MEDFORD, MASS. (WHDH) - Move-in day at Tufts University will look different this year as the university’s unionized resident assistants go on strike. 

Resident assistants previously voted last week to authorize the strike. As students prepared to move in Tuesday, resident assistants and their fellow students spoke to 7NEWS about the situation. 

“I think it would cause a lot of problems,” said Tufts student Ben Kraft. “That’s kind of the worst time.”

“Our main objective has been to get economic compensation for the work we do,” said Tufts resident assistant Andrew Menjin. 

Menjin told 7NEWS Tufts RAs formed a union last year and have been negotiating with the school about getting compensated for their work in the form of a stipend. 

“Seventy percent of the RAs are on financial aid,” Menjin said. “The majority of RAs are people of color. Our time is valuable. It’s not just worth what the school says our time is worth.

Menjin says, currently, RA’s only get room and board. 

“We come back three weeks early. We have to go vigorous training throughout those weeks,” Menjin said. “Many of us have jobs over the summer, internships — I, personally, was doing summer classes — and they expect us to come a couple weeks early with no pay.”

Tufts has responded, sending 7NEWS a statement that said, in part, “…As we have gone through the bargaining process, we have benchmarked what our peer institutions offer Resident Assistants.”

“We believe that a room and board plan both aligns with our values as an institution and is in line with best practices and industry standards across higher education…” the statement from Tufts University Senior Deputy Director of Media Relations Kalimah Redd Knight continued.

Students shared their thoughts. 

“You can’t be a progressive university without paying for workers,” said Tufts student Chance Walker. 

“I think people hear ‘RA’ and they think about bulletin boards in the hallway, but it’s definitely a lot more than that,” said student Carmen Smoke. 

Some students continued, telling 7NEWS about the impact RAs have on move-in day and beyond. 

“They’re very important for community building,” said one student, Sam. “I know my RA would make sure to stop by and talk with us and check in with us. Especially freshman year, that was reassuring. “

“I’ve gone to my RA many times about things going on between me and my roommate or just getting used to Tufts,” Smoke said. “It’s a great way to find resources on different things from mental health to organization to changing classes.”

Tufts has said it will continue to negotiate as it hopes both sides of this negotiation process can reach an equitable agreement. 

As last check with the RA union Monday, organizers plan to start picketing on campus Tuesday morning with other events planned throughout the day. 

As they prepare to strike, Tufts RAs have been getting support from local politicians, including the vice president of the Medford City Council, who sent the following letter to Tufts officials: 

Dear President Kumar, Chair Dolan, and EVP Howard,

Last year, the Medford City Council passed a resolution unanimously requesting that you voluntarily recognize ULTRA/OPEIU Local 153 as the union for your RA student workers and address their serious concerns about fair compensation and working conditions. In your response letter, you said you would force an NLRB election instead, which ULTRA won by a vote of (I believe) 99-3.

Clearly your RA student workers are deeply unhappy with the way they have been treated by Tufts University.

I know the bargaining unit has authorized a strike, and I also have been informed that Tufts has engaged in what I think are clearly bad faith bargaining practices. Worse, your RA student workers said your response to a fair bargaining proposal and personal stories of financial hardship was threatening to lock out the union members, hire scabs, and push these student workers even further into financial hardship.

As the son of a former RA and a person with basic respect for workers, I can’t tell you how angry these shameful actions make me.

As the Vice President of the Medford City Council, this is not the kind of treatment and behavior we expect from any of our neighbors and it is not the kind of culture or community we are trying to build here in Medford.

You will see me on the strike line with these workers. You will see me using every power of my office to support these workers. And eventually, these workers will win.

It would behoove you to see that reality now, rather than after days or weeks of disruption and further demoralization of these dedicated and passionate student workers who Tufts would be nothing without.

Do the right thing, use your billions to reach a fair deal and pay these student workers, and be a good neighbor and an upstanding member of the Medford community.

