May 4, 2017 BY:
A George Washington University student who briefly belonged to a union helped to block the unionization of resident advisers.
Austin Hansen, a graduating third year student majoring in economics and political science, led the charge against Service Employees International Union Local 500’s push to make dorm supervisors the first labor organization on a private college campus. The National Labor Relations Board lifted its longstanding policy against organizing students on private campuses in August 2016 when it ruled that students who assist in classroom instruction and research can be considered employees.
A regional NLRB official approved of the union’s bid for a secret ballot election in April over the objection of the school, but the union canceled the election on the eve of the vote.
“I thought it was offensive that we would be seen as employees when we are students. This is a temporary position,” Hansen said in a phone interview. “They scheduled the vote during finals week, which illustrates the fundamental disconnect between the labor relations board and students.”
The union blamed the timing of the election for its decision to cancel the vote, saying that it “had only 5 days in which to ensure participation of RAs in this democratic process, and those 5 days happened to be in the middle of your exams.” A union spokesman declined to comment beyond the statement emailed to resident advisers on Tuesday.
Hansen does not buy into the theory that the decision was based strictly on timing. When the organizing campaign reached its peak, he circulated a poll among his 110 colleagues asking them if they approved of unionization. Of the 22 who responded only six said they strongly supported the union, while 12 students said they strongly opposed; four said they were neutral or likely to vote no.
“We suspect the union saw through their communications with students that there wasn’t enough support for this,” he said.
The survey spooked union organizers, who sent an email to RAs urging them not to respond to it and even saying that it could violate federal labor law.
“We urge caution as it is inappropriate to ask anyone how they are voting before the official, anonymous election observed by the NLRB. We are investigating if the survey has violated any rules of the NLRB in its nature,” the email said.
Several labor attorneys and experts contacted by the Washington Free Beacon said that such a straw poll is legal and does not violate any organizing rules.
Hansen got involved in the campaign against unionization after he was bombarded with phone calls and emails from organizers. “The union had the monopoly on the narrative and the information until the election, so we decided to provide the other view,” he said. He is not opposed to unions or the labor movement. His grandfather was a union member and his first job was at a union grocery store in his native Naperville, Ill., though he did bristle at union dues cutting into his entry-level minimum wage paycheck.
“I see the benefits of job security and pensions, but this is a temporary position that will not extend past four years,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense objectively or financially to do this. We understand unions can be beneficial in many circumstances, but those circumstances don’t apply here.”
Even if the union had been successful in its quest to organize the RAs—as the United Auto Workers did at UMASS-Amherst in 2002—Hansen would not have been affected. He is graduating a year early and has just taken his first job working as a federal contractor. He said that he did not want a third party to “upset one of the best housing programs in the country.” RAs are given a $2,500 taxable stipend each term, while also living for free in non-taxable housing valued from $14,000 on up.
“I care enough about my residents and peers and their experience on campus. Unionization would fundamentally change the relationship we have with residents and the availability and flexibility of RAs,” he said. “To change any of that would be a detriment because unionization would change our relationship with the program to looking at the university as an employer.”