MIDDLETOWN — Students at Wesleyan University today announced their intention to form a union for student workers in the Office of Residential Life.
The university said in a statement today that it is willing to “commence the process of voluntarily recognizing that group’s effort to unionize.”
“Forming a union will allow us to address systemic issues and advocate for greater transparency, accountability, and fair treatment. This will improve our ability to meet our residents’ needs and support the greater Wesleyan community,” student Residential Life workers wrote in a letter addressed to University President Michael Roth.
The students are organizing with the assistance of the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), whose Local branch 153 represents two other unions on Wesleyan’s campus — the physical plant workers and the clerical workers.
According to the letter, 79 percent of the student residential life staff, or about 80 students, have signed union authorization cards. The letter said that if the university does not recognize the union, the students will file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
An online letter circulated to community members requesting their support of the union cited low pay and long working hours as well as “poor and hazardous working conditions without adequate support and protections, especially during the pandemic.”
The letter also mentioned that students created a petition requesting $250 in “hazard pay” during the pandemic, which the university denied.
Ruby Rae Clarke, a sophomore at Wesleyan and community advisor for the Hewitt residence hall, said that the university stipend had not kept up with inflation or increases in tuition.
Students working in Residential Life receive a stipend of between $2,610 and $11,092 in the 2020-21 school year, depending on class year and position, according to documents on Wesleyan’s website. The Residential Comprehensive Fee — the cost of room and board at the university — was between $17,500 and $19,000.
On Thursday night, students gathered in the university’s Organizing House on High Street, making posters, working the phones and preparing chants for a rally they are planning on Saturday.
Students who spoke with CT Examiner said they felt that, in addition to being community builders, they were expected to handle mental health crises, deal with issues of public safety and enforce COVID-19 protocols — all without adequate training and support. They said they felt the responsibility was too much.
For Yohely Comprés and Joshua Kleiman, both sophomores, the tipping point happened when one of the dorms on campus flooded when Hurricane Ida hit Connecticut on September 1st. It was the first night of freshman orientation, and both Comprés’ and Kleiman’s first night as residential advisors. They were tasked with helping to move over 300 first-year students to Freeman Athletic Center. Kleiman said he drank a coke and stayed up all night working, and Comprés said she found herself shepherding a student who was having panic attacks to the health center.
Kleiman said he was frustrated by what he viewed as a general lack of support from the university, as well as a lack of control and transparency.
“If there’s a problem, it’s on you to solve it. And if you don’t solve it, it doesn’t get solved,” said Kleiman.
Students who work in Residential Life are expected to participate in a “comprehensive training session” prior to the start of the semester. However, several of the students said they wanted better training to prepare them for dealing with mental health crises or emergency situations.
“I think what I’ve realized in the past semester is that Residential Life student staff workers are the front lines of this university,” said Charissa Lee, a junior at the university and a house manager for Lighthouse, one of the college’s affinity houses. “We’re the first to respond to incidents of emergency and trauma in our own residential areas. And we are not at all trained to respond to those emergencies.”
Dennis Law, a junior and house manager at German Haus, said he also wanted more mental health support for students working in residential life. He said that during his time working as a residential advisor during COVID, he was trying to help students in his building with their own mental health issues while at the same time struggling with his own depression.
Several students also mentioned that the majority of Residential Life workers are students of color, low-income students or first generation college-attendees — and that, first and foremost, they are students.
“Not only am I a resident advisor, I’m also a resident of this campus. I’m also a student on this campus,” said Comprés.
While the students haven’t formalized their demands yet, Grace Reckers, the lead Northeast organizer for OPEIU, said they were considering requesting that the college compensate Residential Life workers for the cost of living on campus along with an additional stipend.
But the most important thing, said junior Robyn Wong, is just to have a seat at the table.
“The main ask right now is that we even have a voice to begin with,” said Wong, a house manager at Womanist House. “We can’t say anything if we don’t have a voice.”
If the union were approved, Wesleyan would join a small number of colleges and universities with an undergraduate union, including Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Grinnell College and Kenyon College.
Students are planning a rally at North College, 237 High Street, at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 5.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, the university had not responded to CT Examiner’s request for comment before publication deadline.