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Drexel RAs protest to Fry’s office, plan union election | The Triangle
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Drexel RAs protest to Fry’s office, plan union election

Photo by Oron Barash | The Triangle

On Thursday, March 14, resident assistants at Drexel University held a protest in support of unionization at the Mario statue. The union announced at the protest that the official election will be happening on April 11, 2024 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

The election will be conducted by secret ballot, and the RAs will win legally recognized union representation if 50% + 1 vote in favor of the union. 

At the protest, there was a heavy Drexel Police presence, including several high-ranking officers and Drexel Chief of Police Melvin Singleton. However, they did not interfere with the protest.

A speech was given by fifth-year biology major Helene Chibane, who is head RA of Kelly Hall, and has worked as an RA for three years. Chibane described how she has had to leave a co-op two weeks early three years in a row to attend the mandatory fall RA training, for which RAs receive no extra compensation and for which they had to fight the university to provide food. 

Chibane described the meager compensation RAs receive. When she first started, she received $90 per month. The RA stipend is currently $100 per month, or about $3.33 per day, with room and partial meal plan — an increase that barely keeps pace with the 13.3% inflation since Chibane started. Because RAs rely on their job for housing, their ability to speak up for changes is severely limited. Housing is not guaranteed over summer, and securing housing for just two months in Philadelphia at the last minute can be difficult, especially for international RAs.

“From Day 1, we are constantly reminded that we are replaceable. This message is constantly instilled in our work life. In training, at staff meetings and one-on-ones, this is horrendously discouraging and instills a fear of speaking up for changes in our position. This has prevented us [from] advocating for improvements, and this has resulted in many tremendous RAs burning out and prematurely leaving the position,” Chibane said.

Other grievances voiced at the Mario statue included housing insecurity due to no guarantee of employment in consecutive academic years regardless of performance, and lack of transparency from the Housing and Residence Life office. Amina Ibrahim, a second-year marketing major RA, said that at one point, she did not receive her paycheck for three months, though RAs are typically paid on a monthly schedule.

After voicing their concerns, the protestors peacefully marched to the Main Building, which is typically open to the public from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, to deliver a petition to university President John Fry. Citing that the building is private property, Drexel Police closed down the building to the public, banned signs indoors, only allowed ten RAs inside and required them to leave their bags with the police. Maximum lawful occupancy for the Main Building is 400 people. Drexel Police’s instruction prevented union representatives from accompanying the RAs to deliver the petition. Protestors were holding non-violent signs such as “Drexel works because we do! Support RA Union!”

Captain Handy of Drexel Police also prevented journalists from accessing the building, including members of the Triangle who are students at Drexel University. According to Drexel Policy No. PS-2, the Vice President of Public Safety is allowed to alter the building access guidelines without seeking approval from the Campus Accessibility Committee only in the event of an emergency. Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against unions and denying off-duty employees access to non-working areas. Employees generally have the right to engage in protected concerted activity.

“It was pretty anticlimactic – the whole building was kind of empty – probably because they had people checking IDs and stuff – and there was only a couple students coming out, I’m assuming from class. When we went to give our petition, a representative of John Fry’s office came out. John Fry, of course, didn’t come out himself,” according to Isabel Curtin, one of the ten RAs who was allowed inside the Main Building. 

Drexel Police refused to comment. The Main Building was open for unrestricted access to DragonCard holders soon after the protest ended. 

As of 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 14, the petition supporting the RA union has garnered 605 signatures from residents, RAs, other students, faculty, professional staff and Drexel alumni.

“The support from the community (both the Drexel and local Philadelphia community) has helped a lot” said Grace Knauss, another RA organizer. “We definitely are appreciative of all the support we have been receiving and this support… could have definitely been a potential factor in Drexel’s decisions towards an election.”

Drexel R.A.s went public with their intent to organize a union on March 11, when, in conjunction with a press release from Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, a majority of RAs submitted a petition to President Fry seeking voluntary union recognition from the administration. With the announcement of an official union election in April, part of their goal has been accomplished. 

RAs are demanding better compensation and a clearer set of responsibilities, among other workplace improvements.

According to Isabel Curtin, “During the rally, OPEIU 153 had a meeting with Drexel administration and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and [they] concluded that we will have a union election April 11. We are expecting to have a stipulated election agreement signed by Friday [March 15].”

In response to the unionization effort, Drexel has hired Daniel Johns, a union avoidance attorney, who has also worked extensively at the University of Pennsylvania to slow down or stop unionization. He was the legal representative of UPenn when graduate students attempted to unionize in 2017 and ultimately succeeded in preventing graduate students from unionizing. He was also Drexel’s legal representative when residential desk coordinators at Drexel unionized in January 2021, during the coronavirus pandemic. In that union dispute, Drexel argued to hold the union election in-person despite vaccines not being available to the general public. 

The university acknowledged the unionization announcement in a statement issued to the Triangle, stating: “Drexel has received and is reviewing the petition submitted by resident assistants to the University. Drexel deeply values the contributions of resident assistants to the University and is committed to providing them with an outstanding experience, a sense of community, belonging and support, and opportunities for ongoing personal and professional development. The University has no further comment at this time.”