On Nov. 14, Tufts undergraduate students rallied in support of United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants, known as UTLRA, the resident assistants organizing to unionize. In the span of just two weeks, 85% of approximately 140 Tufts RA’s signed onto union cards. Tufts RA’s are demanding fair compensation, more clarity and say in their job responsibilities, and a voice in their working conditions. They requested voluntary recognition from Tufts on Nov. 9, which the University rejected on Nov. 16.
David Whittingham, a junior at Tufts and first year RA in Carpenter House shared, “The biggest concern on people’s minds has been compensation. RA’s don’t receive wages beyond the housing credit and we don’t receive any other sort of fringe benefits like a meal plan … A lot of people live in dorms where it’s not really logistically feasible to cook for yourself, so sort of just by the nature of the job [you] need to enroll in a meal plan just to have access to food.”
He added, “The compensation structure I think is exploitative. It allows the university to get away with essentially free labor from students that they know have little other recourse, who can’t afford to live in the area, particularly here in Boston where rent is so exorbitant.”
Not only are RAs struggling with compensation but with unclear expectations on the job. New duties and responsibilities are often added to their plate. Whittingham shared, “In general, our contract contains certain ambiguities of a high degree of flexibility is expected of RAs. Through unionization we are seeking to get more clear expectations, and just in general, have more say over the job.”
Julie Francois, a Tufts junior and second year RA in Bush Hall, said, “To me it meant having a voice over our jobs and creating a workspace that I feel like generations of RAs coming after us can feel proud of and feel safe in. Additionally, I want the next generations of RAs to just have more say over their jobs, have better compensation, and not have to go through any of the lack of visibility that we’ve had. And also job security.”
Tufts RAs are organizing amidst a surge of student-worker organizing across the country, including graduate worker unions at MIT, Yale, University of New Mexico, and Indiana University, among others. Undergraduate workers are also organizing at an increasing rate, with undergraduates at Grinnell winning their union election and RAs at Wesleyan winning voluntary recognition of their union.
“I was inspired by what the RAs at Wesleyan did … It definitely has been a big source of inspiration knowing that it’s possible and knowing that it can be done,” Whittingham said of the other undergraduate organizing efforts.
Francois agreed. “Definitely Wesleyan has inspired me. It feels kind of whirlwind. It’s crazy to think this has only been a couple months’ process. I feel like I’m still trying to find my place in it but I feel honored to do my part in getting a union here on Tufts and having the RAs here have a voice in their job.”
Workplace struggles are often the first struggles working people join that show them their collective power, especially in the United States where most workers are not unionized. Unionized workers on average receive higher salaries, better benefits, and increased job security when compared to their non-union peers.
“I think our generation is really socially aware and we’re at a time where we came out of the pandemic and I feel like we just want more out of life and don’t really want to accept things that we feel like we don’t necessarily deserve,” Francois continued. “Now is the time to speak up and fight for what we want, especially in our workplaces.”
Feature Photo: Tufts undergraduates rally to support unionizing RA’s on Nov. 14.