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Tufts University’s resident assistant union, formed late last year, went on strike Tuesday, coinciding with one of the freshman move-in days. It may be the first ever strike of unionized RAs; only six RA unions exist, and Tufts’ was the first to organize, emerging nearly five years after the National Labor Relations Board determined RAs at private universities could unionize

The members of the union, called the United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants, or ULTRA, authorized the strike with 89 percent voting in favor, according to an announcement on X (formerly Twitter). They called on the university to schedule a bargaining session and to offer a counterproposal that included their key demand: a stipend on top of the free student housing they already get. Compensation has been their primary focus since they formed the union in December. Tufts has refused to grant it, instead offering to cover RAs’ meal plan costs. 

The university invited the union to a bargaining session on Friday, but the parties made no progress, according to Sam Heyne, an organizer with Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, which represents the Tufts RAs. 

“We wrapped up bargaining because the administration is refusing to meet our demand of an economic proposal at all before the end of next week,” Heyne told Inside Higher Ed. “We recognize it for what it is—a delay tactic.” 

The university tells a different story.  

“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,” Kalimah Knight, senior deputy director of media relations at Tufts, said in an emailed statement to Inside Higher Ed. “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.” 

Knight also said that the offer of room and board is in line with the compensation RAs receive at other universities. A survey of resident assistants conducted in 2016, however, found that around 40 percent of resident assistants receive no stipend, and 70 percent have free meal plans. 

RAs at Tufts said a stipend would allow them to do their jobs without worrying about paying for books, food, transportation and other necessities. They noted the challenge of finding a second or third job that aligns with being an RA, which often requires late nights and on-call hours. 

Richard Alverez, who has a teaching job in addition to being an RA, fears that if Tufts does not begin paying RAs soon, he may not be able to make it through the semester. 

“Because of changes in how much the university costs, the price of living in the area, the amount I get for being an RA, which is just the room, isn’t going to be enough. I’m really, really struggling this semester to just exist on campus and get [things] like toiletries,” he said.

Knight said that the strike has not impacted move-in day.

“The university had made plans for a potential strike. First-year students participating in pre-orientation moved in last week. For the rest of the first-year class moving in today, things have gone smoothly. Orientation staff have been assisting with the move-in,” she said.