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As vote nears, student ResLife staff grapple with the decision to unionize

March 29, 2024

The Boston office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will hold a secret-ballot election for student Residential Life (ResLife) staff to vote on whether they want to unionize on Wednesday. As the date approaches, ResLife staff are navigating the complexities of this decision and its potential impacts on the future of their organization.


Union organizers sent a petition to President Safa Zaki in an email on March 5, expressing that more than 80 percent of ResLife staff supported unionizing. On March 8, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration & Treasurer Matthew Orlando expressed the College’s hesitancy around the formation of a union in a campus-wide email containing a FAQ page.

Some ResLife staff, however, have expressed that at the time of signing the petition, the aim and details of the petition were not well-communicated.

“There wasn’t really dialogue around what the next step was or what signing [the petition] really meant,” proctor Logan Mulkerin ’26 said.

Union leaders attributed the lack of clarity to the fluid and uncertain future of the union, rather than communication failures on their part.

“The fact that we didn’t have specifics when we pitched this idea to everyone is we couldn’t possibly have had specifics because we didn’t have the opportunity yet to hear what everyone wanted,” union organizer and RA Luke Robinson ’26 said.

Jasmine Jia ’25, who will return as a Head RA next year after studying abroad, was disappointed by the exclusion of students who cannot participate in the vote but will be affected by its decision from the conversation.

“The idea of unionizing was kind of sprung upon a lot of people without any sort of prior conversation. I think a lot of people feel a little hurt and left out of the loop in this conversation, especially people that are in similar positions as me, where I am a non-voting member in this decision because I am currently not on staff,” Jia said. “However, I was previously on staff last year and am very familiar with the ResLife culture and community.”

Union organizers say they are dedicated to incorporating ResLife student staff and professional staff (pro-staff) input into what the union would bargain for.

“I’ve still maintained a lot of contact with [Senior Associate Dean of Students and Director of ResLife] Whitney [Hogan] and [Associate Director of ResLife] SJ [Tinker] throughout this process, and it’s been super helpful and cordial,” union organizer and RA Jack Selig ’23 said. “We’re trying to figure out how to get people as much information as possible so that they can make an informed decision.”

Concerns surrounding cultural change and flexibility

Some students have expressed concerns about potential cultural changes to the ResLife work environment resulting from unionization and accompanying negotiations, including obligations toward a more rigid contract.

“What we’ve heard from other institutions is that basically whatever is in their constitution—and dictates however they track days and hours—is now legally binding. And so pro-staff are legally required to enforce these things and unable to give as much flexibility to students,” Jia said.

Union leaders argue that they would bargain to preserve similar levels of flexibility and hope to maintain good relationships with pro-staff through this process.

“If they’ve been flexible before, and they explicitly stated that flexibility was part of their management strategy, that becomes a benefit, and they can’t take it away from us when we unionize, so there should be no concerns about a loss of flexibility because that would be illegal,” Robinson said.

Union leaders have also invited the union’s OPEIU Local 153 representative, Scott Williams, to campus this weekend to answer ResLife student staff questions without College employees present.

Jia and Head RA Cash Reynolds ’24 noted that several ResLife staff members are hesitant to trust a union representative who does not understand Bowdoin ResLife culture to the extent that students and pro-staff do.

“[Williams] is someone that we don’t know and who doesn’t know us, and doesn’t understand the ResLife culture of Bowdoin. It’s hard to hear what he has to say and be able to completely have faith in him,” Jia said.

Reynolds said that the Bowdoin ResLife structure operates much differently than most of its peer institutions, with different types of labor and responsibilities embedded in their roles that other unionized groups may not have.

“I think it’s hard for us to sort of think about how unions are going to work because our structure is so different from other places. Every other college that has a ResLife group does room checks; they do noise complaint stuff and check rooms after moving out and check rooms before moving in,” Reynolds said. “It’s hard to compare our culture versus their culture. We do a lot more community work and community building.”

Eli Bundy ’27, who will be joining ResLife as a proctor next year, argues that unionizing will strengthen the sense of community that Bowdoin and ResLife prides itself on.

“I think that unionized workplaces tend to be much stronger in terms of community because they have to work together. They’re voting on resolutions; they’re voting on whether or not to accept a bargain, for instance … and so there is actually a lot more collaboration that goes into a unionized workplace,” Bundy said.

Compensation and financial aid

Both Jia and Reynolds mentioned that the ResLife office has been conducting an audit to reassess the fairness of staff compensation, provided as a stipend, for the amount of work that they do. However, the preliminary results of the audit reveal that students, on average, report fewer hours than expected for their job.

“I also think it’s hard to track hours for a job like ResLife because a lot of it is social and emotional, and it’s kind of hard to be like, ‘I was thinking about how to deal with a problem with my proctee for 45 minutes on Tuesday.’ Does that count as work? Does that not count as work?” Reynolds said. “I think it can be kind of difficult to track hours accurately.”

Reynolds acknowledged that while receiving compensation for the cost of housing would make sense given that students are required to live on campus to fulfill their job on ResLife, it would raise several questions about the pay that other essential workers such as dining staff and housekeepers receive.

“If people were to still work eight hours a week but get paid for a room, we would technically be making like 40-ish dollars an hour, which is incredible. I’m not saying we’re not deserving of it, but that is a bit outlandish considering that dining workers get paid like 14.… That doesn’t really feel fair,” Reynolds said.

To compensate for the difference in hours worked, Reynolds hypothesizes that the contract will increase the responsibilities of ResLife students and limit their participation in other facets of campus life.

“It would most likely end up that we would work more hours a week, which would mean that people on ResLife wouldn’t be able to work other jobs on campus,” Reynolds said.

After talking to ResLife workers at peer institutions like Wesleyan University, Selig believes that the bargaining process will not make sweeping changes to ResLife culture and pro-staff relations.

“I think that’s all up to us and how we as staff deal with it and how pro-staff deal with it. I think we can really easily continue to maintain good relationships,” Selig said.

Jia and Reynolds also question whether the union’s efforts to increase pay will be capped by issues concerning taxable income and financial aid packages for students.

“I think you can only get paid up to a certain amount before it starts detracting from your aid because you’re making too much money for Bowdoin to provide you with full aid. And I think if we got paid for the room and also got the small stipend that we currently get, [we] would be over that amount by a fair margin, which we’re not sure what that would mean for people on aid,” Reynolds said.

Looking to the future

Some ResLife staff are concerned about the jump to unionization without pursuing other avenues with the College first. Reynolds wonders if those paths are still available pending the result of Wednesday’s vote.

“It feels like we might have not adequately pressed Bowdoin before seeking to unionize,” Reynolds said. “But pro-staff doesn’t decide how much we get paid; it’s the student employment office. And so maybe we petition the student employment office to get more funding and more pay.”

Robinson contends that directly negotiating with the College would be most effective and efficient with a collective effort from ResLife staff, which he sees as similar to unionization.

“I, as an individual, know that I don’t have power or the sway to have any influence over the administration, so we need a collective voice to make this ask. So then people ask, why didn’t you all gather and collectively ask the administration for better pay before unionizing? To collectively ask for better pay as a workforce is effectively unionizing,” Robinson said.

As union organizers and the College continue to release new communications surrounding the debate, many ResLife staff remain undecided on whether they will support the union.

“I’m constantly in a state of taking information in. My mind could change on Tuesday, my mind would change Wednesday morning. I kind of know where I’m leaning right now, and also there are a lot of conversations that I have yet to have with some really important people in my ResLife life,” College House Proctor Gabby Phillips ’24 said.


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