We make the university run

April 13, 2010

United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4121 represents around 4,500 Academic Student Employees (ASEs) at the University of Washington (UW). The contract covers undergraduate and graduate students working as research assistants (RAs), staff assistants, teaching assistants (TAs), reader/graders, tutors, fellows and trainees.

The first organizing drive for Local 4121 started around 10 years ago. At the end of the school year in June 2001, a two-week strike pressured the UW administration to work with the local in lobbying the Washington state legislature for union recognition. In 2004, the union was officially recognized and signed its first contract.

In early March of this year, negotiations for a new contract began between the local and the UW administration. April 30 marks the end of the union's second contract. On March 31, the union held a contract campaign rally on campus with some 200 union members and supporters. A week later, UAW Local 4121 President David Parsons met with Johnny Mao and Darrin Hoop to talk about the history of the local on campus and the ongoing negotiations and campaign to win a fair contract.

WHY IS it important for graduate students to organize?

FIRST, TO be clear, we're not just graduate students. The majority is, but the union includes anybody who is an academic student employee. That includes graders, readers and tutors, and there are also a number of undergraduates who work as TAs and RAs.

As to why we need to organize, we're ultimately a very cheap, but critical, labor force at the university, both in terms of carrying out its instructional mission, but also in terms of its research mission and its service mission.

Our members do essential work in each of those areas. Our instructional workers provide more than half of the total instructional hours to undergraduates on campus. Research assistants are a key part of the UW's ability to bring in over a billion dollars in grants and contracts. Our folks do research but also help to write the grants.

It's really important that as student employees, we have a strong voice. It can be very easy in a situation where you have mentoring relationships and advising relationships with the university that your needs as a worker can be overlooked. The fact that there are now so many unions of graduate student employees around the country is, I think, evidence of why this sector is really important to represent. It's an increasing trend.

Members of UAW Local 4121 on strike at the University of Washington in June 2001
Members of UAW Local 4121 on strike at the University of Washington in June 2001

IT TOOK four years to win union recognition?

TWO YEARS of organizing, a strike, a bill being passed in Olympia. We also faced a legal challenge. After the bill was passed, the university challenged whether or not it was appropriate to have research assistants be a part of the bargaining unit and that challenge landed us in a one-and-a-half year proceeding with the Public Employment Relations Commission. We won that as well. After all those things we negotiated and then ratified our first contract in 2004.

The strike was from June 1-15 in 2001. It was at the end of the quarter at a time, when most of the grading happens, which would have been done mostly by teaching assistants. We handed in our grading materials so the university could try and do it by themselves, which was difficult for them without our labor.

That had a major impact. It was a really intense job action--it took a lot out of everybody, as strikes do, but it was also a really meaningful part of the overall campaign.

The university knew that we had gotten to a point that we felt like that was our only option, and we were willing to do what we needed to do to win. It was after the strike that the university agreed to jointly lobby with us for a bill in Olympia that would remove their final excuse to not recognize us. So, on a very immediate basis, the strike had an impact.

WHAT ARE the key issues in the current contract negotiations?

WAGES AND health insurance benefits.

We also have some proposals having to do with ensuring that there's a measure of quality for instruction that gets preserved. Last year, there were major slashes to a lot of the instructional support centers on campus--tutoring centers, writing centers, the center for instructional development and research--all of which provide key resources for undergraduates, for underrepresented populations on campus, for international students, etc.

Without those resources, not only is there less support on campus for all populations that need assistance, but also the remaining tutors have less of an ability to effectively engage with the students coming to see them because there's just higher volume. We want there to be better ratios of students to instructors and are proposing that closures of those support centers be reversed. We have proposals on improving child care, health care and wages.

WHAT DOES the union think would be fair for wage increases? I see on your literature that the cost for one year's raise would only be $664,000?

YES, THAT was the cost of a raise that the board of regents approved for us in one year last year. That was about a 2.5 percent increase. We're in negotiations right now to see what it will be this year. As of right now, the university has proposed no wage increase at all, for any part of the contract.

It wouldn't be appropriate to put a number on what we're asking for, but suffice to say that when our members say we want fair compensation, what we're looking at is a level that accommodates the fact that student employees, as a condition of their employment, have to pay fees that have been increasing and have to deal with the cost of living in Seattle.

