PORTLAND — A new union at Reed College may have among the youngest membership of any union in America: On March 22, a group of 52 resident advisors who live and work in the dorms at Reed College voted 34 to 14 to unionize as Local 1 of a newly formed independent union, the Student Workers Coalition. All are Reed sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and few if any are over 22.
At Reed, they’re known as Housing Advisers, and they help the college manage student life in the dorms. Each housing adviser is responsible for the well-being of about 20 fellow students and for duties that take up three to 15 hours a week following a week-long training. They used to perform those services in exchange for free room and board, but for legal reasons, the college reclassified them as employees starting in September 2016. That effectively resulted in a cut to compensation because they now must pay payroll tax and income tax withholding out of their stipend — $13,670 gross for the current academic year. Union supporter Zoë Gregozek says that was one factor motivating the student employees to unionize.
Reed College has the most liberal student body in America, according to the Princeton Review. But the Reed administration didn’t rejoice at the news of a union. Represented by the Barran Liebman law firm, Reed argued to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB): first, that the housing advisers were not employees after all, but students; and second, if they were employees, hundreds more student employees ought to be in their bargaining unit.
The student union supporters had neither money nor lawyers, but they prevailed after a nine-hour hearing attended by four Reed administrators and two lawyers. The NLRB’s Seattle regional director Ronald Hooks rejected Reed’s arguments, in accord with NLRB’s current interpretation of federal labor law. Reed then appealed to the NLRB to delay the election or impound the ballots, which the agency also rejected.
Then, leading up to the vote, college administrators held voluntary “information sessions” and sent emails to housing advisers warning that the collective bargaining process might result in their compensation “decreasing,” and that having a union could harm their relationships with their supervisors.
“Most [housing advisers] have close friendly relationships with their resident directors, so that was a scare tactic,” Gregorek said.
Administrators also appealed to their altruism, asking them to think about the new crop of housing advisers who will begin in September — who wouldn’t get to have a say about whether to have a union. That’s quite a nervy argument from a college that rejected the housing advisors’ request for voluntary recognition last October — accompanied by signed authorization cards from more than two-thirds of the group — and insisted on the delay of a secret ballot election, trying to postpone it still more with legal maneuvers.
Up to now, except for janitors represented by SEIU Local 49, no other Reed College workers have been union-represented. Student Workers Coalition spokesperson Seth Douglas says the housing advisers campaign is only the first of what is seen as a larger campus-wide effort to unionize student workers.
It’s also a response to worsening circumstances. Tuition has risen from about $36,000 a year a decade ago to $54,200 this year. While some of the college’s 1,400 students receive financial aid, it’s not uncommon for students to graduate heavily in debt.
Students who voted to unionize are hoping to win improved compensation, the security of “just cause” discipline and a contract that the administration can’t unilaterally change, an end to seemingly arbitrary disciplinary practices, and the basic union right to have a co-worker present during disciplinary meetings.
Will Reed accept the union vote result and get busy negotiating an agreement? Kevin Myers, Reed College communications director, said Reed administration will wait for the vote count to be officially certified by the NLRB before making any comment.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Reed’s Student Workers Coalition lays out its demands here.