UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass RA’s First

The recent decision by UMass to negotiate a labor contract with Amherst undergraduate students ends a long battle that started two years ago and marks the historic recognition of the first undergraduate union in the nation. The university had struggled against the union every step of the way.

On July 31, 2002, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the United Auto Workers (UAW), Local 2322, issued a joint press release announcing the university’s shift in position (see page 6).

“Today’s agreement shows that unions are appropriate for all workers, including undergraduate student workers,” James A. W. Shaw, president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322, said in a press release on July 31, 2002. UAW Local 2322 will represent the students.

Over 360 undergraduate resident assistants at UMass Amherst began to organize back in February 2001. Their unanswered complaints included long hours and low pay.

Though the students receive a tuition waiver of up to $5,000 annually and about a $50 stipend per week, students say they often work more than 20 hours and are constantly on call.

A UMass graduate union, the recently formed Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), is also a branch of the United Auto Workers.

The number of graduate unions has exploded in recent years at public universities, from about five in 1991 to over 40 and growing today. Universities are pressured by the parallel undergraduate union movement, and UMass has made a nationally significant move in agreeing to negotiate with an undergraduate union.

Critics fear that the new union will be a front for the GEO. Others see the unions bordering on desperation as membership has dwindled and they try to rebuild by recruiting young teachers and students.

A year ago, UMass opposed a student petition for a union election, claiming that students weren’t employees.

The Massachusetts Labor Relations Board (MLRB) decided in January that students could vote on joining a union, while in February Marcellette G. Williams, the campus’s acting chancellor, sent letters to all of the RAs urging them to reject the union.

But on March 5, 2002, the students voted 138-88 in favor of joining the local chapter of the UAW. The university refused to bargain with the new union and was accused of illegal union busting activities.

On April 29, 2002, 35 students and union activists were arrested at Amherst after staging a protest occupation of the Whitmore Administration Building. Those arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing.

There was a widely publicized rally in Boston for the UMass Resident Assistants on May 16, 2002, comprised of union support and the growing community support.

The joint statement released at the end of July has caused speculation about additional undergraduate unions across the nation.

Some undergraduates have called for similar moves. One student complained that at Kansas University RAs only receive $20 a week and stated, “It’s a shame. Being an RA at a large state university is a major commitment, and RAs’ contributions are greatly under appreciated.”

Others don’t see the need to unionize, such as Julian Timmerman, an RA at the University of Maryland, “I think we have a pretty good voice up the chain of command at the university.”

Chris Fierro, an RA and union organizer at UMass, Amherst, said he had spoke to students at other campuses about starting unions.

Many administrators fear that the recognition of the UMass union will launch a flood of undergraduate unions, causing increased costs and ultimately resulting in higher tuitions and fees.