A supermajority of Penn residential advisors and graduate resident associates filed to unionize on Tuesday.
The RAs and GAs have filed for official recognition with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 and the National Labor Relations Board. A letter from OPEIU Local 153 was sent to Penn President Liz Magill to announce their formation as a union and request voluntary recognition from the University.
College junior and Rodin College House RA Mica Lin-Alves told The Daily Pennsylvanian that the group's central grievances center around the limitations of the meal plan, discouraged employment for first-generation, low-income students, and tasks that fall outside RAs’ job description. Lin-Alves said that these issues would not be official union demands until the group reaches the collective bargaining phase of organizing.
"RAs are integral to campus life but are consistently undervalued and unpaid," United RAs at Penn wrote in a press release. "RAs are organizing for increased and fair compensation, better communication, and a more democratic workplace — when RAs are supported, so is the entire Penn community."
The press release also directed supporters to send a letter via Action Network asking Penn leadership to not engage in anti-union campaigns against the RAs and GAs. As of 11 p.m. on Wednesday, over 700 letters had been sent.
"Penn is a university that prides itself on civic engagement and creating the leaders of tomorrow, and we are proud to take this step towards workplace democracy," the statement on Action Network said.
In response to a request for comment, Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote in a statement to the Daily Pennsylvanian, "Penn greatly appreciates and values our Resident Advisors and Graduate Resident Advisors, who are important student leaders on campus. We are in receipt of the petition that was shared earlier today and are in the process of reviewing it."
"We will be sharing additional information in the coming weeks," Executive Director of College Houses and Academic Services Karu Kozuma wrote in an email on March 15 to all RAs. "We encourage all RAs and GRAs to learn as much as you can, so that you are fully informed about all aspects of this very important decision."
There are 218 student RA positions available for the 2023-24 school year, according to CHAS.
OPEIU Local 153 organizer Scott Williams, a 2016 graduate of Penn's Graduate School of Education, told the DP that he believes RAs want to unionize because of the "serious issues" they face as workers.
"Many of these workers receive financial aid in ways that make it so they are essentially doing unpaid work and are receiving less pay than students who are not on financial aid," Williams said. "We view that as a fundamental inequity, and that needs to change."
For FGLI students, Lin-Alves said that the University effectively cancels out their housing refund that is part of their financial aid package with the free housing guaranteed to RAs. Essentially, the refund FGLI students would receive for room and board is eliminated because of their RA position, but “now they have to work for it.”
Financially, Lin-Alves said that the meal plan’s inadequacy is also a key complaint. RAs and GAs receive a partial dining plan, equivalent to about three meals a week, which allows the employees to eat meals with residents on a full meal plan.
Lin-Alves said that the meal plan is not enough, as other universities provide a full dining plan for RAs and GAs.
He added that the plan to formulate a union among RAs and GAs had been coming up in conversation among employees across the College Houses for “a long time," citing a number of RAs who noticed issues and determined that a union was the "best way" to address them.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lin-Alves said that he heard RAs and GAs faced “a lot of disrespect” from the University, such as being told to put themselves in “potentially dangerous situations while the virus was raging.”
“Coming out of the pandemic — not only as a health crisis but also as a social crisis — the work that RAs are doing is really important in creating this community, and so we think that we should have a greater compensation that’s deserving of that work,” Lin-Alves said.
While the pandemic has mostly passed, Lin-Alves noted that similar situations continue to manifest, adding that other support services within Penn Residential Services “aren’t always as responsive as they should be.”
“Part of the RA system is that we are on-call overnight, [and that responsibility] rotates throughout the different RAs in each House," Lin-Alves said. "That basically means we are often the first point of contact for any issues that happen. Even though it shouldn’t be our responsibility to continue responding to situations all the time, because we’re the most available, it often is."
The process of collecting signatures and gathering support for the union was a “grassroots effort,” Lin-Alves said, adding that the approach was mainly conducted through one-on-one conversations with every RA and GRA.
Since there is already more than a supermajority of RAs and GAs who support unionization, Williams said that he hopes Penn will "respect the democratic process and the workers' rights to form a union."
Williams added that the next steps include negotiating with Penn and the National Labor Relations Board on finding a date for a formal election — where RAs and GAs vote either 'yes' or 'no' on unionization — within the next six weeks. According to the email from Kozuma, the elections consist of a simple majority, so even those who choose not to vote will be bound by the results.
Lin-Alves said that he hopes that Penn will be supportive of the employee union, but expects the University to oppose the formation nonetheless. He said that it is the group’s federally protected right for workers to unionize as part of the First Amendment, adding that despite potential opposition from the University, the RAs and GAs are “still strong together" and have a supermajority to form a union.
The announcement comes after RAs at peer universities, including Barnard College, Wesleyan College, and Tufts University, successfully formed labor unions.
"If we are going to improve our working environment and get the compensation that we need, we need to have a stronger voice, and we can get there collectively with a union," College junior and RA Madeleine Riley wrote in the press release.