UW workers are gearing up for a strike

December 11, 2018

Workers at the University of Washington have overwhelmingly rejected the university’s last contract offer, setting the stage for a possible strike, explains Steve Leigh.

THE WASHINGTON Federation of State Employees (WFSE), which represents 3,300 workers at the University of Washington (UW), is preparing for a strike after years of puny wage increases and a steadily rising cost of living in the Seattle area.

Food service workers, custodians, library workers, groundskeepers and the skilled trades held a December 6 rally to explain to the public their motivation for possible strike action.

This fall, UW workers rejected the university’s last offer of 2 percent wage increases per year over the life of a two-year contract — by an overwhelming 97 percent. UW is the third-largest employer in the county, with more than 30,000 employees in total.

The administration decided not to offer to its workers what all other Washington state agencies offered: a two-year contract with 3 percent wage increases per year and an additional cost-of-living raise of 5 percent for those who work in King County, which includes Seattle.

University of Washington workers rally in support of a planned strike
University of Washington workers rally in support of a planned strike (AFSCME Council 28 WFSE)

UW management claims it can’t afford the raises offered by other state institutions, yet somehow the university has found the money to forge ahead with its building boom, which includes a multiyear up-zoning plan in the nearby University District. And somehow, it finds a way to pay its top 250 employees an average of $387,000 per year, while the bottom 250 employees average less than 10 percent of that, or $33,000 per year.

The extreme inequality in salaries at UW is a key strike issue. “UW growing wage inequality is ugly,” as one WFSE sign put it. WFSE represents most of the lowest-paid workers at UW, but even the university’s skilled trades workers earn below union scale compared to workers beyond campus.

Another major issue is UW’s plan to shutter its laundry operations, which it has operated for decades. The laundry supplies clean sheets, towels, uniforms and more to the University Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center, which is run by UW. Fully 97 percent of the workers at the laundry are immigrants or people of color, and they are all covered by the WFSE contract.

Beginning in March, the laundry work will be outsourced to a private company, the Hospital Central Services Association, which pays lower wages than UW and doesn’t provide a pension plan.

UW administrators claim that the laundry is a financial burden. Yet a study commissioned by the union showed that UW would actually save money by upgrading its laundry services rather than outsourcing them. Even state legislators have implored UW to keep the laundry operating.

Workers at UW also regularly report harassment and pressures to work harder and faster. UW’s refusal to fill positions or raise wages sufficiently to attract skilled workers compels the remaining workers to do more.

THE RALLY began with an hour of personal testimony by UW employees, followed by comments by politicians and other officials, including UW President Ana Mari Cauce.

WFSE Local 3488 President John Frazier kicked off the rally by saying the following: “The UW is the biggest bully employer in the state. They mismanage their budget but none of them are fired. If we come late, we get fired. Help us fight the bully. Put on your fighting shoes. It’s David vs. Goliath, but David won!”

One plumber told the rally that he is so far behind that “I’ll never catch up. What we do is just as important as what you do. Stop mistreating us!”

Paula Lukaszek, who is both a plumber at UW and president of WFSE Local 1488, told the crowd that she was called to fix a plugged toilet that had been out of operation for more than two months.

“They figure that one working sink and one working toilet on a floor is enough,” she said. “Students pay high tuition, but sometimes they have to go to another building to take a crap or take a shower! I work early and late but that is not enough.”

Another repeated theme was racism on the job. “Years ago, a Harborview manager recognized the institutional racism at the hospital,” said one Harborview Hospital employee. “After years, nothing has changed. No one at the top is a person of color.”

Another worker reported: “There is institutional racism throughout management — harassing us about race, culture and English skills.”

Nearly every worker said that they were devoted to their job, but tired of not receiving the level of support needed to do their work. “We are not animals,” said another Harborview workers. “We are professionals. Ninety percent of [people injured in] car accidents come to Harborview. We save their lives.”

A couple workers noted that they are labeled “critical personnel,” which means that they must come to work even in the middle of a snowstorm or other inclement weather. Yet many of these critical positions are left unfilled. “We are the safety net,” one electrician said. “Don’t compromise safety. The legislature needs to step in!”

The largest group of workers to testify work at the laundry, and many at the rally had worked at the laundry for decades and relied on it to raise their families. “We are feeling not valued,” said one. “We are the most dedicated, the most hard working. Find it in your heart to keep the laundry open.”

THE RALLY also included an encouraging show of solidarity from other unions and the broader community. Scattered throughout the crowd were members of SEIU and the UAW (which represents graduate workers) as well as undergraduate student activists from United Students Against Sweatshops.

The UAW workers were especially strong in their solidarity. “We are disgusted at how the UW is treating our union siblings,” said Emily of UAW Local 4121. “Harassment is a disease on the UW campus. There was a known harasser in our department, a professor. The UW management said there was nothing they could do. Finally our union was able to force him out.”

Another UAW member said: “You [President Cauce] launched the ‘Race and Equity Initiative’ in 2016. You said that part of the problem was ‘institutional practices.’ How do you reconcile this with laying off 100 workers of color in the laundry? How do you reconcile this with only offering 2 percent raises to the lower paid workers, most of whom are people of color?”

After listening for an hour to the outpouring of anger from workers, the panel of officials was allowed to respond. The politicians with no direct control of the situation all expressed support for the workers, while also noting that the state has a severe funding problem. Washington state has the most regressive tax structure of any state in the U.S., and it also underfunds higher education.

President Cauce used these problems as an excuse for UW to underpay its workers. Expressing vague sympathy, she didn’t directly respond to the workers’ issues. Instead, she delivered canned statistics about the underfunding of Washington’s higher education system compared to California, North Carolina and Georgia. Nor did she respond to the issues of racism, overwork and harassment.

She would not talk at all about the misplaced priorities of the UW budget. The irony of an official who makes more than $600,000 per year — not to mention free use of a mansion, a car allowance of $10,000 a year, a cook, a gardener, and more — telling essential workers to get by on $33,000 a year was not lost on her audience.

Seattle City Councilor and socialist Kshama Sawant got the most support from the crowd when she promised to walk the WFSE picket lines. She took Cauce up on her criticism of state funding and invited her to join a movement to tax the rich and provide money for higher education. “You have no right to tell workers to live cheap when you make a six-figure salary,” she told Cauce and other officials.

The union is demanding that the UW administration come back to the bargaining table and make a decent offer. The union is demanding the same deal that other state employees received — 11 percent over two years instead of just 4 percent.

If the UW does not return to the table, WFSE is planning to strike. And if they go on strike, every union member, every worker and every community member who supports workers’ rights should join them on the picket line.

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