The 2018 Housing Advisor Unionization Attempt, Explained

By Sam King and Owen Fidler

Current plans to unionize Reed College House Advisors follow in the wake of prior organized labor efforts at the college. In 2018, HAs filed with the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board, (NLRB), asking to be recognized as a labor union under the name Student Workers Coalition – Local 1 Housing Advisors. The coalition was originally created with the intention of unionizing the all-campus student workers, but the HAs were the quickest to get a supermajority of union authorization cards signed, personal documentation required for union formation. 

The movement for change in the HA Department, however, went back to 2015. Alumni Arek Rein Jungwirth ‘19 remembers when former President John Kroger “brought us all into a room and said, ‘Hey, by the way, you’re not going to make the same amount of money we promised you, and after taxes, we won’t … fully cover room and board anymore.’” Two years later, HAs decided to unionize.

To contest the petition, Reed – represented by law firm Barran Liebman – advanced three arguments. According to documents obtained by the Quest through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Reed claimed HAs didn’t fit the definition of “employee,” that high turnover among HAs would render their union unable to form institutional memory critical to collective bargaining, and that HAs themselves were too similar to other peer mentor roles to constitute a separate union.

The NLRB’s Regional Director, Ronald Hooks, dismissed Reed’s contentions using the precedent set by Columbia University (Case 02–RC–143012). Hooks found that HAs were included under Columbia’s interpretation of Section 2(3) of the National Labor Relations Act, which provides a definition of “employee.” 

In response to Reed’s argument that HAs weren’t different enough from other roles to warrant a separate union, Hooks ruled that HAs received “distinct training and perform distinct work, have distinct terms and conditions of employment and are separately supervised,” compared to other student roles. Finally, he ruled that any concerns over institutional memory could be addressed during the bargaining process. 

Reed, again operating through Barran Liebman, appealed the case to the Board of the National Labor Relations Board, whose members are appointed by the president of the United States, asking to impound the vote. The college claimed the appeal was to allow incoming HAs to vote, but the request was quickly struck down by the Board because the case was already decided on the regional level. Hooks ordered an election, in which HAs voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

Barran Liebman then made another appeal to the NLRB, in which they argued Columbia should be overturned, and that the correct interpretation of the definition of student employee was the Brown University (Case 1–RC–21368), which held that some student workers were not employees. The Union claimed the second appeal, like the first, provided no information to the NLRB that wasn’t provided to the regional director.

The HA Union withdrew its petition with the NLRB soon afterward, effectively dissolving itself before it could negotiate a contract. The workers were concerned that Trump-appointed Board members would overturn Columbia and reinstate Brown, which would result in student workers nationally being denied union recognition. As Seth Douglas, who acted as the representative for the HAs in the hearing, explains, “[h]ad the College been successful in pressing this argument, every student worker at a private college in the United States–including graduate students, research assistants, teaching assistants, and resident advisers–would have lost the ability to unionize under the protections of the Act.”

In 2021, President Biden forced out two Trump appointees – the first time a president has done so since 1950. Since then, HAs from Wesleyan University and Barnard College have successfully unionized.Rein Jungwirth believes that “this time, if [an HA union] went to the federal level that it would be worth fighting to maintain Columbia and then they would actually get a fair hearing.” However, as expressed in a petition to the administration signed by Rein Jungwirth and 85 other alumni, they believe that the best move is for the college to grant voluntary recognition to URCHA. Rein Jungwirth said how, “When you grant voluntary recognition, it starts the whole bargaining process on a better note, there’s more good will, more room for cooperation or compromise […] [The administration] should be reasonable and spend money on the priorities of what the HAs are asking for instead of spending it on a law firm.”

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