How Undergraduate Workers Transformed Their Union to Fight the Neoliberal University

Student workers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have used their union to fight for decent pay, better working conditions, and substantive safety measures in response to coronavirus. Three of those workers explain how they did it.

View from a top floor of the DuBois library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wikimedia Commons

On August 13, around 6:47 p.m., we descended on the chancellor’s lawn. We were a coalition of resident assistants and peer mentors, the unionized undergraduate Residential Life staff at UMass Amherst, along with community allies from other unions and organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

The night before, a small group of six of us had attempted to set up an encampment on the chancellor’s lawn before being immediately threatened with arrest by UMass police. Now, with a group of about forty, we strode onto the chancellor’s lawn to oppose the university’s announced layoffs.

A little over a week ago, UMass Amherst abruptly reversed its dangerous reopening plan, allowing only students with in-person courses and housing needs to live on campus. This was the decision our Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union had been pushing for, as we noted that the original plan to bring back almost eight thousand students would have ended in a public health disaster. Our organizing prevented thousands of COVID infections and saved lives.

Yet as UMass reversed its plan, it also laid off 93 percent of the nearly 500 RAs and PMs. Our contract has a layoff clause that clearly states all laid-off staff must receive their full compensation. UMass informed us they would not be honoring this section of our contract.

Another section of our contract obligates UMass to find alternative work for us if the university closes. We proposed we work remotely to support the thousands of remote students who now have virtually no support from the university. UMass informed us that they have no intention of allowing us alternative work — they intend to fire us and deny us all pay and benefits. The reversal came one business day before RAs and PMs, many of whom rely on their job for housing and food security, were expecting to move onto campus.

This gross violation of our contract isn’t about a lack of work for RAs and PMs — there is plenty such workers could do to remotely support students. This attack is a clear retaliation against us, the union that was most critical of UMass’ unsafe reopening plan.

So it is that we occupied the chancellor’s lawn, demanding the university honor our contract and provide for all RAs and PMs. We chanted and sang, shared testimony, and even toured the chancellor’s lavish backyard. We occupied the lawn for a half an hour before UMass police threatened to arrest us.

Our current fight comes after a previous victory during impact bargaining (which occurs when working conditions have changed and an employer must bargain with the union over how those conditions changed) over the original reopening plan. Through impact bargaining from July 7 to August 6, our RA/PM Union (RAPMU) won a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that guaranteed RAs and PMs the following: free COVID testing for the whole campus, the right to workers’ compensation, remote work options for PMs, a $450 cost-of-living adjustment to help staff pay for meals, a commitment to provide all staff with seven masks (one for each day of the week), assurance that social distancing would be enforced through education and the code of conduct rather than by UMass police, and health and safety language authorizing staff to unilaterally refuse tasks they think would expose them to COVID-19.

This victory still applies for the approximately forty RAs and PMs who weren’t laid off and will be working this semester. This wasn’t a full victory — the COLA was a nice win, but we didn’t win hazard pay. Nonetheless, after a monthlong battle during which hundreds of RAs and PMs petitioned the university, gained widespread media attention, and ultimately voted to authorize a safety strike, we finally won a MOA that guaranteed our health and dignity.

Just a few months prior to these current campaigns, in February 2020, RAPMU was not a fighting union. Membership was 58 percent; the three cochairs made decisions undemocratically and refused to involve rank-and-file members; at the February membership meeting, only one member attended, and after the cochairs refused to listen to his criticisms of them, he stormed off angrily.

Since then, we transformed our union. How did we do it?

The Transformation of an Undergraduate Union

The Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union consists of 500 RAs and PMs, undergraduate Residential Life staff. We are one of the few unions of solely undergraduate students. Since February, a rank-and-file caucus has turned our union into a fighting union.

Frustrated with what we perceived as an undemocratic union leadership team, the authors of this article formed a rank-and-file caucus to build democratic worker power and address key workplace issues. Our contract mandates anti-racism training for all RAs and PMs, but the university refused to enforce this mandate. When a racial justice trainer provided an anti-racism training in January 2020, the university refused to pay her.

Our rank-and-file caucus, called the Community Task Force, began a campaign to demand the university pay the trainer and agree to hold future anti-racism trainings. We conducted one-on-one meetings with dozens of RAs and PMs to enlist their support in demanding regular anti-racism training, and we launched a petition that gained 350 signatures, from both our members and the community.

