Strength in Numbers: RA Unionization at Tufts

On November 8, after months of frustration with the Tufts Office of Residential Life and Learning (ORLL), the United Labor of Tufts Residential Assistants (ULTRA) revealed their official formation and publicly announced a campaign for better working conditions. Since then, ULTRA has received official recognition from the Tufts Community Union Senate, Medford City Council, and Somerville City Council. However, despite this support, Tufts chose not to voluntarily recognize the union

Julie Francois is a junior residential assistant and ULTRA organizing leader. ULTRA was formed after the pandemic exacerbated concerns about payment, treatment, and transparency for Tufts RAs. She said, “Workplaces [do not] want unions because they will keep wanting to oppress workers and not really spend the money or time on them.” 

By unionizing the RAs on campus, ULTRA hopes they will be able to redefine their working conditions. According to senior David Whittingham, another ULTRA organizer, the decision to unionize was catalyzed by the “long-standing issue of RAs not feeling adequately compensated and not feeling adequately treated or adequately supported by [ORLL].” 

Over 80 percent of RAs support unionization. After their public announcement, ULTRA released a petition asking for community support. 

ULTRA highlighted the high expectations of their job in their petition. While RAs are expected to be flexible with their supervisors’ requests, ORLL offers little flexibility for RAs themselves.

Francois said, “Things get [sprung] onto us [at the] last minute and it’s a lack of understanding [and] flexibility from [ORLL].” Francois also explained RAs are faced with ambiguous contracts where RAs themselves have little input. “[There’s] just a lot of [uncertainty] in our contracts, and unspoken obligations… For example, unpaid training is required every year—that’s two weeks. And this year [we had to handle] move-in for a lot of first-year areas, which was unexpected.”

Despite their frustrations, many students become RAs because they are dependent on the free university housing it provides. Tufts only guarantees housing for the first two years for undergraduates. Finding a place to live as an upperclassman can be difficult and unaffordable. “The primary reason people apply for being an RA is out of financial necessity,” said Joyce Fang, a sophomore and first-year RA at Bush Hall.

On November 18, the Tufts Daily published an article revealing the struggles upperclassmen face finding housing, citing financial hardships as a barrier to off-campus housing in the Medford and Somerville communities. Whittingham said, “The university knows that there are a lot of students who have [no other housing options],” leading them to become RAs despite any concerns. 

Furthermore, this additional leverage imposed by the University has prevented students from calling attention to these problems. Whittingham said, “It puts the students in a very difficult position in terms of speaking out to try to improve the job… speaking out or making any change to supervisors or administration carries the risk of retaliation or termination of some kind.” A first-generation low-income (FGLI) first-year RA shared similar worries, voicing concerns about speaking out about the unionization efforts and receiving backlash for it from ORLL. 

In addition to their expansive formal responsibilities, RAs also serve an important supportive role for many of their residents. Fang said, “RAs are doing a lot… the communicative labor of responding to residents and being aware of what’s going on in the halls [such as] conflict mediating [is] emotional labor.” 

RAs’ efforts to foster a sense of community and inclusion do not go unnoticed by their residents. Dzheveira Karimova, an FGLI sophomore, discussed her relationship with her first-year RA. “Being a first-generation student, it’s really difficult for me… so my RA was the first person I met who has gone through this experience,” she said. “I would consult with her all the time and be like ‘Leah, I need help.’” In this way, RAs serve a crucial role in supporting their residents, including supporting first-year students as they transition to college. 

All of these concerns are especially amplified for RAs who are students of color and FGLI students. According to the union’s petition, “The university has committed to ensuring equity for its marginalized communities, but has sadly fallen short of this duty with regard to its Resident Assistants.” This grievance is supported further by TCU Senate’s Resolution S.22-4, acknowledging that “first-generation/low-income student workers are disproportionately represented in the Resident Assistant workforce, making the fair treatment and compensation of RAs integral to Tufts University’s proclaimed commitment to equity and support for marginalized groups.” 

Since the Tufts administration has denied voluntary recognition, ULTRA has decided to go forth with elections through the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency tasked with conducting secret-ballot elections regarding union recognition and other issues in employer-employee relations. 

Francois said, “After Tufts denied us, we just took our 85 percent support cards… and [sent] it over to the NLRB. And they basically took that information and are going to host an election for us to win the [union] that way. That means we’ll be [able] to organize the union and we will be recognized by the [US] government.” Their unionization would result in “a bargaining situation where we’ll have elected people to be trained and sit at a table with whoever Tufts feels is appropriate to sit with us… to bargain over a contract and list out our demands.”

As ULTRA continues its process of becoming a recognized union, they hope their example can serve as inspiration for other student workers to organize and stand together in solidarity to fight for better working conditions. Whittingham said, “As colleges and universities increasingly become and behave like corporations, we hope that more unionization on college campuses can serve not only to improve the situation for workers themselves but also try to make positive change in general.” Especially as Tufts’ peer institutions such as Boston University have seen unionization efforts similar to ULTRA’s, Whittingham has expressed that he is “hopeful that this can be part of a bigger movement.” 

It remains to be seen how Tufts will respond to the NLRB elections. While employers do have the right to appeal NLRB decisions, Francois said Tufts is “not actively contesting the [RA unionization] election so far… and [as] for the conversation we’ve had with the Director of ResLife, Christina [Alch], she’s been empathetic to our efforts.” Additionally, in their response to rejecting voluntary recognition, the administration encouraged the union to go through the NLRB. 

Francois is hopeful about “where we are political[ly] as a nation [with] the sweeping movements of unionization, especially through [undergraduate] groups [unionizing] across campuses across the country.” She said at the end of the day, “People don’t want the bare minimum. We just want to fight for what we know is right, what we know we deserve.”