Sincerely yours and in solidarity with ULTRA,

Isaac B. “Zac” Bears

Vice President

Medford City Council

See the full statement from Tufts Senior Deputy Director of Media Relations Kalimah Redd Knight regarding this week’s potential RA strike: 

We are aware that our Resident Assistants (RAs) have shared their intention to strike on Tuesday. Tufts University is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith and hopes the RAs will return to the table and work with us to reach their first contract. The University has been actively engaged in negotiating its first contract with the union and responding directly to specific workplace concerns. However, first-time contracts often take up to a year to negotiate. The University has made a number of proposals and offered dates to continue to bargain. Up until this week’s strike authorization vote, the University had been awaiting the union’s response to its substantive room and board proposals and suggested bargaining dates sent in July. Having received a response on Thursday (8/24/23), the University agreed to meet with the union that next Friday afternoon to discuss their concerns in the interest of continuing to work toward a first contract. Last Friday evening, the RA’s shared their intention to strike this Tuesday on social media. 

In all our collective bargaining relationships, our goal is to support our mission and to follow a set of principles, including providing quality learning and research opportunities; ensuring a safe and respectful work environment; individual and institutional accountability; efficiency; and flexibility. We also seek to achieve equity among various groups of similarly situated employees.  

As we have gone through the bargaining process, we have benchmarked what our peer institutions offer Resident Assistants. We believe that a room and board plan both aligns with our values as an institution and is in line with best practices and industry standards across higher education. 

Although we appreciate the valuable role our RAs have traditionally played, we have made robust contingency plans to fully support our students in the event of a strike and our staff are well-prepared to step in and help. 

The University will continue to coordinate with the union on next steps to reach an equitable agreement. 

See the full statement from Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, representing the United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants here:

The United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants (ULTRA), represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 153, are set to begin a strike on Tuesday, August 29, after a negotiation session in which the university refused to make any response to their demand for wages as compensation for their work.

In a bargaining session on Friday morning, the university threatened to retaliate against the student workers, threatening to fire them, replace them, and take away their housing. Also during this session, the administration sent an email to the entire student body threatening retaliation against union members for engaging in their right to collective action. In response to this email, the union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB.

ULTRA voted on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 23 to authorize a strike if the university fails to meet the union’s demand for wage compensation in the form of a stipend. The vote passed with 89% of ballots cast, and the union requested a bargaining session with administration along with a compensation offer that included wages.

Tufts University is a private research university located in Medford and Somerville, Massachusetts. The university employs students as Resident Assistants (RAs) in its on-campus residence halls, where they host community programming, maintain a weeknight and weekend crisis response line, and perform various administrative duties. RAs are also expected to arrive on campus three weeks early for training and move-in duties, both unpaid, prior to the start of the school year.

Tufts RAs won their NLRB election in December 2022 and have been in contract negotiations since February 2023. The university administration has repeatedly rejected the RAs’ proposals for wages in the form of a stipend. Up to this point, the only form of compensation RAs receive is on-campus housing during the academic year.

Based on a recent ULTRA membership survey, approximately 70% of RAs receive financial aid from Tufts, and a similar proportion work one or more jobs in addition to the RA role during the academic year.

“I work overnight shifts at the hospital in addition to holding three other jobs on campus and being an RA,” says Aria Ma, an ULTRA member and a junior in the Tufts dual degree program. “I spread myself too thin and I am still barely getting by. It’s disappointing to see that Tufts doesn’t care enough about us to provide a living wage.”

ULTRA urges the university administration to come to the table with a bargaining date and a fair counter proposal that includes compensation in the form of a wage stipend.

“It is a shame that the administration’s intransigence has brought us to a point of choosing between fair treatment and our commitment to our residents,” says ULTRA RA and Bargaining Committee member David Whittingham. “I sincerely hope that Tufts will return to the table with a reasonable compromise so that everyone can avoid the disruption that this strike will cause, but after half a year of bargaining in which the university has refused to offer any wages to among its most vital student workers, we’ve been left with virtually no other choice.”To support the ULTRA campaign for wages, RAs ask that supporters sign their petition to the university administration executives. To follow campaign updates and learn more ways to support, follow their Twitter and Instagram pages.

(Copyright (c) 2023 Sunbeam Television. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Join our Newsletter for the latest news right to your inbox