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After filing to unionize earlier this year, Penn residential advisors and graduate resident associates organized a rally in front of Harnwell College House on March 31. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

The National Labor Relations Board recognized Penn residential advisors and graduate resident associates as employees last week, ordering an official union vote.

A supermajority of RAs and GRAs filed to unionize earlier this year in March. Previously, when RAs and GRAs petitioned to unionize, the University argued that the students were not technically employees, and therefore the unionization laws did not apply. The NRLB rejected Penn's arguments on Aug. 21.

There are 223 RAs for the 2023-2024 school year, and they will have the chance to partake in an on-campus election Sept. 27 and 28.

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. 

“I find that the petitioned-for RAs are employees within the meaning of the act, and that there is no legal basis to preclude further processing of the petition, and I am therefore directing an election in the petitioned-for unit to be conducted," acting regional director of NLRB Region 4 Emily DeSa wrote in the agency's decision.

College senior Conor Emery, a second-year RA in Harnwell College House, said Penn has been pushing a narrative that a union “may not help” and could “actually make things worse.” 

“From my point of view, Penn has been trying to avoid sending out too much information to RAs,” Emery said. “Even if we may only be in a position for a school year, it’s still work. It’s still something that we should receive more compensation [and] worker rights for.” 

In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Ron Ozio wrote that "RAs and GRAs are important student leaders on campus and valued members of the Penn community." He added that Penn encourages RAs and GRAs "to be as informed as possible and to vote on the significant issue of unionization."

Ozio said that College House & Academic Services has emailed a Frequently Asked Questions page to all RAs and GAs that contains information about the unionization process.

Scott Williams, an OPEIU Local 153 union organizer and 2016 graduate of the Graduate School of Education, is helping with unionization efforts at Penn and has worked on campaigns at other schools, such as Wesleyan, Tufts, Barnard, and Fordham. Williams, who has several years of experience under his belt, said that the NLRB's decision is “historic.” 

While this is the second time that the federal government has ruled RAs and GRAs as employees — previously, Columbia University RAs were recognized as employees — the upcoming election will be the first time that there is going to be an election based on a hearing.

“It’s creating a precedent that student employees have rights as employees and are entitled to the rights of collective bargaining and will impact students all over the country,” Williams said. 

Many RAs said that they are not receiving adequate compensation. One component RAs are pushing for is a larger dining plan. 

“We have to strategically think about where we’re going to get our next meal,” an RA in Fisher-Hasenfield College House, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation, said. “My friends who were returning RAs have told me different strategies about maximizing my food.”

The RA said that the University has employed union-busting tactics, especially against international students.

“They fear that if we are recognized as employees, then they have to comply with the visa restrictions that apply to employees,” the RA said.

Union activity across Penn is increasing. Around 1,400 residents and fellows at Penn Med residents voted to unionize in May, becoming the first house staff union in Pennsylvania. Several thousand undergraduates and graduate student workers are in the process of gaining union recognition as well.