Tufts RAs strike on freshman move-in day

Schools

Resident assistants say they deserve a stipend on top of free housing from the university.

A group of students and young people holding signs in front of a Tufts academic building
RAs and community members picket outside Tufts University’s Joyce Cummings Center on Aug. 29. Chloe Courtney Bohl / Boston.com

Undergraduate resident assistants at Tufts began a 24-hour strike on Tuesday morning as new students arrived on the university’s Medford campus to move into their dorms. 

Freshmen checking in at Tufts’ Joyce Cummings Center were greeted by a group of about 50 RAs and community members picketing outside. Call-and-response chants of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” filled the air, punctuated by supportive honking from passing cars.

The RAs unionized last year under OPEIU Local 153, a local affiliate of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, and have been negotiating a new contract with Tufts since February. The university currently compensates them with free on-campus housing, and has offered during negotiations to also cover their meal plans. 

But the RAs, who live with underclassmen in dorms and assist them with everything from maintenance problems to health emergencies, say that offer doesn’t go far enough. Union bargaining committee members told the Tufts Daily last week that they believe they deserve a “modest” stipend in the range of a few thousand dollars.

  • An academic building surrounded by trees and bushes, with a bench in the foreground

    Tufts RAs authorize a strike beginning on move-in day

In response, the university told the Tufts Daily that its offer to cover room and board aligns with the “industry standard.”

In reality, compensation plans vary widely between schools — among private, medium-sized universities like Tufts, some pay RAs stipends of several thousand dollars, and others cover room or room and board, as Tufts is offering to do.

After bargaining sessions between the university and the union reached a deadlock over their proposed compensation plans, the RAs voted last week to authorize an ongoing strike until the university met their demands. On Tuesday, Anisha Uppal-Sullivan, an RA and member of the union’s bargaining committee, told Boston.com that the RAs would strike for just 24 hours — enough time to make their point, without abandoning their residents.

During the strike, Tufts has staff filling in for RAs to support new students and their families during move-in.

Kymberly Sablad, a parent of an incoming freshman, told Boston.com she fully supported the RAs’ demands for more compensation. 

“An unhappy RA isn’t going to be a successful RA,” Sablad said. “So then I start getting concerned about what my kid is getting.”

Ultimately, Sablad thinks the RAs’ activism reflects positively on the value of a Tufts education.

“Tufts must be doing a good job,” she said. “I think that’s part of higher education. You start to find your voice, and not be afraid to use it, and stand up for what you believe in.”

Henry Ammirato, an RA who was picketing on Tuesday morning, agreed that social activism is embedded in Tufts’ social fabric. He hopes incoming students see the strike as a good thing.

“This is a pretty good sign of what Tufts is,” Ammirato told Boston.com. “I hope our message is not misconstrued. We’re not doing this to make [residents’] lives harder. We’re doing it because it’s the only thing we have.” 

The RAs have accused Tufts of threatening them with retaliation during contract negotiations, and have filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the university with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces workers’ rights to collectively bargain.

Tufts denies the charge. “The university, from the beginning of this process, has been diligent in meeting with, following up with, and engaging in collective bargaining in good faith,” Kalimah Redd Knight, a Tufts spokesperson, told the student newspaper over the weekend.

The university and the RA union will continue negotiations on Thursday. In the meantime, a host of students, community members, and other local unions were at the picket line on Tuesday to show their support for RAs. Members of OPEIU Local 6, a sister union of Local 153, and Boston University’s RA union, which formed earlier this year and is also asking for a stipend, showed up to chant and hoist signs in solidarity. 

Editor’s note: Boston.com co-op Chloe Courtney Bohl is a student at Tufts and has covered the RA issue for the Tufts Daily.


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