The union representing academic student employees at Washington State University filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the school Monday with the Washington State Public Employment Commission.
The complaint alleges the school failed to consult the union — which also represents student employees at the Vancouver campus — regarding “unilateral” changes made to its 2023-24 health plan. Union leaders said they had repeatedly expressed that having a student voice in changes made to the health plan was among their top priorities in this year’s bargaining session.
A representative from WSU’s Pullman and Vancouver campuses could not be reached for comment as of Friday.
“One of the things that motivated us to form our union was bargaining (for) more affordable health care and better access to providers in places where we live and work,” Ninh Khuu, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Plant Pathology at WSU’s Pullman campus, said in a news release shared Monday. “But despite making this clear to management and pushing them to explore alternatives to the current provider network, they blew us off and then at the last minute presented us with limited false choices that had clearly been determined in advance. This not only violates the law, it disrespects our choice to bargain as equals.”
Examples of such apparent changes include reductions to covered out-of-pocket expenses, the addition of patient co-pays, new age limitations for children’s preventative care and limitations to coverage of medical emergency-related expenses, per the complaint. The new health plan also includes a handful of additions, such as anxiety and drug screenings and behavior counseling.
A new union
The union — called WSU-CASE/UAW — represents 1,600 students across the school’s statewide system and was officially recognized in November 2022. It then entered its first negotiation session on an initial collective bargaining agreement in February; the process is ongoing, with more tentative sessions scheduled into October.
Yiran Guo, a teaching research assistant at WSU Pullman, said the union’s formation was an effort to unite graduate employees across all of the system’s campuses in their goal to seek “fair wages” and support for their work.
“We are very invested in the teaching, education and research that we do. Nobody walks into grad school and suffers through these low wages without that passion,” Guo said.
The complaint notes that the union expressed concerns about its health plan on several occasions in negotiation sessions this year; on many of those occasions, university leaders indicated they intended to consider the union’s priorities.
During the March 20, 2023, session, WSU’s director of labor relations and disability services, Kendra Hsieh, requested that the union “share a list of topics to bargain regarding the student health insurance plan.” After such a list was presented, according to the complaint, the two sides struggled to schedule times to discuss the topics, and the union was eventually given a deadline of May 10 to make a decision on health care coverage.
The complaint argues that the school didn’t adequately communicate with the union about scheduling and ultimately failed to disclose information about the health care changes under consideration. On Aug. 16, the school changed the plan.
“(In bargaining), we hoped for the best and prepared for the worst,” Guo said. “We anticipated this but are still shocked by the degree they failed to bargain with us, the degree to which they didn’t satisfy their legal obligation.”
The union asks the Public Employment Relations Commission to issue an order deeming the change unlawful and “read notice at a future bargaining session and WSU Board of Regents meeting of its refusal to bargain in good faith and its failure to respond to the union’s requests for information.”
A full copy of the complaint can be found online at wsucase.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/WSU-CASE-UAW-Local-4121_Unfair-Labor-Practice-Complaint.pdf.