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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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2,400 University of Washington researchers are now on strike


SEATTLE — About 2,400 University of Washington researchers went on strike Wednesday after failing to reach agreements on their respective contracts after months of negotiations.

The strike will “effectively grind research to a halt,” organizers said, given that striking postdoctoral researchers and research scientists and engineers are responsible for much of the work that grants UW its distinction as a top research institution.

The group of research scientists and engineers, represented by UAW Local 4121, has been in negotiations since August and joined efforts with their postdoctoral colleagues in October. While the groups have reached some tentative agreements with university officials, three core demands from the research scientists and engineers remain unmet, organizers said.

The first demand is support for an inclusive workforce, which includes applying the same harassment prevention program for research scientists and engineers that’s available to postdoctoral and student employees.

The second demand is for child care, and the third for increased wages — which is also the biggest sticking point for postdocs, organizers said.

Research scientists and engineers spend years earning their degrees and becoming experts in their respective fields, so it’s “disheartening” to see UW officials refuse to pay fair wages, Ryan Will, a research scientist in laboratory medicine and pathology, said in a statement.

Organizers hope to compel UW administrators to bargain in good faith and address the urgent issues they’ve raised, Levin Kim, president of UAW 4121, the union of postdocs, research scientists and engineers and student employees at UW, said in a statement.

Research scientists and engineers began bargaining with university officials in August 2022 and have held over 30 sessions. Postdocs have been bargaining since October.

About 6,000 UW academic student employees and graduate students working as research and teaching assistants pledged to respect the picket lines.

Organizers’ priority has always been to ensure science at UW is sustainable and inclusive, said Rebecca Bluett, a UW postdoctoral scholar. That includes fair wages so “We can all afford rent, take care of our families and stay in the careers we love.”

“We love our research, but UW has left us no choice,” she said. “We will be striking until we get a fair contract.”

University officials expressed disappointment about the strike, saying they’ve bargained in good faith and that their wage increase proposals, detailed in a post on the university’s website, are fair.

Victor Balta, a UW spokesperson, said via email that UW’s proposal to the research scientists and engineers includes enhanced participation in the EPIC sexual harassment training program that postdocs already use.

Balta also said postdocs are being offered increases in child care support, as officials plan to increase the existing annual funds. He said research scientists and engineers are not being extended the same offer, as they are professional staff and do not have a child care fund.

“Negotiations with the research scientists are very close, yet they left the table Tuesday for eight hours only to return with an unchanged proposal and walk away,” the university’s online post says. “The UW has made offers that it is proud to stand behind.”

Postdoc researchers who rallied Wednesday outlined their difficulties of paying rent and for child care and basic necessities with salaries that don’t meet their $72,000 demand.

Almost the entirety of Momona Yamagami’s paycheck goes to covering rent and day care for her 11-month son, she said. Yamagami, a strike captain and postdoc in computer science and technology engineering, told the Red Square crowd that her expenses are so high she doesn’t have much left after paying for essentials.

“How can such a prestigious institution pay such low wages?” she asked the crowd.

Bia Lacombe, representing City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office, said Sawant sent a letter to UW President Ana Mari Cauce asking her to agree to the groups’ demands.

Seattle rents increased by an astounding 92% since 2010, Lacombe said, citing a study from Self, a financial tech company that analyzed data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. Census Bureau survey data.

“This means that even at … $72,000 a year, a worker will struggle to afford average basic housing,” Lacombe said. “That’s unacceptable.”