Above Photo: Pedestrians along Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus in Philadelphia, Pa., on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Tyger Williams / Staff Photographer.
About 220 student workers filed paperwork with the NLRB in March to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153.
University of Pennsylvania students who work as residence hall assistants will hold a unionization vote this fall, the National Labor Relations Board decided this week. The decision rejects Penn’s claim that students aren’t employees and don’t have the right to form a union.
About 220 student workers filed paperwork with the NLRB in March to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, which represents students in universities around the region.
If the effort is successful, the union would be the first of its kind in the Philadelphia area. Students at other universities have formed unions in recent years following a 2016 NLRB ruling that allowed Columbia University graduate students to unionize.
The residents advisers and graduate residents advisers, RAs and GRAs, at Penn are full-time students who live in university housing and assist other residents. They are looking for monetary compensation for their work, said Conor Emery, a rising senior at Penn and an RA. Currently, the student workers get housing for the year and a meal plan, without a stipend or salary. They also want “general respect,” he said.
In response to the unionization petition, Penn argued that the students are not employees for the purposes of the law that governs unionization and are temporary workers.
Scott Williams, an organizer with OPEIU Local 153, said that he helped unionization efforts in half a dozen universities and had never heard such a claim.
“This is the first university that has contested the obvious reality that these workers are, in fact, workers,” Williams said.
The NLRB rejected Penn arguments in an Aug. 21 decision.
“I find that none of the RAs are temporary employees who should be deemed ineligible for collective bargaining,” wrote Emily DeSa, acting regional director of Region 04 of the NLRB.
DeSa ordered that a union election will take place on campus on Sept. 27 and 28.
Ron Ozio, director of media relations at Penn, said in an email that Penn will facilitate the election on those dates.
“RAs and GRAs are important student leaders on campus and valued members of the Penn community,” Ozio said in an email. “We encourage all RAs and GRAs to be as informed as possible and to vote on the significant issue of unionization.”
An organizing wave
The residence hall assistants are among other groups of students and trainees who are organizing at Penn — and at universities throughout the region and the nation.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 graduate and undergraduates students who teach and do research are seeking union recognition from Penn. Earlier this week, Ph.D. students at Duke University voted to form a union.
In May, residents and fellows in the University of Pennsylvania Health System voted to form a union to represent 1,400 workers. The Committee of Interns and Residents is the first union of physicians in training in Pennsylvania and the largest new union in Philadelphia in over 50 years.
The RAs are looking to continue this momentum in the election in September. Omar Elsakhawy is a rising freshman who will be an RA for the first time this year. He already printed ‘vote yes’ posters for his dorm’s door and bulletin board.
“We want to try our best,” he said. “But it seems like we’re gonna win the election because most people want to be represented.”