New Student Workers' Union Demands Better for CAs

The Union of Student Workers at Amherst College (USWAC) announced its official launch and inaugural campaign this past week in response to dissatisfaction among Community Advisors (CAs) with the position description for next year, which seemed to add significant demands on their time without any change in compensation or additional benefit to residents. In an effort to demand better working conditions and compensation from the Office of Residential Life (ResLife), USWAC is calling on all prospective and returning CAs to withhold their contracts for the coming academic year. The group has also circulated a petition listing their demands for the general student population to support the movement.

The work leading up to USWAC’s official launch began February 2020, when a group of Resident Counselors (RCs) called “the Organizer Team” came together to represent RCs who were frustrated with their ResLife jobs. Taking input from fellow RCs, the group submitted a prospectus to the administration about a month later listing their main grievances with ResLife and proposed solutions to the identified problems. The complaints included unclear requirements and expectations of the RC role, a lack of communication between RCs and supervisors and inadequate compensation for the work. In a separate “Planned Action” document, the group also enumerated measures they intended to pursue, along the lines of demonstrating and going on strike, if no action was taken to address their concerns.

These developments, as well as circumstances brought about by the pandemic, led to the RC role being changed to the CA role starting in the 2020-2021 academic year. The new position was designed to give more supervisory support to CAs and, for Covid safety reasons, suspended the on-call system, which had required RCs to be available on a rotating schedule to take emergency calls from residents across their assigned residential area. CAs instead complete walkthroughs in their assigned residence hall once an evening from Wednesday to Sunday, in order to foster more face-to-face interaction with residents. Compensation for the position was also increased from $4,400 to $5,000 a year.

USWAC’s campaign arose out of broad opposition among CAs to the position description for the 2021-2022 academic year, which had been in development throughout May. On Wednesday, May 5, after the position description had been released to the CAs, Dean of Students Liz Agosto, Director of Residential Life Andrea Cadyma and Senior Associate Dean of Students Dean Gendron at ResLife met with all staff to discuss the position. Many CAs found it unfair that the description seemed to add significant responsibilities to the role without a corresponding increase in compensation.

One of the biggest objections was to the plan for the new on-call system, which would require CAs to monitor a landline in a designated location on campus for an unspecified number of shifts during the week, instead of allowing them to use mobile phones like before the pandemic. “Cell phones gave you the freedom to move around campus, get food, go study with friends and even go to sleep if you needed to,” explained Shoshanna Peifer ’23, a CA who is the PR chair of USWAC. “The switch [would mean] that we [will be] stuck in a single place, and it [is] an obvious increase of labor without compensation at all.”

Peifer added that the description and administrators at the meeting were also unclear about the amount of hours students would be expected to work. “They couldn’t give us a straight answer on how many hours we would actually be on call in a week, and they were expecting us to sign these contracts,” she said. “The idea of signing on to a job without knowing your hours and without the people who plan the job being transparent about the hours is not something that I felt like was a safe working environment or conducive working environment for me being successful.”

Haoran Tong ’23, a CA for James Dormitory, saw the lack of clarity surrounding responsibilities as simply being out of touch with students and the many commitments they juggle. “As students, we have to share our responsibilities between studying, maintaining our social life and fulfilling our duty as CA,” he said. “[The contract] fails to take into consideration the student perspective [and] is a direct result of miscommunication or a lack of willingness to directly engage with students over the past semester.”

Molly Sanderson ’22, a member of the original Organizer Team who is now president of USWAC, echoed this sentiment regarding failures in communication. She had thought the changes made for the 2020-2021 school year would be a start to greater responsiveness on the part of ResLife to student feedback. But “we quickly realized that wasn’t the case,” she said, “when we had multiple meetings with [administrators] where they promised [to] follow up and they promised to take our feedback, [but], for lack of a better term, ghosted us. We just never heard from them again.”

“The unpredictable nature of the year has necessitated that we make frequent adjustments,” Agosto said in a statement to The Student. “In spite of these challenges, we have increased communication channels and made repeated changes to the CA role in response to the feedback received from students.” She noted that she, Gendron and Cadyma had met with a group of CAs twice before sharing the new position description, in addition to offering two open office hours for all CAs to give feedback on their experience this past year.

Sanderson acknowledged this, but clarified that although administrators did seem very responsive when meeting to discuss potential contract edits for the coming year, they never followed up with a meeting to go over the final version of the proposed contract as they said they would. “It was one of those situations where they ghosted us,” she said. “So then going into the [all-staff] meeting the following week, when they sent us an advance copy of this contract less than 24 hours before the meeting, we didn’t have time to go over it, and we certainly didn’t have an opportunity to give feedback on it.”

“The whole conversation about the landline, which was the most obvious source of annoyance to people in this meeting on Wednesday, was something that hadn’t even come up in our version of the contract,” added Ella Peterson ’22, bargaining chair of USWAC who was also a part of the Organizer Team. “That’s a bit of a cycle that we’ve seen where we have one or two really good conversations or conversations that feel very productive, [but] then they radically reinterpret whatever we’ve tried to communicate.”

