Residence advisors unionize after a year of ‘not feeling safe’ doing their jobs

After years of discussion, UBC residence advisors have voted to unionize.

RAs will be joining Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 116, which represents other UBC staff, including food services workers and student housing and hospitality service workers. The reasons to unionize were many, some stemming from the pandemic and others that have lingered for years.

Sixty-one per cent of RAs signed unionization cards, but 88 per cent of all RAs voted in the final unionization vote — with 97 votes in favour and two against.

RAs Minnie, Jeff and Lydia said they were excited this had finally come to fruition. Their names have been changed to protect their job security.

From here, Lydia said RAs will begin speaking with the union about what they want to prioritize in negotiations with the university. CUPE 116 has a year to finalize a collective agreement.

In a statement sent to The Ubyssey, Associate VP Student Housing & Community Services Andrew Parr thanked all RAs that participated in the vote.

“Despite the changes this decision will create, our core objectives of supporting an exceptional experience for our residents and creating an outstanding work environment for all employees does not change,” he wrote.

“We are ready to work CUPE 116, as we do with many other employee groups, and our Residence Advisors to fulfill these objectives.”

Long-standing issues

While COVID-19 contributed to the issues facing RAs, the RAs The Ubyssey spoke to were clear that many of these issues began years ago.

Those issues include RAs working far more than their contracts state and no pay increases for advising more residents. For example, some RAs have to monitor over 40 students, and others, half that — all for the same pay.

But COVID-19 heightened safety concerns for some RAs.

Some first-year residents have spoken of significant partying in residence. In September, the RCMP broke up a party of over 50 attendees in front of Orchard Commons, and in February, RCMP fined students over $5,000 for partying on campus. In March, student housing confirmed COVID-19 exposures in Orchard and Totem Park.

UBC tasked RAs with breaking up parties in residence, and many felt like they didn’t have the support to handle COVID-19 violations, Minnie and Jeff said.

“RAs were not feeling safe in their job and in their community, which is ironic because that’s our job. Our job is to make sure our community feels safe but RAs in first year couldn’t even feel safe,” Jeff added.

Years in the making

Unionization has been a conversation for years, but never got off the ground until this year.

Jeff attributed this to RAs’ fear of losing their jobs, as he’s observed many RAs are students who can’t afford housing in Vancouver — and therefore depend on their job as an RA for housing.

“Yes, we love our job, we love the impact we make, but people are reliant on this job,” he said.

With the backing of the union, RAs are hopeful they can fight for long-needed change.

“It’s going to be very important for us, I think, just to have support and a seat at the table when it comes to decisions being made about us. That’s so important when your job is directly tied to your housing security, and in the case of first-year residence especially, your food security,” Minnie said.

Lydia thanked the student community and the AMS for their support.

Jeff said he hopes this results in RAs feeling “safer in their role, more protected [and] adequately compensated.” He also hopes this will clear up some misconceptions about unions.

“If anything really comes of this, in addition to RAs being able to advocate for themselves, I want people to know what unions are.”