Society for Human Resource Management
On February 14, 2002, Interim Chancellor Williams sent a letter to R As and CDAs encouraging them to reject unionization. Williams wrote, “Unionization is particularly incompatible with your position as a student leader and role model in the residence halls. … Collective bargaining with an outside entity will, in my view, inevitably collide with core educational and administrative decisions” (Anonymous, 2002a).
Williams went on to write, “The university simply cannot and will not bargain with an outside union about these core decisions. … The university does not look at your activities as a ‘job.’ …We look at you as holding a position of leadership that arises from and is directly tied to your accomplishments as a student” (Abel, 2002). Williams indicated that the university would use all “appropriate and legal and administrative steps” to preserve the current role of R As (Anonymous, 2002b).
The Boston Globe reported that university officials hinted that the current R A program could be eliminated given the drastic budget cuts confronting the university coupled with the prospect of R A unionization. The university had been experiencing ongoing state funding reductions since the fall of 2001 (Fitzgibbons, 2001). The paper reported that university officials had discussed an option to offer students in the hotel and restaurant management program the R A positions for academic credit. Another option would require a much smaller number of full-time supervisory R As who were not undergraduate students to take over a scaled-down program. The director of housing services said, “With collective bargaining, there’s no guarantee that they would maintain their current benefits. There’s a range of
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possible outcomes; some could be hurtful to R As. We think R As need to be alerted to these possibilities.” When asked whether the 30-year-old R A program could be scrapped, he said, “It may be” (Abel, 2002).
Some union supporters interpreted these options as threats. James Shaw of the UAW said, “They’re trying to coerce R As with threats. It’s no different than owners of a factory who threaten to close down and move to Mexico if their employees unionize.” One R A who supported unionization said, “I think what they are saying is kind of silly. These are just threats and people see through it. R As are smarter than that.” Another union supporter said, “They’re trying to intimidate R As. … They’re trying to divide the R As. But they’re not succeeding.”
However, some R As were becoming concerned. One R A said, “With all the university’s financial problems right now, it’s just opening the job up to too many risks. I don’t think there’s anything to gain from joining the union” (Abel, 2002).
On February 25, just a week before the representation election, an editorial titled “Dorms Aren’t Factories” appeared in the Boston Herald supporting the university’s position about the efficacy and appropriateness of union representation for R As. James Shaw, from UAW Local 2322, wrote an editorial to the paper in response. Excerpts from both letters are shown in the boxes below.
“A week from tomorrow, some undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst vote on whether to be represented by a union in their jobs at the university. A union is just not right for these students, and the university’s opposition to the organizing effort is well-grounded. … Resident assistants must maintain a certain grade-point average; but grades and academic performance standards cannot be subject to union grievance procedures. Resident assistants must try to enforce university housing policies, and those policies can’t be—certainly ought not to be— matters for the union’s grievance committee. Something a resident assistant does or may be required to do could be the first step in student disciplinary proceedings; this too is quite inappropriate for union grievances. A dorm is not an auto assembly plant. All in all, unionizing this group of students is a bad idea” (“Dorms aren’t factories,” 2002 Feb. 25).
“A Boston Herald editorial recently criticized a union effort among some undergraduate students at UMass-Amherst (“Dorms aren’t factories,” Feb. 25). … But the underlying assumption … that unions are appropriate only for workers in traditional blue-collar settings—is flawed. About 15,000 student employees— including 2,400 at UMass-Amherst—already belong to the UAW. … The classroom isn’t a factory but student employees were still able to significantly improve their pay, benefits and working conditions by going to the bargaining table as unionized employees. Workers in all professions belong to unions. For these R As, this campaign is about improving their jobs—which most of them love—by forming a union that legally empowers them to bring their concerns to the bargaining table” (Shaw, 2002).
16 © 2011 society for Human resource management. patrick p. mcHugh, ph.D.
