UWL student workers launch strike action

Six student workers at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse are on strike, and more are expected to join tomorrow.

The six are Resident Assistants (RAs) and they began a work stoppage at 3 p.m. Thursday, after a meeting with university officials failed to resolve their concerns around work conditions and the risks posed by COVID-19.

Two Hall Directors at UWL have already resigned because of concerns about how the university was handling the return of thousands of students in the midst of a pandemic, according to sources on campus. Based on multiple interviews with students, it’s also understood that several Resident Assistants who work at one residence hall on campus are already in quarantine, due to possible contact with a positive COVID case.

A rally by the striking workers and supporters is planned for 2 p.m. Friday at the Clock Tower on the UWL campus. One of the group’s members said they expect more student workers will join them on the work stoppage on Friday.

The students who are striking are not affiliated with any union but decided to walk off the job Thursday after a nearly hour-long meeting with university officials, they told The La Crosse Independent.

“We want to work together, but we are tired and we are already burned out before school has started,” one of the student workers said.

petition launched Wednesday by the students to put pressure on the university to meet their demands, which included improved Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), $15 an hour hazard pay, and rapid-response COVID testing, had gathered close to 1,400 signatures by Thursday evening. Student RAs say they had been forced in some cases to use homemade PPE and are worried that once residence halls are at capacity by next week, it will be difficult to control the spread of COVID.

In an email obtained by The La Crosse Independent, John Acardo, chief human resources officer at UWL, said university officials were open to listening to the concerns raised by student workers but the university’s power to resolve them was limited.

“Unfortunately, many of the concerns that you had brought forth are outside of our control and therefore cannot be addressed; specifically, those relating to items that would be collectively bargained,” Acardo wrote in the email to the student workers. “While the institution recognizes your right to organize to change Wisconsin Law, the current legal and policy parameters restrict our ability to engage with you in negotiations or collective bargaining.“

Acardo then informed the students that they were free to quit their jobs.

“You have indicated that you intend to ‘strike’ at 3 p.m. today. I want to make clear that the institution has an obligation to ensure continuity of operations and will take the appropriate steps to ensure that the move in process and bringing our students back safely is not disrupted,” Acardo wrote.  “As the university had offered to our residents, if you are uncomfortable with your current position or no longer wish to continue as an RA, we would honor your decision to discontinue in that role.” 

The student workers said they warned university officials that the COVID situation is likely to worsen in the coming weeks and said they wanted to work with the university to find solutions, but first needed to feel like their demands were being taken seriously.

RAs at UWL receive free room and board and $250 per semester, plus a $100 training stipend in their first year, rising to $700 per semester for senior staff. They work 20 hours a week, or 25 hours for seniors, but one RA who spoke to The La Crosse Independent said in reality “our job never stops.”

You can read the student workers’ demands in full here.

Melissa Baca contributed reporting. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.Top image: UWL campus/CC BY-SA 3.0.

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