Holding UW’s feet to the fire

May 27, 2015

Steve Leigh and Darrin Hoop report on the organizing work by the Reclaim UW coalition to fight the corporate takeover of the University of Washington.

STUDENTS AND workers at the University of Washington (UW) are on a roll, fighting for and winning some impressive gains in the face of an administration that continues to push for budget cuts and privatization.

Recent steps forward for UW activists include an increase in the student minimum wage to $11 per hour, in line with Seattle law; a new contract for research assistants (RAs), teaching assistants (TAs), graders and tutors, which includes a pay increase in base rate departments of 24 percent over the life of a three-year contract and $200 extra per quarter for child care; a resolution passed by the Board of Regents to divest UW from coal stocks; and an ongoing discussion with the administration about the reality of institutional racism at the UW.

All of these gains have come from organizing and mass action on campus.

Reclaim UW, a recently formed coalition that includes a wide variety of student groups as well as campus unions, has held rallies and marches that confronted university officials, including disrupting a Board of Regents dinner in April.

A walkout at the University of Washington led by Outside Agitators 206
A walkout at the University of Washington led by Outside Agitators 206

Before that, the most inspiring action was a February 25 protest of more than 1,000 people called by the Black Lives Matter movement, which is allied with Reclaim UW. It was the largest demonstration in recent UW history, and it demanded changes to address institutional racism on campus. Black Lives Matter activists held another well-attended speak-out for diversity in early May.

It was in this context that Reclaim UW organized a May 14 rally at the UW Board of Regents meeting titled "Reclaim the Regents," demanding an end to inequality on campus and to the ongoing corporatization of the university.

AS RECLAIM UW points out, the national trend toward the privatization and corporatization of public universities has hit UW hard. Today, the vast majority of funding for UW comes from grants, contracts, gifts, tuition and self-sustaining services--less than 10 percent of the total budget now comes from the state government. In other words, UW has become a "public university" that is barely funded by the state.

A statement by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) branch at the UW noted:

The bedrock idea of higher education as a public good that serves to provide knowledge and education to the state's citizens is under great threat. The state revenue crisis, another departed UW president, and a budget model that devalues academic quality, is leading the University of Washington to act more like a private corporation than a flagship public university...

State funding for UW collapsed by 45 percent from 2008-12 and has only recently started to recover. Meanwhile, undergraduate tuition has skyrocketed, rising by $4,000 between 2009-12. Half of UW students graduate with student debt. As a result, the university has become dramatically more corporatized over this period, has solicited record amounts of corporate donations, has expanded corporate partnerships dramatically, and taken out billions of dollars in bond debt to drive up student demand.

The AAUP also called out corporate dominance on the UW Board of Regents:

Many (regents) are closely linked to employers who have fought against creating new sustainable revenue for higher education, either via lobbying for huge tax breaks for themselves, or directly fighting against sustainable, progressive revenue for education. The Regents have also been criticized extensively by UW stakeholders and the media for breaking state rules 24 times to meet behind closed doors.

AT THE May 14 regents meeting, Reclaim UW activists rallied to demand an end to what the group calls "rampant inequality on campus." In its call to action, Reclaim UW noted that the fight against inequality on campus is not just an economic one:

When we demand an end to inequality at UW, we mean it in the broadest sense. We mean racial inequality in which only 3 percent of students and 1.7 percent of faculty identify as Black; economic inequality in which 12,000 campus workers sustain themselves on less than $15 an hour, while over 1,700 UW employees make above $150,000 per year; and structural inequality in which binding power and authority at UW rests with a Board of Regents, most of whom are current and former business executives.

At the rally, speakers argued for making those in power uncomfortable and not toning down their demands. A speaker from the African Student Association demanded an end to racism on campus.

After the demonstration outside, 75 supporters of Reclaim UW marched into the regents' meeting room chanting, "Whose UW? Our UW!" and "Education is a right, and not just for the rich and white!" Demonstrators lined the room, holding signs.

In the public comment section of the meeting, Reclaim UW representatives raised several of the coalition's demands, including:

1. University-provided affordable housing for students. Rents in Seattle have skyrocketed, including in student housing.

2. A budget that reflects the needs and priorities of students and workers, rather than the corporations that the regents represent. This should include real democracy in determining the budget.

