How Columbia’s Resident Advisors Built Their Union

Issue 278

Columbia’s RAs work long hours helping their fellow students navigate the transition to college life. After a year of organizing, they are confident they can win a union-recognition election.

Blake McMillan Feb 23, 2023

In early 2022, a coalition of low-income students at Columbia University came together to present a letter to the student council. Lizzie Clark, who served at an on-campus food pantry, received the letter to review. Clark was also a Resident Advisor (RA) on campus and, upon reading the letter, realized she might have some demands of her own.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is a good opportunity to mention that a lot of first-gen, low-income students that work on campus as RAs are not really being paid because of the way that the payment scheme works.” The payment scheme stated that if a student was receiving financial aid, they could not receive the $10,000 stipend from the university. Instead, they got a $1,000 stipend. “20 hours a week boiled down to less than $2 an hour,” Clark told The Indypendent. The minimum wage in New York? $15 an hour.

From there, the letter was signed by 1,200 members of Columbia’s community before it made its way to the Board of Trustees. It was approved, and the proper stipend was enacted summer 2022. But members of the coalition began to speak up about other workplace issues: Disciplinary policies that allowed supervisors to harshly punish RAs as well as race and gender discrimination.

Over 100 Resident Advisors at Columbia began to speak up — Columbia Housing reports there are 153 RAs total. Fellow student Leena Yumeen, an RA herself, responded to Clark’s message in a group chat that suggested unionizing.

For members of the CURA Collective, the next step is to lock in their gains with a union contract.

Last week, RAs with the Columbia University Residential Advisors (CURA) Collective informed President Lee Bollinger that 75% of RAs had signed a petition for union recognition. Given Bollinger’s past opposition to campus unions, Puelle expected him to demand a formal union election. So, the union began planning a show of their numbers.

On Monday more than 100 CURA members, fellow students and organizers from other campus unions at Columbia, as well the Amazon Labor Union and Teamsters Local 804, rallied at the steps of Low Memorial Library. 

CURA members called for better pay, working conditions and training before marching to Bollinger’s official residence two blocks east. A banner was attached to the columns of Low Library, stating “Students > Profits” and “Workers > Trustees”. Alma Mater, an iconic statue that sits outside Low, was covered in signs reading “Pay Us, Or Else” and “Knock Knock Presbo, Pay RAs”.

Hannah Puelle, a sophomore RA, spoke on the steps of Low. She reviewed CURA’s previous success with improving RA pay and weekend working hours and said that the next step was to lock in their gains with a union contract.  “We want to become a legally recognized union. President Bollinger and the Board of Trustees refused our demand to voluntarily recognize our union,” she said to much applause. “In their email to us, they said that they wanted to make sure that the decision to unionize was being made democratically. So, I guess they didn’t hear us when we said that 75% of RAs signed the petition.” The crowd booed its disapproval.  

Video by Sue Brisk.

Protestors chanted “Get up, get down! New York is a union town” en route to Bollinger’s official residence (he also has a $11.7 million apartment at 81st and Central Park West). Dominick Walker, a representative from the Student Workers of Columbia (United Auto Workers Local 2710), which represents instructors, teaching assistants and researchers, spoke on the steps of Bollinger’s Morningside Heights home. “The struggle that you are engaged in here is a struggle that has ramifications beyond Colombia’s name, and this is a struggle to ensure that workers are paid what they are owed,” he said.

Lauren Calvin is an RA in a first-year dorm, which she said prepared her for difficulty. “For a lot of people, your freshman year is your first time away from home,” Calvin said to The Indy. “So, there’s feelings of loneliness. You have to really keep an eye on them, make sure they’re feeling okay.” As she became a parental figure for freshmen, being underpaid and having a lack of mental-health training was the most difficult part, says Calvin. “Especially in a first-year dorm, I do feel like their mom sometimes.” Students began knocking on her door during her sleeping hours, asking for requests from borrowing tissue to wanting to talk about their mental health.

Lizzie Clarke speaks to protest participants in front of the Alma Mater statue at Columbia University’s Low Library. Photo: Sue Brisk.

“There’s some things that I wish that they would teach us,” Lizzie Clark added. “Like the signs of someone who might be suicidal; if somebody is cutting their hair, suddenly changing their behavioral patterns — things like that which are basic.” 

Calvin said that for freshmen who don’t know the ropes of living on their own, the union will be implementing a Resident Advisory Board. “It’s something that continually enforces some of the things we need to continue to communicate.”

“I’m hoping that the work that we’re doing also impacts RAs at other universities. As well as other undergraduate student labor issues,” Clark concluded as the sun set outside President Bollinger’s house.
If it wins its union election, CURA will be the seventh RA union nationwide. CURA organizers told The Indypendent that are in touch with RAs at a number of other campuses that are preparing union drives as well.

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