Frequently Asked Questions about Resident Advisor Unionization

The staff in the Center for Student Engagement are committed to the resident advisor experience and believe we can continue to add value to the program by working together with our Resident Advisors.

Below are responses to some of the questions resident advisors have asked about unionization. We will continue to update this FAQ as needed.


Q: Why is it important that I participate in the election if I am graduating or not returning as an RA next year?

According to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) law, a majority of those voting in the election, not a majority of those in the group the union seeks to represent, will determine the election outcome. For instance, if only 20 resident advisors (RAs) vote, and 11 vote “yes” for the union, all current and future RAs, including those who did not vote, will be represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500. This is an important election that has the potential to affect all resident advisors, including those who are not in the program yet.

Q: How would my individual experience as an RA change under union representation?

Currently, resident advisors have a lot of flexibility in determining how best to engage with their residents. Under the current program, RAs are able to work with residence directors (RDs) and area coordinators (ACs) to meet the unique style of each RA and the needs of their residents, buildings, and communities. RAs are currently able to work with RDs, ACs, and Center for Student Engagement (CSE) leadership directly to address issues or concerns on an individual basis.  Students apply to be resident advisors for many different reasons. Some are looking for ways to strengthen their own leadership abilities. Others wish to provide the support for their peers that they experienced with their RA. While there are many commonalities between student motivations to become an RA, often each has a personal motivation that drives their passion and individual approaches to the RA role. 

That informal relationship would become, under the auspices of federal labor law, a relationship based on a formal, and legally binding, collective bargaining agreement. A collective bargaining agreement would apply to all resident advisors regardless of their individual views toward union membership or agreement with the union's position. Unionization may remove the ability to address individual issues and replace it with a uniform “one-size-fits-all” approach, dictated by the terms of the contract negotiated by union representatives (who have not negotiated a collective bargaining agreement for RAs).  The relationship between RAs, RDs and ACs would be constrained by the terms of the contract. RDs and ACs would be obligated to comply with the terms of the contract and they could not make exceptions to accommodate the needs of individual RAs unless they negotiated the exception with the union. And unionization could mean that meetings between an individual RA and their RD, AC, or CSE staff member may require the involvement of an outside representative of the union as a third party.

The union would have no duty to negotiate any exception or change to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement until the next round of union negotiations, which may be years. Negotiating union contracts can take many months, even a year or more, and the terms of collective bargaining agreements tend to span multiple years. 

If an individual RA has a grievance during the term of the collective bargaining agreement, the union will typically control whether that grievance will be pursued.  Even if an individual RA disagrees with the union’s decision, the union would have authority to resolve the grievance or decide that it is not worth pursuing. 

Q: As an RA, how will my relationships with residents change with a union?

One of the key components of the RA program is the peer-to-peer relationship between RAs and residents. For example, residents share personal information with RAs, especially in times of crisis. Residents may be reluctant to share confidences with RAs if RAs may share that information under certain circumstances with union officials who have no relationship to the university. Even the acting regional director in his decision recognized that the sharing of such sensitive information implicates the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and that those concerns would have to be negotiated. Of course, our residence life students have no role in any negotiation.  Further, a collective bargaining agreement could impact your ability to address emergency situations involving residents if, for example, the terms of an agreement mandate that an RA is “off duty” for all purposes during specified periods of time. These are just a few examples of how a union may impact an RA’s important relationship with resident students.

Q: Are there existing alternatives to unionizing that could address the concerns raised by the union organizers?

Yes, resident advisors can bring their concerns to RDs, ACs, and CSE administrators at any time, as they have done for many years. Every year, the staff in the CSE has worked with RAs to address issues and concerns and improve their experience, and changes have been made in response to feedback received from RAs. Resident advisors’ direct involvement with the staff who support the RA program have led to changes to nearly all aspects of the RA program, including selection processes, RA training, programming, residence hall opening/closing processes, clarifications to expectations of the RA role, and compensation. We have always welcomed feedback from our RAs, as they are an integral part of residential life at GW.

Q.  Can the union guarantee that the contract will include any particular terms and conditions of an RA’s responsibilities?

No. In collective bargaining, the university is not compelled to agree to anything it would otherwise not agree to—with or without a union. Any changes proposed by the union would need to be negotiated and agreed to during the collective bargaining process.  The union cannot mandate or guarantee any changes. Changes would be made only if the university agrees. 

The process of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, especially a first agreement, can take many, many months—even a year or more. Sometimes collective bargaining does not result in an agreement at all. Even the NLRB cannot force the parties to agree to terms that they are not willing to agree to. 

Further, the SEIU has never represented undergraduate resident advisors before. With no experience in representing RAs, the SEIU is not in the best position to recognize the unique needs and issues related to the residential and academic experience and the complexities of the RAs’ roles and responsibilities.

Q: What happens in a collective bargaining process?

During any contract negotiations, the union would represent all resident advisors regardless of whether they want to be in a union. The union representative along with a small group of RAs (typically selected by the union) would negotiate on behalf of the entire group. The union would determine which issues or proposals will be negotiated, and which will not. 

All RAs would be bound by the contract even if they disagree with the terms negotiated by the union, even if they do not participate in the negotiating process, and even if they do not join the union.  Individual RAs could not opt out of the contract negotiated by the union. 

Q: How often does a collective bargaining process occur?

Collective bargaining agreements are typically multi-year agreements. Negotiations for changes to the terms of an existing contract occur at the end of the agreement period, which is often two to three years.

Q: What are the costs and requirements of union membership? Would I have to join the union?

Collective bargaining agreements typically require members to pay union dues or an “agency fee” as a condition of employment.  This so-called “union security clause” would require the university to terminate or suspend RAs who refuse to pay the dues or fees required by the union. The agreement negotiated by SEIU Local 500 for part-time faculty has such a union security clause. The union determines the amount of dues or fees that must be paid. Unions use such dues and fees to support a wide range of activities, including maintaining their internal bureaucracy.