3. A racial equity fund of $1 million to hire faculty of color and to aid students of color.

4. Decent pay for social-work students who are required to perform practicums for no pay and now actually pay to work.

5. Affordable and accessible child care for students and workers at the UW.

6. A tuition freeze and rollback.

7. Hiring more janitors to adequately cover the large increase in building space at UW. This would allow janitors to have more humane working conditions.

The "Board of the People"--the public attendees at the meeting--voted on the proposals one at a time, after each speaker summarized them. Each proposal passed unanimously to loud applause--a far cry from the kind of "democracy" usually on display from the corporate-controlled Board of Regents.

The coalition is also circulating a petition demanding a change in priorities at the UW. This petition is backed not only by Reclaim UW, but also the Service Employees International Union Locals 925 and 1199, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4121, the AAUP, UW Faculty Forward, United Students Against Sweatshops, Academic Workers for a Democratic University, the Minority Student Association, the International Socialist Organization, and several other labor, student and community groups.

THE ORGANIZING by Reclaim UW isn't the only successful activism taking place on the UW campus. The student group Confronting Climate Change (Divest UW) recently won a historic victory when the Board of Regents voted at its May 14 meeting to divest its endowment of coal stocks. This marked the culmination of more than a year of organizing.

According to the Seattle Times, about $2.3 million of coal stock will be affected, with the UW expecting to lose approximately $13 million over the next 20 years. However, these activists still have work to do on the rest of the UW's fossil-fuel investments. If UW divested from all its remaining oil and natural gas stocks, it would stand to lose $250 million over 20 years, according to its own estimates.

The UAW, which represents over 4,000 RAs, TAs, tutors and graders at the UW campuses (Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell), also notched a victory after it held several public actions on campus during contract negotiations, including conducting a strike vote. In addition to the gains mentioned previously, the union maintained health care benefits, including no premiums; the building or re-purposing of 26 all-gender bathrooms; the provision of private, clean lactation facilities along with adequate break time; and an increase in the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour on January 1, 2016.

While the UAW's leadership deserves credit for negotiating this new contract, it's easy to see how they benefited from the overall climate of activism on campus and in the city. The wage gains mirror the general trend in the city as the Fight for $15 movement set a high standard. Meanwhile on campus, the Black Lives Matter walkout on February 25 and all the Reclaim UW actions put the demand for $15 an hour at the heart of campus debate. All of these protests attracted larger sizes and more publicity than any of the official UAW actions.

Finally, it's necessary to point out the role of Academic Workers for a Democratic University (AWDU), a small but growing left-wing caucus within the UAW. In the lead-up to the negotiations, they helped pass important reforms like expanding the size of the negotiating team so that a larger number of rank-and-file workers could be included on it.

With only a couple weeks left before the end of the spring quarter, the struggle is not over at the UW. The eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement on campus since the walkout has led to an ongoing conversation with the administration about institutional racism. However, activists are growing restless with what they see as mostly talk from administrators without any concrete changes to policy.

In response to this, a "Check Your Privilege Party" has been called for May 30 to target the sizable Greek Row that is located across the street from the UW. During the February 25 walkout, as hundreds marched past it, African American students witnessed members of the SAE fraternity calling them racist names, such as "monkeys." This same fraternity is known as "Sexual Assault Expected" for its sexist treatment of women on campus.

As the Facebook event explains:

On this night, we will take over and claim space on Greek Row, we will give ourselves access to this space. On this night we will center Black lives, queer lives and differently abled/disabled lives, and we will check their privilege.

Finally, a struggle is brewing, led by MEChA, around defending the American Ethnic Studies Department. It's recently come to light that four of the five current Chicano Studies professors will be retiring over the next several years. The UW administration has yet to commit to replacing them, nor to expand the hiring of more African American Studies professors (there are currently only two).

On May 26, activists from MEChA, Reclaim UW and the Black Lives Matter movement will be meeting with the interim UW President Ana Mari Cauce to discuss this issue along with the remaining unresolved demands raised during the walkout and the May 14 Reclaim UW action at the Board of Regents meeting.

Though finals are quickly approaching, UW student and worker activists are promising to continue the fight against inequality, corporatization and institutional racism at the UW and beyond.

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