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United RAs at Penn organized a rally on March 31 in support of the unionization efforts of resident advisors and graduate assistants at the University. Credit: Nathaniel Babitts

Around 70 students and community members joined a rally on Penn's campus in support of resident advisors and graduate assistants’ efforts to unionize.

The rally, which was organized by United RAs at Penn, was held on Friday and featured guest speakers such as Philadelphia mayoral candidate and 1993 College graduate Helen Gym, Pennsylvania state Rep. and 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski, and local union leaders. Community members involved in the demonstration began the rally outside of Van Pelt Library before marching down Locust Walk and ending in front of Harnwell College House.

The rally comes after the University argued that RAs and GAs are “not employees” in response to their recent filing for official union recognition. Penn instead classified the group as student leaders with an “educational relationship” to Penn since they are not on the payroll. 

In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio referred to a statement sent for a previous article about the union, where he wrote that "Penn greatly appreciates and values our Resident Advisors and Graduate Resident Advisors, who are important student leaders on campus." Ozio also referenced a Frequently Asked Questions page that College House & Academic Services emailed to all RAs and GAs that contains information about the unionization process.

Union organizers, politicians, and RAs that The Daily Pennsylvanian spoke with at the rally said that they see Penn's arguments as a way to delay the election to officially unionize.

Krajewski, whose legislative district comprises Penn, said that he thinks the University’s labeling of RAs and GAs as “not employees” is “wrong,” given that there is precedent at multiple universities where RAs and GAs have been recognized as workers.

“I think it’s a really unfortunate position for the University to take, and I hope they reconsider,” Krajewski said.

Danny Bauder, the president of the Philadelphia Council American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, agreed that Penn was "wrong" in its classification of RAs and GAs. 

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi Philadelphia mayoral candidate and 1993 College graduate Helen Gym spoke at the rally organized by United RAs at Penn on March 31.

Many of the speakers, including Gym and Krajewski, said that RAs are an essential part of campus. 

“RAs are often the first people who notice when a young person is struggling or having academic issues and don’t necessarily feel safe talking to someone formal," Gym, a former city council member and a former Daily Pennsylvanian staffer, said.

Gym said that when she was a Penn student, she benefited from having an RA. She added that the issue has become "much more personal" as a mother of a current Penn student and after meeting current RAs.  

Similarly, Krajewski said he lived in Gregory College House, where he experienced a “really strong community” of students engaging with their RAs and GAs: “They were friends, but they were mentors.”

College sophomore and Fisher College House RA Faith Applegate said in a speech at the rally that she has worked to make herself available to residents, offering support and guidance “day and night,” in addition to sometimes on weekends, weekend breaks, and holidays.

“I love that I get to be a part of creating positive experiences for freshmen and the potential to do my best to support them as they navigate their first year of college,” Applegate said.

Applegate said that Penn should support the RAs, who play a role in supporting the University’s student population with their mental health struggles and connecting students with campus resources.

Beyond Penn, Gym told DP that she sees the RA and GAs’ unionization efforts as part of a movement that is “sweeping” across college campuses and an opportunity to “uplift the quality of life in the city” through raising wages and improving working conditions.

“It’s a process that should feel natural and not feel like it’s a threat,” Gym said, asking, "What is Penn afraid of?"

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi Community members rally in front of Harnwell College House on March 31 to support unionization efforts by United RAs at Penn.

Krajewski said that Philadelphia has had a long tradition of organizing for workers’ labor rights, particularly among minority communities, and that it is important to recognize such a cultural heritage in the context of the RA and GA’s unionization efforts.

Bauder said that in his 13 years as a union member, he has found the benefits of union organization to include having a voice in the workplace, potential access to greater and non-discriminatory wages, and provision of worker benefits, such as health care and retirement funds.

History professor Amy C. Offner said that she spoke at the rally as one representative of the over 100 faculty members who signed a statement in support of University neutrality toward the unionization efforts.

The letter is addressed to Penn President Liz Magill, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, and College House & Academic Services Executive Director Hikaru Kozuma and contains the signatures of the Penn chapter of the AAUP and over 100 individual faculty members.

“As Penn faculty, we are committed to the well-being of our students and the university of which we are all a part.  We affirm that unions have a legitimate place in our university, and we affirm that these student workers have the right to organize in an environment free of intimidation,” faculty wrote in the letter.

College junior and Rodin College House RA Mica Lin-Alves told the DP that he thinks the rally was “100% successful," citing the attendance of students, legislators, and union leaders as a sign of support from "all over the place."

“I think it was to show that we are unified in our supermajority and also that we are not stopping," Lin-Alves said. "Just because there are some roadblocks in the way doesn’t mean that that’s going to turn us off because we’re committed to this.”