This article, while written in 2000 may provide relevant food for thought on this issue. If exploring this issue on your campus, we would advise further research on the schools where RAs have unionized as there is much more information now then there was when this article was published.
Reports of intense RA dissatisfaction have recently surfaced, and one avenue of response that has been mentioned is the creation of an RA union. In the history of our nation, unions have provided an excellent means for protecting the rights of workers. Even today, management and employees often view each other on a more equal basis due to the effectiveness of negotiations via union representation. The question remains: “is unionization a viable and beneficial process for RAs?”
Although some might believe the only way for RAs’ voices to be heard is through a union, there are a number of other considerations or issues to explore. Foremost, if higher education has any chance for success in achieving its goal of truly educating individuals, then basic concepts like cooperation, collaboration, compromise and consensus must be seen as effective tools to be learned. The only means of testing those concepts is through making every attempt to utilize, reinforce or apply them. Having student staff work through a union to have their voices heard may not always be the most effective way of accomplishing this. How can RAs seek satisfaction or come to agreement with campus administration?
RAs and housing administrators should come together for an open and honest dialogue of the issues and concerns which both groups face.
It is imperative to realize that every campus is different. There are varying amounts of resources, as well as compensation plans. Some campuses use stipends, while others provide scholarships. Some provide room and board, others pay an hourly wage. Some permit additional employment, while some strictly restrict outside activities.
With these differences among housing operations, it seems even more imperative that each campus strive to resolve issues in an manner which meets the individual needs of that specific campus.
This article is not meant to minimize the concerns of RAs, nor is it meant to speak out against unions. Rather, we want to promote dialogue at all levels which will enhance the RA position.
The RA role is critical to the successful operation of university housing operations, and it should be recognized that RAs are on the “front lines.” The demands are unique and challenging. It is imperative to recognize the value of this position, as well as to maintain open lines of communication about the job. If changes need to be made to enhance the RA position, to attract quality candidates, or to better equip RAs to do their job, steps should be taken in that direction. The question is whether a union will do more harm for the RA role than it will do good.
It is because of the importance of the RA role that it is so crucial to go about implementing change in an effective way. There are a number of excellent ways of bringing about the necessary compromises and collaborations to ensure the satisfaction of all parties. Many campuses have in place RA Associations, RA Advisory Boards or some other means of RA staff representation. Utilizing these groups, as well as all members of the housing staff, an environment conducive for an open dialogue can, and must be established.
In the Fall of 1999 faced with many of the similar challenges already addressed, the residence life staff at The University of Southern Mississippi undertook a plan to create such a dialogue with the student paraprofessional staff members. Not only were the current staff unhappy with aspects or requirements of the position and their compensation, but there was concern that the same issues were shared by other students, thus preventing them from desiring to take on the position. As professionals, most of whom had served as Resident Assistants in a “past life”, the professional staff had to come to the realization that this is a new age with many more demands being placed upon students. If they were not willing to sacrifice the quality they wanted, we would need to enter into a discussion with our staff.
In January, 2000 a winter retreat was designed to focus on the roles of the RA, compensations and responsibilities. Basically, all staff members were divided into three groups. Each group after having ninety minutes to brainstorm and discuss all of the facets of one area, rotated to another issue. Once all ideas were developed, lists were compiled of issues with compensation, programming, and other responsibilities. A ranking was performed on each of the lists and some items were dropped because of varying degrees of implementation, cost, or not of real importance. The lists were then distributed to the staff at their weekly hall staff meeting for more discussion. Once hall staff discussed the lists, each hall selected representatives to meet with representatives of the department’s professional staff to determine final recommendations. In the end several items were selected which everyone felt would enhance the RA position. Some of the items involved compensation, including the opportunity to work off-campus. A recommendation was approved at how programs were structured and the number that were required. One very positive recommendation that was derived from the groups involved more non-monetary appreciation, and enhanced means of recognition. There are other areas that actually continue to be considered. One of the important things to remember is the constant changing of the staff. Although this project was completed in January, 2000, many of the staff are new today. So, it is important to constantly ensure that new staff members are aware of the changes and to know that opportunities exist for additional changes of benefit to all involved. The process as always evolving. The one constant should always be that the staff is aware that change is possible when pursued in an effective manner.
By Gary Kimble and Dan Oltersdorf