Student workers stand together at UW

May 29, 2018

Kyle Trembley reports from Seattle on the issues that prompted a one-day strike of student workers at the University of Washington.

ON MAY 15, some 1,000 academic student employees (ASEs) and their supporters participated in a one-day strike and mobilized for a mass rally on the Red Square at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle.

The strike was organized by United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4121, which represents over 4,500 graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, research assistants readers, graders and tutors across the UW system.

Over the past several months, the Local 4121 bargaining committee has been in negotiations with the UW administration, which has continually rejected demands for a fair and equitable contract that provides protections and livable wages for its student employees.

These demands were democratically decided by members through a bargaining survey that was conducted earlier in the year. The demands include a 3 percent wage increase; removal of student fees; trans-inclusive health care; improved mental health care and child care subsidies; improved sexual harassment trainings; and the imposition of equity committees.

Academic student workers walk out at the University of Washington
Academic student workers walk out at the University of Washington (UAW Local 4121 | Facebook)

The 3 percent wage increase for salaried ASEs is extremely important to meet the rapid rise of rent and living costs in Seattle. According to the bargaining survey, 82 percent of ASEs are “rent-burdened,” paying an average of 44 percent of their salaries toward rent.

Along with this wage increase, UAW 4121 is demanding the removal of quarterly fees. Currently, ASEs are required to pay $317 per quarter in student fees in order to be allowed to work in return for poverty-level wages.

UW’s current insurance policy through Lifewise excludes services that are vital to transgender health and inclusion. The insurance does not cover many trans-affirming procedures and considers them merely cosmetic.

The UW administration is failing to take into account the importance of these procedures for many trans people’s mental health and personal safety. UW administrators rejected these proposals, claiming during one of the bargaining sessions that “society just isn’t there yet.”

While UAW 4121 members’ contracts expired on April 30, bargaining sessions have been ongoing since February. In response to the UW administration’s refusal to accept their demands, UAW 4121 members in favor of authorizing a strike by a 96 percent margin.

The UW administration attempted to split the union by offering some gains in sexual harassment trainings and trans-inclusive health care, while refusing to give ground on wage increases. As Os Keyes, a trans member of UAW 4121, urged the membership during a rally on May 15: “They’re only doing this because they no longer see trans people as merely disposable, but now as useful and disposable. Don’t support this offer. Stand in solidarity with all.”

THE UNIVERSITY-wide strike was widely successful and involved a strong show of solidarity.

Local 4121 members and their supporters set up pickets at five locations at major entrances to the UW-Seattle campus, as well as at UW-Bothell and UW-Tacoma. The strike was supported by multiple other unions, including the King County Labor Council, WFSE Local 1488, and the Teamsters.

On the morning of the strike, construction workers on campus walked off the job in solidarity with ASEs. Fifty-seven out of 60 maintenance workers at the UW-Seattle campus, members of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 1488, refused to cross picket lines. Multiple Teamsters also refused to drive their trucks past picket lines.

At noon, strikers and supporters at the five picket locations at UW-Seattle marched to the centrally located Red Square.

When first arriving at the Red Square, Local 4121 members marched into the administrative building, chanting, “Who’s got the power, we got the power. What kind of power, union power!” Members then marched out of the building in a circle around Red Square for a rally.

During the rally, Local 4121 members spoke about personal challenges as well as intersectional issues pertaining to race, immigration status, gender, and sexuality.

Alongside Local 4121 members, members of the WFSE, Teamsters, the newly formed union of post-docs at UW (also affiliated with UAW Local 4121), and multiple other unions expressed their solidarity — insisting that “unions stick up for each other.”

Members of Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER) also spoke in solidarity with the union struggles, drawing connections to the complicity of the United States and the UW in supporting Israeli apartheid.

Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council Socialist Alternative, also spoke. Sawant drew connections between labor struggles across the U.S. as “parts of the fight against the billionaire class.” Expressing support for the UAW 4121 struggles, she stated that “the socialists are with you here today.”

After the rally, a solidarity pizza fund organized by members of Social Equity Educators, the rank-and-file caucus of the Seattle Education Association and the International Socialist Organization, provided pizza for the strikers. Strikers then went back to their picket sites.

As the strike drew to a close at 4 p.m., picketers from various locations on campus marched to one of the main entrances. Blocking traffic by sitting in the middle of the intersection, members chanted, “We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”

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Local 4121’s one-day strike showed the collective power of workers standing together and the importance of acknowledging that our success is bound with intersectional issues of social justice and anti-imperialism.

As the next bargaining session approaches, Local 4121 organizers and members are preparing for an open-ended strike if the administration fails to accept demands for livable wages and necessary protections for student workers.

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