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Editorial: Essential, but Expendable: On the Working Conditions of Resident Advisors at Hamilton College

By Mckela Kanu and Adina Mujica | Hamilton College students 

“We’re essential, but expendable,” Ashley García (Senior at Hamilton College) firmly states in response to being a Resident Advisor (RA) on campus. This statement was prompted by her most recent (but not only) disastrous experience with Residential Life. 

RAs are typically given a contract that stipulates their duties and responsibilities to the College and their residents. García’s contract stated that her sole responsibility as an RA would be to the Woollcott (COOP), a residential building on campus. However, after Ashley signed the contract, she was notified that she would also need to be an RA for 4002, another residential building on campus. When García expressed her concerns with Res Life, an employee at the department said that, “…this is the way it’s always been…” 

A Resident Advisor fulfills many different functions on campus. They are often the first line of communication between underclassmen students and upperclassmen students, first responders to medical situations, and the main individuals that deal with conflicts that arise on their floor(s). 

García notes a time where she was concerned about the mental health of students on her floor and thus submitted several care forms. When the parents of one particular student came to pull their child out of school, an employee at Res Life blamed the whole situation on García. García came to find out the care forms she submitted did not get to that employee because they were not doing their jobs. Because of an error on Res Life’s part, García came to be blamed for something that was not her fault. 

The responsibilities of being an RA are immense. Several RAs at Hamilton express grievances and frustrations with Res Life, particularly their lack of care or communication. A Hamilton RA vividly remembers a time that she believes is representative of how Res Life treats low-income RAs. During a meeting a couple of years ago, RAs were complaining about the lack of communication and action about transportation. RAs often had to stay later past the time students typically went home for breaks. 

The Hamilton RA notes a Senior RA complaining due to the fact that they signed up for an earlier shuttle to avoid the expenses of needing an Uber to get to the airport (Uber rides from airports to campus cost up to $100). In response to the Senior RA stating they would not cancel their shuttle, Res Life employees smiled and said, “No you can’t, because it’s in your contract.”

For years, student RAs experience significant stress during break due to lack of communication about transportation. Students have noted that often they’ll leave campus for break without a clear understanding of how they will get back to campus, as Res Life only sets up transportation a couple of weeks before break ends. This puts student RAs in a bind where they either have to wait until the last minute to set up plane/bus trips back to campus and deal with higher costs or buy tickets earlier without a guarantee of when/if they will be picked up by the College. 

Yet, Res Life often responds in a tone-deaf manner. Smith ‘22 notes bringing up concerns about his placement at Rogers due to not having a car (a residential building distant from campus) and how Res Life responded by saying that the lack of car is not something they put into consideration. Students’ frustrations with Res Life go beyond lack of communication. 

A major point of contention is the mandatory and unpaid training RAs have to attend each semester. Further, Res Life will only provide training dates a few weeks before the actual date, giving students little notice. This means students have to cut their jobs short unexpectedly, losing out on money. 

Through these grievances and others, being an RA at Hamilton is often more difficult for low-income students. Numerous RAs have expressed needing to work two or three jobs in order to pay off loans or to continue attending the College. Hamilton College only offers RAs room in contrast to other peer colleges that offer room and board or a biweekly stipend. Because of this, while the RA position is enriching for students, it is also draining particularly for low-income students who often have to work multiple jobs due to the lack of compensation. Hamilton College props up RAs as being a position that uplights the energy of the class and school. And yet, the College rewards the hard work of RAs with minimal compensation and a difficult working environment. 

When student RAs decided to unionize for better rights and benefits, the College responded by hiring an anti-union lawyer, Ray Pascucci, and arguing that RAs are not “student workers.” 

To a lot of people, unions are not necessary. “What’s the point of them,” people may ask, if there are already federal stipulations and protections in place for workers in the United States? Hamilton College even has an FAQ pointing to the ineffectiveness of unions. 

However, unions are an important line of defense for employees. Without unions, the ability for a worker to bargain for a higher wage or better working conditions relies on the individual. They are often put against the employer who solely decides how they will be treated. When RAs expressed their frustrations with Res Life, they were often given a vague answer or their frustrations were not dealt with at all. With a union, RAs are able to hold the College and Res Life accountable and not be held to absolute power via a vague contract. 

We need a union. The improvements workers have seen only occur when there is repeated pressure. While any improvement to working conditions is something to celebrate, a union would create an option for the same results without the unjustifiably excessive amount of time and labor that is currently necessary.

In the Fall Semester, the Student Admissions workers unionized. While this means ResLife and the DMC are not the first to organize a union at Hamilton, it does not make this process any easier or less significant to campus culture, especially regarding workers relationships to institutions. In creating the union, admissions workers were belittled by Monica Inzer, Vice President for Enrollment Management, as “vot[ing] with emotion instead of rational thinking.” Despite the student workers in the admissions office being voted into a union, there is still resistance from the institution. Meetings are given overly harsh guidelines to the disadvantage of the workers, leading to hostile, inefficient communication. 

We have the right to a certain amount of dignity, respect, and rights. Our current roles as workers are infringing upon what we collectively agree we deserve. Regardless of the work we do or the title we have, these conditions should not have to be fought for with the union-busting efforts we have received. It’s the empowering duty of the worker to stand with their fellows and advocate for these conditions. 

A successful union will foster opportunity for negotiation, a more just contract, ending subjection of the workers to the discretion of the few employers, and, most importantly, a safer, happier, and more representative workplace. It is for our wellbeing as students, workers, and community members that we continue to work towards unionization.

With this in mind, to effectively unionize, we need support and accountability as best as we are able to facilitate in our current conditions. This means holding Hamilton accountable for their union-busting efforts such as stalling our petition through hearings or walking out during negotiations. This is not only to remind the institution that they cannot exert their power indefinitely, but as further reason for the protection and empowerment that will come from unionizing. 

Whether you’re a member of the Hamilton community or not, your help is needed. If you are a member, show your support by having conversations about unionization with your peers. If you are in a position of power, avoid rhetoric that degrades the intelligence and critical reasoning skills of the students you’ve admitted to the school. 

Though the need for a union speaks for itself, we appreciate the Utica Phoenix giving us the opportunity to reflect and advocate for the demands of students. 

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobro
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.

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