Sanderson explained that the need for “collective action on a larger, more systemic level” to hold the college accountable to its student workers provided the motivation for launching USWAC. Per their founding statement, USWAC “aims to achieve fair pay, reasonable working conditions and safety and equity in the workplace for all student workers.”

The group’s campaign seeks to escalate pressure on ResLife to address the concerns of CAs aired at the all-staff meeting. In asking all applicants and returning CAs to not sign contracts with ResLife, “the goal is to deprive ResLife, essentially, of the ability to plan for the coming year and form their staff until they’re willing to give their staff what we deserve as student workers,” said Sanderson. 

Specifically, USWAC is demanding that compensation be increased to the equivalent of the cost of room and board, that CAs get the right to select their room from available singles in their assigned area and that an on-call system that’s both modernized in its technology and organized in its scheduling be instituted. 

In addition to outlining these demands in a letter to returning and prospective CAs, USWAC has also listed them in a document which aims to garner support from the larger student population. This petition was shared among CAs in addition to being disseminated to all students by AAS on the morning of May 10. At the time of publication, it has received over 160 signatures from campus groups and individual students.

Peterson noted that the organization does hope to seek formal union affiliation in the future. With no existing unions for any of its workers, the college stands in stark contrast to the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass), a “highly unionized workplace.” Resident assistants (RAs) at the university have been unionized since 2002, when they joined the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322 and agreed to begin collective bargaining. RAs at UMass are also granted compensation that more than covers housing fees and a housing cost subsidy between 25 and 30 percent.

At the all-staff meeting, administrators cited the difference between the CA role and traditional RA roles at other universities as the reason for differential compensation in the two positions. “We made an intentional decision to remove most of the administrative and operational responsibilities [typical of an RA role] from the [CA] position … allow[ing] CAs to focus on community- and relationship-building, which we believe is the core of the role,” Agosto explained to The Student. “It is a different job.”

In the view of many CAs, however, this only embodied a fundamental underappreciation of all the work that the CA position actually entails. “It’s a lot of emotional labor,” said Peterson. “As a society, we don’t think that talking somebody through their first breakup, talking somebody through what it means to have to ask a professor for an extension — we don’t really think of that as work. [But] it is labor. It can be exhausting. It can be draining. It can be very taxing for our mental health.”

Likening the comparison between CAs and RAs to one between apples and oranges, she continued, “The administration has an easy argument to be like, ‘Well, we can’t pay you like UMass because you don’t do work like UMass.’ We do work. We do a lot of work. Our work doesn’t look like UMass’s work. But we are also doing a lot of work.”

Tong remarked that he became a first-year CA because he believed he could make a difference for a first-year community that has had to get acquainted with Amherst in a Covid semester. He explained that this has expanded the duties he undertakes in the job. “I think part of the responsibility for the first-year CA is actually to serve also as an orientation leader and guide and advisor,” he said, noting that this year’s first years have not had the same level of resources for orientation and support as in previous years.

“But is our effort valued that highly?” Tong questioned. “I don’t think so. There is a big component of community building that’s not quantifiable by the terms of the contract, but still should be respected by the wage.”

Sanderson emphasized, “We’re proud of the fact that we’re community builders — we think that’s what’s so special about being a CA at Amherst. But that being said, we want ResLife to start treating our labor like what it is: labor.”

According to Agosto, CAs were informed at the all-staff meeting that ResLife would be updating the position description based on the feedback that had been shared. But CAs who attended the meeting reported that this was not the case. “At the Wednesday meeting, [administrators] made no indication that they intended to edit the parts of the contract that many of the staff members had spoken up [about] and had problems with,” said Sanderson. Additionally, at the time that The Student interviewed executive board members of USWAC on the afternoon of May 10, board members had not heard anything back from the administration, whom they had reached out to on Friday with their intentions to unionize and withhold contracts.

CA Javier Londono ’23 expressed feeling both at a loss for what will happen next and cautious optimism that students will, at the very least, be able to get the attention of the administration. “Honestly, I don’t even know what’s supposed to happen with this,” he said. “All I know is that [ResLife is] understaffed, including the people who are CAs that are going to do it next semester and people that applied this semester. So I think the ball is in our court right now. I think we have all the power, and I guess we’ll see what happens.”

Speaking with regards to both the current campaign for CAs and USWAC’s long-term goal of empowering all student workers, Peterson said, “We know that this is going to be a process — that this is going to take time [and] hard work. But this is a cause that we believe in, and this is a fight that we’re willing to take up. So we’re in it for the long haul. But we’re under no delusion that this is not going to be a long haul.”

Editor’s Note: This article contains some gaps in reporting, particularly with respect to the administration’s response to these events. The Student is currently reaching out to the Office of Student Affairs to fill those gaps. The article will be updated as soon as responses are provided. We apologize for the omission, and we encourage you to check back tomorrow for an updated story. (This note was made at 12:29 p.m. EST on May 12.)

Editor’s Note: Per our previous note, the article has now been updated to include the response from the Office of Student Affairs. The original article also erroneously stated that the CA on-call system was phased out. Instead, the on-call system was only suspended for the 2020-2021 academic year due to Covid-related reasons. This error has been corrected. (This note was made at 2:49 a.m. EST on May 14.)