On Friday afternoon, members of Barnard’s newly-formed Resident Assistants Union (OPEIU Local 153) rallied outside Barnard Hall to highlight unfair working conditions and demand voluntary recognition.
The newly-formed Barnard Resident Assistants Union (OPEIU Local 153) held its first official event today, a rally in front of Barnard Hall. Alongside demanding voluntary recognition from the College, Friday’s rally also offered a platform for current resident assistants a chance to share their experiences with unfair working conditions, inequitable compensation, and a variety of additional issues.
The rally opened with a series of chants led by union members, among them, “Be a better institution, recognize the RA union” and “Bold, Beautiful, union now,” a play on the College’s famous catchphrase.
After the initial chanting died down, union members welcomed a variety of speakers, mostly made up of current RAs. First to speak were RAs Sarah Baybeck (BC ‘25) and Khepera Lyons-Clark (BC ’24), who shared that the goal of today’s rally was to encourage Barnard to voluntarily recognize the union, allowing RAs to negotiate better working conditions, equitable pay, and greater transparency. As Lyons-Clark explained, “this is not only for the RAs but for the community as a whole.”
Resident Assistant Aditi Misra (BC ‘23), who helped to plan much of the union’s organizing efforts during the summer, spoke next. Like many speakers, Misra has been employed as an RA for most of her time at Barnard. She emphasized that while Barnard RAs play an essential role in the college’s ability to function, they often go ignored by Barnard’s administration, lacking the support necessary to maintain a proper balance between their jobs, education, and social lives. She also testified to the inconsistent and often extreme working conditions she and others have experienced in the position, saying, “I’ve seen my friends and colleagues be mistreated by professional staff, have breakdowns over the overwhelming workload, and ultimately leave the position over the unfair conditions brought onto them by the college.”
In addition to Misra, several RAs, including Baybeck, emphasized that Barnard’s current compensation model, in which RAs are not paid directly but have the cost of room and board deducted from their bills, results in unequal compensation among students. Instead of receiving compensation to assist in covering the cost of living, RAs on financial aid actually see their grants from Barnard reduced, while their expected contribution to tuition remains the same.
Speakers Katie Cherven (BC ‘23) and Mia Flowers (BC ‘24) shared more about the job’s “inconsistent” and often “overwhelming” working conditions. Cherven called her first semester as an RA “one of the worst semesters of [her] life.” She admitted, “With each passing day, I had more and more responsibility, less and less support, and more and more needs that were not being met.” Similarly, Flowers shared that their workload became so staggering that they ultimately took a medical leave from Barnard.“Overall,” they said, “Barnard does not acknowledge that RAs have a life outside this job.”
“Barnard does not care,” added Cherven; “If they did, they would pay me.” She shared that while the union is not an “end goal,” it is a “first step” to achieving better pay, working conditions, and support from the College. She concluded, “RAs are essential workers, and we deserve nothing less than overwhelming and enthusiastic recognition of our union.”
After hearing from numerous Barnard RAs, the union then opened the floor to former Barnard RAs, as well as speakers from a variety of Resident Assistant organizing groups in the area, including CURA, the organizing body for Columbia’s RAs, and the Wesleyan Student Workers Union. From CURA, current Columbia RA Carmelli Leal (CC ‘25) shared her experience organizing over the summer for fair compensation, citing the organizing efforts of Barnard’s RAs as an inspiration. Ending her speech, Leal emphasized the necessity of non-RA community members showing up to support union events. “Showing Barnard that people in the community care about RAs is so important,” explained Leal; “when RAs are suffering, the community is suffering.”
Today’s rally comes just four days after the union filed for recognition with OPEIU Local 153, with the support of 95% of current RAs. On the same day, the union met to deliver their petition to the office of Barnard President Sian Beilock and demand voluntary recognition in person. One Barnard RA told Bwog that students looking to support the union should sign its petition to President Beilock for recognition, sharing, “if you care for your RAs, put some fire under [Barnard].”
After the speeches, the rally marched across campus down to Milbank Hall. There, the RAs directly called upon President Beilock to voluntarily recognize the union, echoed by loud chants, cheers, and boisterous energy. They then moved to the lawn outside of Diana for a group photo. Barnard security briefly emerged at the front doors of Milbank, though no action was taken against the rally.
While today’s rally and earlier organizing efforts have been met with significant support from within the RA community, the newly-minted union’s relationship with Barnard’s administration remains uncertain. As RA Sarah Baybeck told Bwog, the union has now officially called on President Beilock to recognize the union by Monday, although it remains unclear whether Beilock will agree to those terms. During today’s rally, Misra shared that, as of this afternoon, Barnard’s official position on the union is that it “needs more time to consider,” according to Dean of the College Leslie Grinage. A Barnard spokesperson told Bwog that per Dean Grinage’s email, the College “deeply values its Resident Assistants,” is currently reviewing the union’s request for recognition, and expects to give a response in the next week.
Similar organizing has proven successful on Columbia’s campus, with CURA’s efforts recently leading to an overhaul of Columbia’s RA compensation model. However, Barnard RAs have reported facing retaliation for their organizing attempts. Among them, Misra shared that she was called into a disciplinary hearing after expressing concern that RAs were forced to work up to 12 hours a day in the period leading up to the Fall semester. Ending her speech to rapturous applause, Misra shared, “we need a union because, without it, we cannot and will not know where Barnard’s exploitation of student workers will end.”
Update: As of 6:30 pm on Monday, October 10, President Beilock has not made a public announcement recognizing the RA Union, passing union organizers’ previously stated deadline for her to do so. As of Monday morning, the College’s official position is that it “deeply values its Resident Assistants, the request is being reviewed, and a response will be forthcoming next week.” Bwog has reached out to the RA Union for comment.
This post was updated on October 10, 2022, to include additional information from a Barnard spokesperson.
Deputy News Editor Paulina Rodriguez, Daily Editor Sophie Conrad, and Staff Writers Phoebe Mulder and Maya Reisner contributed to reporting.
RAs at Milbank via Sophie Conrad