Soon after we began our work, most of our ineffectual leadership resigned. Ironically, they claimed that our union wasn’t doing enough to combat racism, yet they had largely ignored our caucus’s campaign for racial justice.

After these resignations, Nat Luftman and James Cordero were elected in a special election. We were sworn in on March 12 — one day before COVID-19 caused the closure of the entire UMass campus.

We entered impact bargaining over the campus closure, and by mobilizing 300 members (60 percent of our membership) to sign a petition supporting our demands, we secured an MOA that won hazard pay for on-site RAs, expanded sick leave, the ability of all RAs and PMs to work remotely for full pay, and housing and meal plan refunds that accounted for our housing subsidies. While virtually every other undergraduate worker was instantly laid off, our new leadership won financial security for all 500 of our members.

Impact bargaining ended; organizing continued. UMass never agreed to pay the racial justice facilitator who had provided January’s anti-racism training, so we saw to it that our union paid her in full. Then, Alice Troop joined us as a cochair and began spearheading an Anti-Racism Training Planning Committee, an effort between rank-and-file members and Residence Education professional staff.

As the murder of George Floyd inspired uprisings across the nation, we engaged our members in proactive, educational conversations around racism. We also supported a newly formed UMass student group called the Racial Justice Coalition, endorsing their demands for an anti-racist UMass, particularly around defunding UMass police. Talking to the members gets the goods — our members overwhelmingly approved of our solidarity with Black Lives Matter and our proposal to defund UMass police.

Finally, July came, and UMass Amherst revealed an incredibly unsafe reopening plan. UMass invited back all undergraduates to live on campus, even in the midst of a pandemic, and, in turn, expected RAs and PMs to put themselves at risk as the main enforcers of UMass’ social distancing mandates, with no guarantee of PPE, hazard pay, or health and safety protocols.

At our first bargaining session, UMass rejected all our proposals and demanded a concession — that we be limited to one pay structure rather than the option to choose between two pay structures, a change that would have resulted in a financial aid reduction for many RAs/PMs as a result of their employment.

We pushed back, and we won on virtually every issue except hazard pay — we even ensured strict health and safety protocols to ensure RAs and PMs could safely enforce social distancing without relying on UMass police.

It was a member-driven fight. We held regular membership meetings and developed a dedicated organizing team that directed our strategy. As the cochairs, we involved our members in democratic decision-making processes so that we could execute an escalatory campaign. Our vote to authorize a strike in defense of workers’ safety was the culmination of our power — 80 percent of our members voted, with 95 percent voting yes.

When the reversal of Umass’s reopening plan sent hundreds of our members into housing and food insecurity, we gathered nearly two thousand signatures on a petition demanding UMass compensate laid-off staff and provide housing for those who needed it. We immediately won free housing for all RAs and PMs in need. Then, we fundraised over $1,200 to begin a mutual aid network to address food insecurity among our members. We attempted to occupy our chancellor’s lawn in protest of this austerity, and more than 200 of our members signed on to a grievance demanding UMass honor our contract’s layoff language.

A long fight is ahead to ensure on-site staff have the protections we bargained for, win compensation for laid-off staff, and ultimately beat back all austerity measures, as virtually every other union is facing similar challenges, particularly our union and the university staff unions, which both hold disproportionately low-income, BIPOC memberships. Austerity and racism go hand in hand.

We have expanded our caucus, developed new leaders, and are collaborating with other student organizers to virtually host a national undergraduate workers convention, featuring labor organizers like Jane McAlevey and Barbara Madeloni as trainers, to train our members and other student workers.

We’ve accomplished a lot through our union recently, but there’s little that’s unique to our campus that allowed us to do it. Fellow undergraduates: You, too, can unionize and wield power on campus. Fellow unionists: If your union leadership isn’t willing to fight, talk to some coworkers and form a caucus. Our caucus began with a meeting of five people; now, we have a strong union that can mobilize to win substantial demands from our administration.

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Nat Luftman is a cofounder of the Community Task Force of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union (RAPMU) at UMass Amherst and currently serves as a cochair of RAPMU.

Emily Smith is a cofounder of the Community Task Force of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union (RAPMU) at UMass Amherst and currently serves as a cochair of RAPMU.

James Cordero is a cofounder of the Community Task Force of the Resident Assistant/Peer Mentor Union (RAPMU) at UMass Amherst and currently serves as a cochair of RAPMU.

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