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Emerson Union for Resident Assistants protest outside Emerson College President Jay Bernhardt's office on November 17, 2023. Photo by Frank Chen. Copyright 2023 Frank Chen.
Emerson Union for Resident Assistants protest outside Emerson College President Jay Bernhardt's office on November 17, 2023. Photo by Frank Chen. Copyright 2023 Frank Chen.

Administration refuses to voluntarily recognize the union, triggering an NLRB election and a protest

In a move that sparked campus-wide debate, Emerson College, in a Nov. 16 statement, declined to voluntarily recognize the Emerson Union for Resident Assistants despite overwhelming support from the resident assistants for unionization.

With 86% of the 82 RAs at the Boston campus (Emerson also has campuses in LA and at Kasteel Well in the village of Well in the Netherlands) having signed authorization cards to join the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, EURA’s push for formal recognition of their new unit of OPEIU has been met with resistance from the college administration. 

The idea of unionizing was first raised about a month ago when Paramount Building RAs Nick Renteria and Anthony Paladino started talking to co-workers about problems with their jobs. Paladino had a contact working at OPEIU Local 153, so they decided to reach out to the union for help in strategizing, union training, one-on-one sessions, and legal assistance—then formed EURA. 

On Monday, Nov.13, at 9 a.m., EURA members delivered a letter to Associate Dean of Campus Life Christie Anglade and President Jay Bernhardt asking Emerson College to recognize their union. “We’ve also filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board for a union election on the same day, as we anticipated Emerson College’s rejection of our request for voluntary recognition,” said Renteria.

This standoff has led EURA to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a union election to formalize their status. In response to this escalating situation, a substantial rally was organized, drawing attention to the concerns and demands of the resident assistants. 

On Nov. 17, about 20 RAs rallied in front of Green Line Boylston T stop, right under the college president’s office on the top floor of the Ansin Building. Several members of the Emerson Staff Union-Service Employees International Union Local 888 and the Emerson College Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, representing the full-time faculty of Emerson College, were also present at the scene to show support.

Renteria shared EURA’s goals, “The main issues we wanted to address are increasing wages or benefits, redesigning break duties, and, most importantly, increasing communication and transparency with the decision-makers.”

In September, the United Labor of Tufts Resident Assistants voted to sign a union contract in agreement with Tufts University, shedding light on the possible future of EURA. “Honestly, a lot of our early messaging was about Tufts union,” said Sophie Severs, EURA’s PR representative, “If they can do it (unionize), so can we. Ultimately, we are not here bargaining only for money. We are trying to create a better environment for our community so everyone can enjoy being a part of it.” 

As Emerson College gears up for the NLRB election, the dispute between the administration and the union highlights a pivotal moment in the conversation about labor rights in academic settings nationwide. The standoff, mirroring similar movements at institutions like Tufts University, has galvanized the campus community, fostering a deeper dialogue about fair treatment and decent work conditions for college workers—and highlighting the power of collective action. 

Regardless of the election’s outcome, this episode marks a significant chapter in the evolving relationship between student workers and university administrations, with potential implications far beyond the confines of Emerson College. 

Neither Danielle Merrill, director of Housing & Residential Education at Emerson, nor Pres. Bernhardt responded to requests for comment by HorizonMass.

This article was produced for HorizonMass, the independent, student-driven, news outlet of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and is syndicated by BINJ’s MassWire news service.

Frank Chen (he/him) is a HorizonMass reporter. A journalist and photographer at Emerson College, he focuses on social justice and local news with a passion for investigative journalism. As an Emerson student, he is a founding member of the AAJA Emerson Chapter. He loves traveling and listening to live music whenever he is free.

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