Labor Law Play in Encouraging or Discouraging Unionization
UMass Amherst now had a workforce that was predominantly unionized and a climate where unionization and collective bargaining were common aspects of university life. Lisa Giddons, a student development specialist whose job involved hiring and training R As, described the climate for union organizing on campus this way: “I think that UMass in general has been pretty supportive of unions. A lot of institutions don’t have union faculty or union staff. Not many have graduate student unions either. When you have an environment that’s pretty supportive, you’re more likely to try to improve your conditions [through union representation], improve your standing” (Martignetti, 2001).
- Why didn’t employees at UMass Amherst engage in collective bargaining after passage of the NLRA in 1935? Why did the passage of the Massachusetts General Law in 1973 have such a big effect on union organizing at UMass Amherst?
- What role does labor law play in encouraging or discouraging unionization?
- Do you think teaching assistants should be considered employees?
- Do you think management’s reaction to employee interest in unionization differs if the employer already has a high union density among other employee groups?
The R A job can be extremely gratifying, like when leading a group of residents through a successful social or educational program or when providing support to a resident seeking counseling or mentoring. At the same time, the position can be disconcerting, like when an R A finds shaving cream or a threatening note left on his door by disgruntled residents. Likewise, it can be hard to deal with drunken residents or disentangle disciplinary issues involving peers.
Some of these challenges were highlighted in a fall 2000 paper distributed by Gregory Essopos, an undergraduate student who had been an R A for three years. In the paper, Essopos noted that the 50-percent turnover rate among R As at UMass Amherst was a sign that there were problems with the R A position. Essopos said,
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“If workers are happy with their jobs, there is no need to unionize…. It is clear, however, that in this situation workers are not happy, and it’s time to do something about that” (Abel, 2001). Shortly after the paper was distributed, two R As were terminated by Residence Life staff for student code-of-conduct violations. Some R As called the firings questionable and arbitrary. For the same offense for which the R As were fired, a resident could be given a written warning, whereas an R A could be terminated and consequently lose housing benefits. One frustrated R A said, “It started to occur to a lot of us that we had less rights than our residents. It was wrong and it was time to act” (Abel, 2001).
Some of these issues and concerns were raised with the resident assistant council (R AC). The R AC was composed of R As appointed by Residence Life staff. The R AC provided a forum for R As to give feedback to Housing Services and Residence Life administrators on issues related to the R A position and residential living (UMass Amherst, 2010b). At the first fall 2000 meeting of the R AC, there was discussion about the need for a union to represent R As and considerable disagreement about the benefits of a union to address R A concerns. A major concern raised during the meeting centered on the need to create a fairer R A disciplinary grievance procedure (UAW Local 2322, 2010). As one R A said, “R As want a discipline system that is just and fair.…We don’t have the judicial processes that the residents have; if an R A breaks a rule, they are automatically fired” (Loconte, 2001).
The R AC formed a grievance subcommittee to develop a proposal for an R A grievance procedure. Later in the fall, the subcommittee presented its proposal for a formal grievance mechanism with an appeals procedure to R AC and Residence Life managers. Residence Life representatives rejected the proposal claiming that it was not necessary and that R A behavior should be held to a higher standard than resident behavior. Subcommittee members were deeply disappointed and frustrated by the reaction to the proposal (UAW Local 2322, 2010).
Grievance procedure: A grievance is a complaint filed by employees who believe they have been unfairly treated. A grievance procedure is often a multi-step process that usually begins with less formal complaint resolution activities (e.g., the employee meets with an immediate supervisor to resolve the grievance) and moves on to more formal resolution activities (e.g., a review of the complaint and final determination of the merits of the grievance by higher-level managers, a peer panel or by a neutral third party). For more information regarding grievance procedures, see Holley et al., 2009, pp. 420-447.
from unrest to union organizing
In February 2001 two R As who were members of the grievance subcommittee contacted the GEO, an affiliate of UAW Local 2322, regarding the possibility of organizing an R A union. The GEO already represented graduate teaching and research assistants, as well as ARDs. With the support of the GEO and UAW, an R A
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organizing committee was formed. Twelve R As attended the first meeting of the committee (UAW Local 2322, 2010).
Tim Scott, a UAW Local 2322 union organizer, said the R A complaints were consistent with those of other workers: they wanted “dignity and respect on the job” (Loconte, 2001). Several R As remarked about the respect issue. “We’ve tried so much to improve our conditions and we’ve been rebuffed,” said one R A. “We aren’t going to be objectified and treated as throw-away employees anymore” (Martignetti, 2001). Another R A said, “This is about having a voice. Being an R A is a really demanding job. Forming a union will get us respect” (Noble, 2002). There also was concern that the existing grievance mechanism was controlled by Residence Life administrators and lacked consistency and fairness.
R As had financial concerns as well. They were being paid about $140 a week, with $90 taken out for housing costs. This left a salary of about $50 for 20 hours of work a week. The Massachusetts minimum wage at the time was $6.75 an hour; R As calculated they were being paid only $2.50 per hour. This left many R As feeling underpaid, believing they were on-call 24 hours a day and working more than 20 hours per week. “A lot of us have just become disgusted with our working conditions,” said one R A. “We are sick of questionable firings, a vague contract and working for less than minimum wage” (Abel, 2001). While acknowledging the housing benefit they received, many R As felt that the money for room and board was not an adequate benefit. They wanted more money in their paychecks (Loconte, 2001).
Through March 2001 the R A organizing committee met weekly and gathered support from a growing number of R As. During this time, they also obtained R A signatures on a petition declaring their intention to be represented by UAW Local 2322 for the purposes of collective bargaining. UMass Amherst Housing Services and Residence Life were unaware of the extent to which R As were engaged in an organizing drive. However, on April 4, 2001, the university became aware of the union organizing drive when R As announced the formation of an R A union at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally held on campus (UAW Local 2322, 2010).
Under Massachusetts law, there are two ways for an employee organization (union) to become the exclusive bargaining representative. One option is “voluntary recognition.” Under voluntary recognition, the public employer (in this case, the university) recognizes an employee organization (UAW Local 2322) designated by a majority (evidenced by signatures on authorization cards or petition) of the employees (R As and CDAs) as the exclusive representative of the employees for the purpose of collective bargaining.
The second, more common, way is through a representation election. The Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission (MLRC) is authorized to direct a secret-ballot election to determine the exclusive representative whenever an employee organization has obtained the consent of at least 30 percent of the affected employees (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2010). In other words, at least 30 percent of R As and CDAs must sign a petition or authorization card declaring
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their intention to be represented by the UAW before the MLRC will schedule an election. If the MLRC schedules an election, an employee organization “wins” a representation election by receiving a majority of the votes cast in the election (50 percent plus one). When an employee organization receives a majority of the votes cast in the election, the MLRC certifies the employee organization as the exclusive collective bargaining representative in the bargaining unit (Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2010).