The week before the election, Interim Chancellor Williams and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Cevallos met with R As and CDAs to discuss the vote on unionization. Williams apologized for a comment in her letter, stating that she didn’t consider the R A position a job. Williams said, “I have since heard from several of you who were offended by that statement. In re-reading my letter, I understand why you reacted that way. … What you do is clearly of great importance … but you do so not just by ‘working,’ but also by serving as a leader among your peers, as an advisor to your peers and as a role model for other students.” An R A said to Williams, “We tried talking to you before, why should we believe you will listen to us now?” (Campbell, 2002 February 28). Several R As raised concerns about mandatory staff meetings where R As were given reasons to not support unionization. Cevallos acknowledged these activities: “This is a campaign. The union has every right to do whatever they can to get their message out. We have every right to do whatever is necessary to get our message out” (Campbell, 2002, February 28).
After the meeting, James Shaw said, “People are saying—hey we want a union; it’s our choice to have a union. It was the university that tried to block the R As from having that choice with the legal case they presented” (Campbell, 2002 February 28). As one R A said, “We’re not grubbing for money. … If it was greed, I would have quit this job and worked in town at Chili’s.” Another R A said, “If the people I work for don’t treat me with respect, it trickles down. When you are courted as an R A, you’re told they need special people and that you’re someone special—and then it changes. We’re just commodities” (Helman & Abel, 2002).
- Were the university and union election campaign activities effective?
- What role did the media play in the election campaign? Is media accuracy important?
- Given the information you know at this point in the case, what do you think will be the outcome of the election? Why?
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eLection outcome and reactions
On March 5, 2002, R As and CDAs at UMass Amherst voted 138-88 to be represented by Local 2322 of the UAW (Campbell, 2002, March 6). While there were about 360 R As eligible to vote, 238 ballots were cast. Twelve of those ballots were challenged during the voting process and were not reviewed or counted since they would not have altered the election outcome (Noble, 2002).
Several R As who had invested significant time supporting the unionization effort were elated at the election outcome. An R A who had worked hard for the union campaign said, “Today is the proudest day of my life so far. We’ve been with this thing for, like, a year and a half, and finally we see its completion. It feels incredible that we actually did this.” Another R A expressed how personally important the whole process had been: “I think that for the first time in my life something I believed in from the start was the right thing to do. We worked hard on it, and it came true. I knew this was the right thing to do, and I feel like those things have been validated” (Campbell, 2002, March 6).
At the same time, R As not in favor union representation were disappointed in the election outcome. As one R A said, “It’s disappointing. I think it’s going to create a very adversarial relationship on a campus where there is already not a great relationship between administration and students” (Campbell, 2002, March 6). Another R A, who had voted against the union, was concerned R As would lose voice rather than gain voice through collective bargaining. She said, “[Unionization] is giving their voices to someone else” (Abel & Helman, 2002, March 6). Still other R As expressed concern regarding ill feelings carrying over beyond the election. Some foresaw a split between R As who voted for and those who voted against the union that could carry over into R A activities and events (Abel & Helman, 2002, March 6).
Union officials were pleased with the election outcome. “We’re very excited, and we feel as though the R As have spoken that they want a union once again, like they did when they signed the original petition,” said Tim Scott, a union organizer. James Shaw said of the outcome: “This is a group of workers who want to make a change in their jobs and they went about a legal process to do that. We are going to the bargaining table and make those important changes. The R As will elect their representatives to the bargaining table, we create proposals, those proposals will be reviewed by the membership-at-large for ratification, and then we sit down with the university” (Campbell, 2002, March 6).
Meanwhile, university officials were troubled by the election results. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Cevallos said, “I think the vote showed that a lot of people are
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actually not in favor of a union; 88 votes is a significant number. We’ll take a few days to assess the situation and think about it then we’ll decide what the next steps are going to be” (Campbell, 2002, March 6). Another university spokesperson said, “The administration continues to believe that this was the wrong application of the law and will continue to pursue any means available, legal and administrative, to get this reversed. Collective bargaining laws were not meant to apply to undergraduates” (Noble, 2002).