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Why I will vote yes on the ResLife Union

March 29, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Sophia Nicholls

Before spring break, student staff in the Office of Residential Life announced that, with 82 percent of staff support, we are filing to form a union. Following that announcement, Bowdoin chose not to voluntarily recognize our union; instead, it hired Littler Mendelson, a law firm notorious for union-busting, and released an FAQs sheet littered with misinformation. Around the same time, a petition in support of the union circulated and has since gained about 700 student signatures. Campus has been buzzing with conversations about our union; even within ResLife, there has been endless debate about the merits of forming a union. As a proctor in Maine Hall and an active member of ResLife, I had the privilege to be a part of the initial conversations when unionization was in its early stages. Despite my initial skepticism, I have concluded that Residential Life student staff have a lot to gain from forming a union.

Bowdoin takes pride in the strength of the ResLife program and its importance in the community on campus. Bowdoin’s website boasts about the “vibrant living environment” and “learning community.” The admissions office encourages its student tour guides to explain how the first-year bricks and college houses are a cornerstone of building community on campus and assert that they distinguish Bowdoin from other colleges and universities. And we absolutely should be boasting about it! ResLife staff host free events every month for their building residents; they have close relationships with first-year residents and support them through all kinds of challenges; and the College House proctors facilitate a community that can’t be replicated elsewhere on campus. Yet we are paid half as much as student staff at Middlebury College ($9,600) and Hamilton College ($9,120, according to a Hamilton student that ResLife member Jack Selig ’23 interviewed), despite having similar work expectations. How can Bowdoin assert that our ResLife systems are essential in creating a healthy and inclusive community on campus while simultaneously underpaying the people who carry out that work?

Although our wages have been central to the conversation on campus regarding unionization, many people don’t understand the nature of compensation at other, comparable schools. It is common practice for colleges to pay students equal to or a large portion of the cost of housing either in a stipend, by waiving housing costs or a combination of the two. For example, Grinnell College pays their students the cost of housing, $7,500, in the form of a stipend (according to a Grinnell student that Selig also interviewed) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute provides housing, which costs $10,720 this year, and pays them an $800 stipend. In contrast, Bowdoin RAs make $3,600 and proctors make $4,635 (I referenced my current contract and an RA’s for this statistic). The problem with our current model is that students, including me, walked into a contract with no say in how we were compensated and without any consideration of our financial aid status—now I want a voice in this decision. Unionization will allow students to help determine how and how much they are paid because we get to negotiate our contract as a group.

When a body of workers forms a union there is a collective bargaining period, where members of the union create and submit an improved version of our current contract. Then there is a series of negotiations where each side bargains in good faith and puts forth new, reasonable versions of the contract. In this negotiation process members of ResLife will have the opportunity to preserve and enhance the elements of ResLife we love and change those we don’t.

After I first learned about these statistics on wages I started researching the other merits of unionization. Some of these include more say in training and meeting content; open lines of communication with ProStaff through our union representative; and more resources, such as our advisors at the Office and Professional International Union (OPEIU), who support our staff in creating an equitable work environment. This is important to me because I have felt disappointed by our training, especially regarding mental health. Last year I lost a friend to mental illness and as I mourn this loss, I have realized the importance of training and information in preparing ResLife staff to act, should they need to. Since joining ResLife I have supported several residents with challenges ranging from everyday blues to severe distress. In every situation, I followed the training that I do have perfectly, but I had questions, concerns, and feelings of doubt that I couldn’t resolve with the training that I currently have without outside research and knowledge. This is when I realized that increasing our mental health training is essential. In fact, after our training in August, staff told ResLife administrators that we needed more mental health training. In response, we had a winter retrain day where we discussed how to keep our own emotions in check while responding to students in distress. Still, this training felt inadequate and left many members of ResLife wanting more. I recognize that this is not important to everyone, but that is the point of a union—we get to decide as a collective what we want our jobs to look like.

I want to be clear that I am incredibly grateful to be a proctor. I love working with my duty cluster, I appreciate my first-year residents, and I respect and care for ResLife administrators. But these feelings don’t change the fact that there are plenty of ways a union can improve ResLife staff experiences. The pro-union ResLife members, including me, want to unionize because we want to improve and build upon our current model to make it better, not to burn it to the ground. By unionizing, ResLife staff will not only increase wages but also have a voice in how we are compensated; create formal and open lines of communication with administrators to share our concerns and needs; and have more input into what our jobs entail in a consistent manner.

Siara Soule is a member of the Class of 2026. 


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