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Reflections on unionization: lessons learned from a misguided endeavor

April 5, 2024

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

Back in January, I signed my name on a piece of paper and joined the 82 percent of Bowdoin College’s student Residential Life (ResLife) staff that would submit a petition to President Safa Zaki to announce our formation of a union with Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 (OPEIU-153). Marketed to me as a means of increasing wages and gaining negotiating power and agency for student employees in a sometimes exhausting and all-consuming position, unionization seemed like a positive step toward building a program that could advocate for itself while maintaining the enriching, community-driven roots that have characterized my two years on staff. I knew vaguely what a union was and how it worked, but I now regret signing my name on a document I neither fully understood nor had adequately researched. Well, I learned my lesson. Over a month later, on March 4, OPEIU-153 made ResLife’s intention to unionize public in an article on their website announcing the news. The article’s antagonistic tone made me realize I had made a mistake: Before the College had even responded, OPEIU-153 warned Bowdoin’s administration against employing “deceptive, manipulative, and unethical union-busting tactics” to discourage union formation. If OPEIU-153 was this adversarial from the get-go, I knew I could not trust it to maintain the cooperative and trusting relationship that ResLife student staff have with ResLife professional staff (pro-staff) in collective bargaining.

I am deeply pro-labor and believe that employees should have control over their compensation and the security and stability of their employment. Unions are generally a great idea. History has shown that they can effectively increase pay, provide better benefits and improve working conditions. I would support a ResLife union rooted in the interests of its student staff that gives us more agency in wage negotiations, allows us to tailor our August training sessions to our preferences and provides us with the ability to advocate for our mental health. I agree with many of the arguments that the union student-organizers presented through emails, in person at all-staff meetings and in conversation. However, upon reading OPEIU-153’s press release on March 4, it became clear to me that this organization, whose misleading mission statement is to “empower working people to create change in their workplace,” may not have the concerns of Bowdoin ResLife staff at the forefront. As a result, I had to put my pro-labor and pro-representation beliefs aside and reconsider whether unionizing, especially partnering with OPEIU-153 to do so, was a good idea.

OPEIU-153’s aggressive attitude toward the Bowdoin administration and ResLife pro-staff hindered productive discussion regarding the unionization process itself and increased antagonistic communication between the students and staff. I suspected this would happen when I read the March 4 article, and my suspicions were confirmed by their subsequent publications. Upon President Zaki’s decision not to recognize the unionization effort without a vote, a decision that the College claimed was intended to allow student staff to learn more about unions and decide for themselves whether this was something we were interested in, OPEIU-153 stated that Zaki had “refused” to recognize our union and had instead hired Littler Mendelson. Littler Mendelson is a law firm that has admittedly played a role in multiple companies’ failed unionization attempts, but OPEIU-153’s and the ResLife union’s Instagram’s characterization of the firm as “the most aggressive union-busting law firm in the country” was a vast oversimplification that sought to harness anti-establishment animosity among the student body toward the administration.

When I talked to Scott Williams, the OPEIU-153 representative who was appointed to work with and supposedly advocate for Bowdoin ResLife, on a 30-minute Zoom call on Monday, the first question I asked him was how much he knew about Bowdoin’s ResLife program and, based on what he knew, why he thought it was a good decision to unionize. He gave a response that showed he had read the publicly available job descriptions for Bowdoin’s proctors and resident assistants (RAs) and nothing more. It became clear to me that he had not taken the time to have in-depth conversations with the RAs and Proctors he was working with.

After my conversation with Scott, in which I shared my concerns about his and OPEIU-153’s intentions, it came to my awareness that he had instructed the union’s student organizers to ask as many ResLife staff members as possible how they were voting, in order to gauge the probability of the union vote passing. If the outlook looked grim for Scott and OPEIU-153, they intended to call off the election with no recourse. This deepened my distrust in OPEIU-153: If it was willing to forgo the anonymous democratic election that would clarify what we, as a staff, thought was best for the program, it did not care what we thought was best for the program. It cared more about a broader undergraduate labor movement and its reputation as a successful union. It was willing to divide and fracture Bowdoin ResLife as a means to that end. I emailed student staff to tell them as much because I thought all staff should know that the leadership committee was violating the election’s anonymity clause and invading our privacy before they voted in an election. A day later, I received an email that indicated the election had been canceled.

Bowdoin College did not defeat or bust OPEIU-153’s union; OPEIU-153 did that itself, without Bowdoin’s help, by cultivating anti-establishment sentiment toward ResLife pro-staff, even though, in my experience, pro-staff have been receptive to student suggestions and opinions. Many other Reslife staff members and I, who had initially signed the petition hoping to increase our voices as employees, were not fooled by OPEIU-153 into blind support. The ResLife union that was developing was not the healthy, well-intentioned and empowering entity most think of when they hear the words “labor union.” OPEIU-153 succeeded in fracturing the community that ResLife strives to uphold and, in doing so, destined itself for failure. I am glad this saga has concluded, not because it means that Reslife won’t unionize, but because it allows our ResLife community to begin the healing process and prevents OPEIU-153 from driving further division between students that it showed no effort to understand or meet.

Sam Angevine is a member of the Class of 2024.


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  1. Ben says:

    Complete bot argument

  2. Ben says:

    Great argument. Very well written and articulated.

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