Resident Advisors Testify at National Labor Relations Board

Five current and former GW students and an associate dean spoke during NLRB hearing on the question of whether to hold a vote on unionizing RAs.

December 12, 2016

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By Ruth Steinhardt

The George Washington University participated Wednesday in a daylong hearing before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to determine whether there should be a vote among resident advisors (RAs) at the university to form a union and be represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500.

SEIU Local 500 has petitioned the NLRB to represent undergraduate RAs at GW.

A current RA, two former RAs and Associate Dean of Students Tim Miller testified on behalf of the university, which has opposed the petition. One current and one former RA testified on behalf of SEIU Local 500.

The university argued that resident advisors are in a unique position: As full-time undergraduate students, RAs form relationships with the peers with whom they live through the resident advisor program. Resident advisors play an integral role in the university’s residential life experience and have the flexibility, discretion and self-direction to best serve the university’s residential community.

Introducing a third party like a union into the university’s peer-to-peer student relationship model would impact the efficacy of resident advisors to serve their residents, the university argued.

Resident advisors are appointed for one academic year and must be enrolled full time in a GW degree-granting undergraduate program in which they maintain good academic standing. They receive free university housing and a yearly stipend of $2,500 in return for their participation.

Senior and District House RA Austin Hansen testified that being an RA is “somewhat part of your character or identity. It doesn’t feel like an internship. I don’t look at it like a job.”

“The expectation is that you’re a student first and an RA second,” he said.

 Mr. Miller, who was an RA as a student at James Madison University, said that being a resident advisor is “a unique experience tied to being a student.”

“The value is the relationships built with residents,” he said. “The walls aren’t there when you’re a fellow undergraduate student.”

Kelsey Johnston, B.A. ’14, and Stacie Buell, B.A. ’14, both of whom were RAs in multiple halls during their undergraduate years at GW, distinguished their RA commitments from formal professional work like internships and part-time jobs.

Ms. Johnston emphasized that she found her RA experience to be “much more personal and passion-driven” than her other commitments.

Ms. Buell said she used the skills she had learned as an RA to promote “relationship-building” at her current job.

SEIU presented testimony that the informal guidelines given to RAs created ambiguity around what might and might not be grounds for termination.

Rebecca Durango, a first-year RA on the Mount Vernon Campus, expressed uncertainty about what would happen to her if, for example, she took time away from her duties without notifying a supervisor beforehand and an incident were to occur in her residence hall.

 “I’m not entirely sure what those consequences would be,” she said.

In the days leading up to the hearing, SEIU had subpoenaed the university for a broad array of student records, but it withdrew that subpoena before the hearing began.

NLRB hearing officer Katrina Ksander said the question would be decided under the guidelines set forth in Columbia University, an August NLRB decision that afforded research and teaching assistants at private universities the status of “employee” as defined in the National Labor Relations Act.

Ms. Ksander directed both parties to submit post-hearing briefs by Dec. 16.  A decision will follow review of those briefs and testimony from Wednesday’s hearing.

“The university has worked well with SEIU Local 500 with regard to our part-time faculty and recognizes the right of university employees to organize,” Dean of Students Peter Konwerski wrote in a letter sent to RAs before the NLRB hearing. His message echoed concerns later put forth by Provost Forrest Maltzman about the implications and possible costs of unionizing RAs.

“However, the university does not believe that it makes sense to apply a federally regulated system of collective bargaining to students who are participating for a period of time in a program as part of their educational experience,” Dr. Konwerski wrote.

He urged RAs to “become as informed as possible” and to “actively participate” in the conversation around unionizing.