new experience for me,” Knight said. “I’ve never been part of a union or anything like that, but it was nice to feel like I had a role in making a big change for RAs here and elsewhere in the future.”
The strike that divided students and the administration brought many RAs together. Uppal-Sullivan said that the process had left her feeling like she could do her job even better. “It made me feel empowered in my role and made me feel like it was my own,” she said. “More than anything, it created an unbreakable community amongst the RAs’ that had the ability collectively to stand up to admin.” She added that she has always been wary of the administration, and their reactions to the strike “confirmed many of [her] prior opinions.”
Christina Alch, the Director of Residential Life and Learning (ResLife), is responsible for managing the office of ResLife, which supports over 4,100 residents on two campuses. She works closely with Residential Education and Residential Operations. “With every Union negotiation, there is the possibility for work stoppages and strikes,” Alch wrote in a written statement when asked about her feelings on the RA’s unification. “While we strive to avoid those situations, the institution always plans for these eventualities, and the one-day union strike was no different.”Alch said that a goal for the office during orientation activities was to make the experience as seamless as possible, attempting to avoid disturbance for incoming families and students, given the ongoing strike. “We programmatically and logistically had a successful move-in and orientation program thanks to redistributing staff in different ways and with the exceptional help of other student volunteers who assisted that day,” Alch said.
These responses to the strike left many RAs and students questioning Tufts’ empathy for student advocacy, a sentiment carried over into the bargaining process. “As for my perception of the [Tufts] admin, I was definitely frustrated throughout the experience that they seemed to be fighting their student workers with all they had,” Knight said. “They always had two lawyers across the table from their RAs and mostly refused to budge on our requests. It’s hard to feel like the administration has students’ best interests at heart when they’re trying to find any way not to pay you.”
Some RAs noted threats and uncooperative discourse on the part of the administration, leaving the union feeling neglected and unheard. Uppal-Sullivan spoke on the impact of the administration’s behavior and its effects on the students. She said that over the process of bargaining, Tufts committed three unjustified labor practices. “Most significantly they sent out a school wide email threatening retaliation for union activity under the student code of conduct,” she said. “That is an illegal fear tactic that among other things impacted the mental health of many RAs as we moved into strike organizing.”
The union and the administration’s tumultuous back and forth dynamic is not unique to Tufts;it mirrors the increased mobilization of labor organizations on college campuses nationwide. In March 2023, RAs at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY, passed a vote to unionize. In a press release, Sophia Ghelardini, an RA at Fordham, announced, “After winning our union 47 to 19, we are prepared to begin the bargaining process in hopes of gaining better compensation, more protections, and an effective line of communication.”
A Forbes report published this past April found that the University of California system saw the largest strike in the history of higher education in 2022, lasting six weeks, in an effort for higher compensation for graduate and postdoctoral workers. At the University of Michigan last year, graduate students endured 10 months of bargaining and five months of strike action, refusing to hold office hours or administer grades for undergraduate students while the administration denied their proposed contract. Despite facing retaliation from university administrators, this strike, like Tufts’, resulted in a win for the students.
These efforts reflect a trend in student labor activism nationwide, as student workers are making strides in their advocacy for adequate compensation—but not without pushback from administrators. As for the future relationship between the Tufts RAs and the administration, Alch said, “We look forward to working productively together in sustaining and strengthening our residential campus community.”
Uppal-Sullivan said that she was glad to see this ordeal come to a compromise and that it did not have to drag on any longer. “While I wish we could have won more and given the membership what they deserve for the many hours of labor they put in, this is a good starting point for us to grow from,” she said. Knight added that the union’s success in ratifying their contracts is an encouraging example for RAs nationwide and other student workers at Tufts to fight for compensation. This win sets a precedent for other student unions, but whether the Tufts administration will be willing to meet student workers at the table in the future remains to be seen.