Due to those increases, it's critical, especially given how much we make as student employees, that we have some increased compensation in order to deal with that.

HOW MANY positions overall will be affected? The union estimates that possibly 447-plus quarters of TA positions could be cut, but then there's tutoring centers, and there's also the issue of layoff protections.

THAT NUMBER is specific only to the College of Arts and Sciences. In terms of overall cuts, it could be much greater than that. This is simply what we know from Arts and Sciences--that they're contemplating a cut that large.

And that's just TAs. When they're talking about closing all the main tutoring centers? Who knows, that could be potentially another couple hundred tutors. And beyond that, who knows? So we're talking about the potential for major, major cuts.

What we've been trying to get across is that these cuts clearly affect people's lives in a major way. Because if you don't have funding, then you're forced to pay tuition to stay here as a graduate student. And because tuition has been increasing so dramatically in the last few years, people are faced with this impossible decision. Do I take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt just so I can stay here and finish my degree, or do I leave?

And if you're an international student, it's even more serious. Because you can't get any job other than an ASE position. It's not like you can go wait tables to supplement your income. International students have also never able to apply for in-state tuition rates. So they have to pay out-of-state tuition and can't get another job to offset those costs. So a lot of them are just leaving the country.

What we've been saying to the university is: how is it in your interests to so dramatically compromise the quality of education that happens here, both on the instruction and the research side, by making cuts of that magnitude? It's not like enrollments have dropped, it's not like tuition is dropping--but students are paying higher tuition, and they're getting fewer resources available to them. It's bizarre and difficult to understand their rationale.

THE CONTRACT expires April 30. I know that some people are planning a student strike on May 3. What is the likelihood that the local will go on strike, and what are the possibilities of connecting the two?

IS IT likely that we'll go on strike? I honestly don't know. It's certainly a possibility, and if the bargaining committee makes the determination that we're not going to get a fair contract, then we've been authorized by our membership to call a strike. It was a 90 percent vote authorizing a strike, so we have overwhelming support.

As far as connecting the struggles, I think they already are connected. It started long before March 4, and we're in a situation now where we have great campus activism, which dovetails nicely with the issues specific to our contract.

We hope to have a contract by April 30. To have something that benefits our members, that's the goal. And to be honest, it's possible. The university is hiding behind the state budget, but we know what the "big picture" financial situation is. We know the university can do it. So we're trying to put pressure in various ways to get them to do the right thing.

There's a lot that goes into any kind of mass mobilization. We've been working on various mobilizations around the budget, tuition affordability, preserving jobs. Last year, we had two open letters that went to President Mark Emmert and to the legislature. The first one, we had around 2,300 signatures, and the second one had almost 2,800 signatures.

Doing that kind of work is valuable, because it sends a strong message and because it develops more of an infrastructure for further actions. When there are lots of people on campus who are doing phone banking, or talking to their coworkers and colleagues, there's a leadership development component that goes into that.

Right now, we're in the middle of starting to set up meetings within departments and hiring units where a member of the bargaining team will be giving presentations about what's happening with bargaining and possible next steps. The goal is to make sure that if we do have to escalate seriously that there's been plenty of communication and that people have a good understanding of what the issues are. So it's not as though people will be asked a question out of the blue.

In terms of how people can help, the Student Labor Action Project has been in touch with us that they're planning something in support. If people are interested in doing something showing how students and community members support us, that's fantastic. Any show of support is always helpful.

If people are student employees, we would urge them to get in touch with us and get involved with the department meetings--because the more people who are getting in touch with their coworkers and getting involved, the better.

We had our action on March 31. You can check out our Web site and Facebook page for other actions we've done.

WHAT DID you think about the March 4 actions here and around the country?

IT WAS great. You know, one of our sister locals at the University of California had contacted us because the call for action around the March 4 emerged out of California. Like us, Local 2865, which represents ASEs at the University of California, has been involved in the fight against budget cuts, and they contacted us saying they were endorsing this action and would we endorse it too--and we did.

There needs to be more of it. We know that when it comes to influencing decision-makers, whether they're elected representatives in Olympia or the board of regents or whoever, that organizing and taking action is one of the more meaningful and powerful drivers of the process. More so than just doing legislative work or something like that.

The creation of a mass, unified movement that is speaking out about the issues that affect people is, I think, a necessary precursor for anything to get changed.

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