Barnard’s New RA Contract Fights for Financial Equity

RA Union members speak to the newly issued contract and future negotiations.

Photography by Claire Cenovic

On December 13th, 2023, Barnard RA Union’s new contract was voted into ratification after a year of negotiations with the administration.

Under the new contract, RAs will no longer have their housing and meal plans covered and will instead receive a semesterly stipend of $4,300, regardless of their financial aid package. RAs will also have $7,200 taken off of their housing cost every year if they are not on financial aid, or have their student contributions canceled if they are on financial aid. For multiple or single occupancy, housing typically costs $12,438 per year, not including meal plans. 

Barnard College and the Barnard Residential Assistant (RA) Union began negotiating a new contract to combat financial inequities and non-economic concerns such as work schedules, RA placement, and staffing in January 2023. The negotiations continued throughout the Fall of 2023, and in November, the administration presented their “last best final” offer. The central concern the RA Union brought to the College regarded how financial aid is packaged, and how it impacts students differently based on their financial needs. 

“We were able to show the college the [financial aid] discrepancies,” says Abigail Fixel, a RA Union member, “Until then, they hadn’t really believed us. After the meeting, they just couldn’t say anything, because we were showing them the proof that it was happening.” 

The RA Union’s new stipend and financial policy will not cover room and board costs completely, but it sets a standard for equitable compensation. The contract will provide RAs who are not on financial aid a discounted price for housing. The contract goes into full effect beginning in Fall 2024, but RAs negotiated to begin receiving the stipend beginning this semester, Spring 2024, without changes to their housing, meal plan or financial aid. 

Under the old compensation plan, RAs on financial aid did not benefit the same as students paying full tuition, because their financial aid packages were often reevaluated and lowered after being appointed to the position. RAs on financial aid received the free room and board benefits that RAs not on financial aid received, but their parental financial contributions were increased by the financial aid office. RAs on financial aid will now have to pay full housing, but their loans will be canceled by the school.

Some RAs who were not necessarily involved in the bargaining process were dismayed at the new contract since it decreased their previous benefits.

Siyu Liu, an RA in Plimpton, said it’s harder for international students to receive financial aid. Although Liu is not on financial aid herself, she says the RA job was beneficial as her contract covered housing and meals. “Not everyone who’s not on financial aid is rich,” says Liu. 

Fixel said the RA Union had no choice but to take the College’s final best offer to a union vote. “It’s financial equity, but it’s not as much money as we would have liked or would have hoped,” she said. 

In addition to changes in financial compensation, the new contract put forth changes to standardize RA duties and schedules. RAs have office hours now, which take place once a week from 7-11pm, and they no longer have 24 or 12-hour duty shifts. When a Barnard resident has a concern or needs assistance, they directly call CARES instead of the RA on duty. These changes went into effect in the Spring 2024 semester. 

Previously, RAs were required to take turns working 24 hour shifts, in addition to 12 hour shifts. However, depending on RA placement, the shifts times varied. The quad, which houses mainly first-year students, has more RAs than other dorms. This meant that RAs in the quad had more people to distribute shifts amongst, whereas in other dorms like 110 or Cathedral Gardens, RAs had to take on more duty shifts. 

Fixel, who lives in Plimpton, described the inequities in scheduling before the new changes were put into effect. 

“Plimpton had a seven day a week duty, despite being an upperclassmen dorm,” says Fixel. “Now the quad has 30-some RAs, and so every quad RA is on duty, maybe six times a semester. Because Plimpton only has seven RAs, I was on duty about 15 times last semester.” 

Fixel says now residents have been stopping by to the new office hours, and the new system is starting to look successful.

“We’re always going to be there to offer support,” says Fixel. “I think it’s important that people know that. We’re there as peers, not student workers or employees at the college. We’re there to help. But it’s a different format.”

Fixel said that this is only a first contract, and there is room to improve upon it in the future. Bargaining for an updated contract will start again Spring of 2025. 

“That’s the beauty of a first contract,” says Fixel. “It needs to be built upon. In a year and a half, my senior year, I’ll be back at the bargaining table fighting for a better contract for the future RAs.”

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