Penn is arguing that residential advisors and graduate resident associates are "not employees" in response to their recent decision to unionize.
The Board of Trustees' official Statement of Position, obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian, claims that the RAs are not employees of the University, but instead classifies them as student leaders with an "educational relationship" to Penn since they are not on the payroll. Union organizers and RAs told the DP that they see these arguments as a way to delay the election to officially unionize.
In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote that Penn "greatly appreciates and values our Resident Advisors and Graduate Resident Advisors, who are important student leaders on campus," adding that "unionization is a very significant issue, and we encourage all RAs and GRAs to be as informed as possible."
Ozio referenced a Frequently Asked Questions page that College House & Academic Services emailed to all RAs and GAs that contains information about the unionization process.
Cozen O'Connor, the legal team Penn hired, did not respond to a request for comment.
Penn's response comes nearly two weeks after a supermajority of RAs and GAs filed for official unionization recognition with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 and the National Labor Relations Board.
OPEIU Local 153 organizer Scott Williams, a 2016 graduate of Penn’s Graduate School of Education, told the DP that he thinks the University’s arguments are “very weak," adding that delaying union elections are a “common union-busting tactic,” citing similar events earlier this month at Duke University.
Williams said he found it “surprising” that Penn chose this route because several peer institutions, including Columbia University, Tufts University, Barnard College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have recognized RAs as employees and granted a vote to unionize.
“Penn uses the term, 'student leaders,'" Williams said. "This is an illegal position and, frankly, a criminal misclassification. This is something we will seek to clarify."
College junior and Rodin College House RA Mica Lin-Alves told the DP that Penn's Statement of Position neglects to include much of the casework that would “take away from their argument.”
“There’s both precedent for us to be employees and to have the right to unionize, so I feel it’s quite drastic that Penn is challenging that because — not only would it affect us if they go through with this — but it has the potential to really impact millions of other student workers across the nation,” Lin-Alves said.
Lin-Alves said he disagreed with the University's characterization of RAs not being recognized as employees. He said that RAs and GAs receive compensation — in the form of included housing and meal swipes — for their job, and if they were to stop serving in their current positions, such compensation would be terminated.
Lin-Alves added that the RA selection process contains many similarities to a standard job application, including multiple stages of interviews, inclusion of professional references, a cover letter, a self-recorded video interview, and various written questions.
“Some students have a highly aided package, so their voluntarily being an RA makes it more of a student leadership position and less of an economic relationship. Basically, they’re admitting that they do not pay their students for this work,” Lin-Alves said, building on a core reason for unionization: that first-generation, low-income students are “essentially doing unpaid work.”
College junior and RA Yasmin Abdul Razak said that RAs are routinely subject to non-business hours, tasked with hosting and planning events, and asked to provide social and emotional support to residents. She added that RAs are on-call and expected to respond to various emergencies throughout the night and on weekends.
Even with Penn's response, Lin-Alves said that he feels secure that the RAs will be able to follow-through on their plans to unionize.
“The energy is still high," Lin-Alves said. "I think we know that this is a challenge, but I think we’re still quite confident that it’s something that we can overcome."
Abdul Razak said that she was disappointed by the University's Statement of Position, but she said that the RAs have ultimately been motivated by it.
“I think combating misinformation is the main thing moving forward, and we do that by keeping in-touch with the RAs and informing them about their rights,” Abdul Razak said.
Abdul Razak added that RAs will be contesting the Statement of Petition, which she said is a tactic that could delay the union election until the fall 2023 semester.
Williams said that the OPEIU Local 135 will continue to be hosting information sessions for the RAs and GAs to “understand their rights” and a public rally on March 31.