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The case for RA unionization

From desperate housing inquiries posted on the All Duke Facebook page to petition links on Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens, it was hard to miss the controversy currently surrounding Duke’s Housing and Residence Life at the end of last month. Several resident assistants (RAs) on East Campus were told to pack their bags and turn in their keys for reasons related to their participation in the time-honored, Duke-beloved tradition of black tenting for the UNC-Duke game. While RAs are technically permitted to tent, the actual letter of the policy is vague and enforcement from HRL has not been consistent, according to RAs

Though two of the three RAs fired have since been reinstated, these recent terminations of undergraduate student-workers on the grounds of a vague and unequally applied policy prompted vocal opposition from the Duke community. A student petition in support of reinstating the fired RAs accrued more than 750 signatures and hundreds of comments.

In the official RA Role Description, HRL’s stance on tenting is that resident assistants can “participate (if desired) in 'tenting' in a limited manner.” The Expectations and Eligibility Requirements section further states that tenting stipulations are to be released once the head line monitor releases guidelines regarding the tenting process, but applying that policy remains with HRL officials.

While HRL does have an appeal process for claims of wrongful termination and two of the RAs were rehired through it, the haste in which the "offending parties" are expected to vacate their dorms is alarming. The terminated RAs were initially expected to have moved out of the dorm by the end of the week, despite only receiving official notification of their discharge via email a few days before. The status of their meal plan—if their appeals are rejected—has not been explicitly reported.

While these sudden mass firings have rightfully upset large swaths of residents at Duke, this is only one example out of the many systemic labor problems that resident assistants face. Per their contract, RAs are expected to complete no more than 15 hours of work in their role per week. However, realistically, if an RA were to be on call more than two nights a week, they could easily exceed this ceiling. Furthermore, RAs are only allowed eight pre-approved leave days per semester. This means that even when “not working,” RAs are required to return to their rooms by no later than 3 a.m. outside of these eight nights, excluding vacations or trips home during Spring and Fall Breaks. Although Duke specifically forbids students on work-study from working more than 20 hours a week—partly to “protect” students from over-exerting themselves—the administration apparently has no problem overworking RAs who are supposedly exempt from such restrictions. 

This is all in addition to floor programming, attending weekly house council meetings, building meaningful connections with residents and frequent team meetings. Despite the immense amount of work required to succeed in the role, Duke does not deem the relationship between the university and its RAs as one of employment. Rather, it is considered a grant award relationship—with the implication that if RAs are not employees, they cannot collectively bargain—despite the precedent set by the National Labor Relations Board two years ago. In 2017, the NLRB ruled in favor of the right of resident advisers at George Washington University to unionize, a decision largely based off of a ruling from 2016 that established that graduate students have collective bargaining rights. Duke has discouraged unionization efforts in recent years from adjunct faculty and graduate students, going as far as to pay top dollar for large law firms to counter efforts.

Beyond these pre-existing issues, HRL’s recent termination decisions calls into question their commitment to promoting the best environment for the residents that the RAs care for. Resident assistants are more than people who respond to lock-out calls after Devine's has closed for the night, or the peers who help you through your first few painfully awkward weeks as a college student. To their residents, great RAs become consistent resources, confidants and trusted authorities. In essence, they are students’ first line of resources in dealing with the pitfalls of the transition into independence. Especially in light of the recent survey findings on increased sexual assault rates at Duke and numerous recent hate speech-related incidents on campus, the presence of trusted RAs to confide in are more vital than ever. By unceremoniously severing the meticulously built relationships RAs have with their residents, students are left with a gaping hole in their support networks. The precariousness of RA employment undermines the very conditions HRL claims the RA position is designed to foster and maintain.

Resident Assistants are indispensable parts of so many Duke students’ time on campus. And, regardless of what Duke may classify them as, they are workers who are dedicated to one of the most time-consuming, emotionally intensive and often stressful jobs that undergraduates can have here. The recent terminations have brought to light just how strenuous and precarious these roles can be; the students that work tirelessly to look after their peers and foster a community everyone can feel apart of, deserve better. Not only did the resident assistants fired for tenting deserve to be reinstated, RAs deserve a union and the collective security to make sure they can continue to serve the Duke community to the best of their abilities. 

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

Editor's note: Nick Simmons formally recused himself from this editorial.

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