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‘Life-changing situation:’ WSU graduate students secure tentative contract with wage boost as more students nationally consider unionization

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: January 22, 2024, 7:35am

SPOKANE — A major salary boost is on the horizon for thousands of Washington State University graduate students who teach classes and conduct research.

Students organized into a union last year and Wednesday went on a three-hour strike to pressure concessions from the university on their first bargained contract. Reaching a tentative agreement, students will vote on a proposal including a 38% wage increase for some.

It’s the latest and potentially final chapter in the yearlong effort to bargain a contract for academic student employees — mostly graduate students at the university also employed in research or instruction. This includes teaching assistants and lab technicians, graduate-level researchers, veterinary assistants and tutors.

The student employees unionized in November 2022, forming the Coalition for Academic Student Employees under the Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.

The coalition has been bargaining with university officials for a contract since February , reaching tentative agreements on dozens of topics like discrimination protections, immigration and as of Wednesday: wages, health care, leave and fee waivers.

The final package, a three-year contract pending ratification from academic student employees, includes significant pay increases that graduate students say will allow them to focus less on survival and more on the work they perform for the university.

Effective three months after ratification, minimum monthly pay would increase by more than 38%. The lowest end of the pay scale, representing a Pullman student pursuing their master’s degree, shifts from $1,670 monthly working 20 hour weeks to $2,318.50. All employees also would receive a 3% pay increase in October 2025.

On campuses where the cost of living is higher, such as Vancouver, wages are higher.

The contract sets a $17.09 hourly minimum wage for undergraduate students working in academic areas.

“This will be a big life-changing situation,” said Beatrice Caffe, WSU graduate student in her second year pursuing a doctorate in evolutionary anthropology.

“We’ll be able to spend more time doing research and not worrying about finances or saving and avoiding going to the doctors and all these things that we have to do because we just don’t have the money for it.”

Beginning in mid-August, covered students’ health insurance deductible is $300, down from $500 in-network and $1,000 out-of-network.

The contract allots 36 hours of sick leave, six weeks parental leave and eligibility to apply for $2,025 per semester in child care subsidies.

The contract waives a near-$200 per semester building fee.

Caffe, having sat at the bargaining table since March, cried from relief and sleep deprivation when she read the proposal, having bargained until 2 a.m. She said she knows of peers forgoing medical treatment to pinch pennies under the low compensation.

Graduate student Mckinley Nevins, a plant biology doctoral candidate in her eighth semester in the school of biosciences, has peers who rely on public assistance including food stamps and free pantries set up in her department for meals. When academic employees are distracted by the inability to afford food and health care, they have less energy to dedicate to their studies, the students they teach and the research they’re paid to do, she said.

In a strike authorization vote representing 65% of the 1,800 student coalition, students across all WSU campuses voted 93% in favor of striking if an agreement wasn’t reached before Wednesday. Bargainers swapped proposals until the early morning hours Wednesday. With no agreement reached, students formed picket lines at all the university’s campuses.

Around 100 picketers, including Nevins joined the ranks outside Martin Stadium in Pullman, striking from her office hours held Wednesday morning. Less than three hours later, the bargaining team and university officials reached a tentative agreement on the final contract topics.

“We had this collective force and I think it was very clear to the administration that we had this power,” Nevins said. “That’s really I think what pulled them back to the bargaining table and we were able to come to that final agreement.”

WSU spokesperson Phil Weiler said the looming deadline motivated all parties to reach a conclusion, noting the essential role academic student employees provide at the university in instruction and research.

“They’re really functional to the university,” Weiler said, adding that the pending contract could make WSU more competitive in attracting graduate students.

While he said the university doesn’t know how much the new contract will increase expenditures, it will “complicate our financial picture,” he said, in a school that’s lagging in enrollment post-COVID.

Tuition accounts for around half of the school’s operating budget; as such, tuition increases have been in conversation at the university prior to the students’ unionization to offset inflationary increases and enrollment slump, Weiler said.

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Votes to ratify the proposal are open for academic student employees until Friday.

Graduate student unions are a growing phenomenon across the country in recent years, said Neal Hutchens, chair of the University of Kentucky College of Education whose research focuses on academic freedom at universities and in 2003 published a research paper in the Gonzaga Law Review exploring graduate student unions.

At the time, graduate students at schools including Columbia University, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania fought to unionize.

Since then, interest in organized labor in and outside of education had stalled until recently, with workers uniting and striking publicly in the automotive and film production industries.

Workers at the University of California’s 10 campuses went on strike from November to December 2022, the largest recorded higher education strike of roughly 48,000 workers.

Legally, graduate students’ organization is permitted under federal law in private institutions, but at public universities like WSU, it falls under states’ purview. The Washington Legislature last session passed a bill to enshrine collective bargaining rights for academic student employees at all public institutions in the state, though students already had the right at WSU to organize.

Hutchens said this legislation is evidence of the increased momentum in organization efforts from student employees.

WSU’s graduate students join the ranks of Washington students in labor unions at the University of Washington and Western Washington University. Student employees are working toward legal status as a union at Central Washington University.

A common argument Hutchens hears is that by joining a labor union, student employees shift their perception away from their identity as “student” and more toward “employee.” As such, their relationships with professors may become less of a mentorship and more of a boss-subordinate dynamic.

Caffe felt this power imbalance sitting across the virtual bargaining table with university officials, including her adviser.

“I’m not the only one who was put in that situation,” Caffe said. “So that can also be very intimidating and scary.”

For Nevins, the experience fighting for what she felt were reasonable demands essential to student employees’ survival eroded her trust in the institution itself, sending emails she felt were threatening and meant to intimidate or discourage the strike.

“I think a lot of us really felt disappointed by the way that the administration sort of handled themselves, that they felt the need to resort to really trying to scare a lot of us out of taking this collective action,” Nevins said.

But Hutchens argues that this emphasis on work over study doesn’t stem from collective bargaining, but rather the universities’ priorities.

Schools are operating more like businesses in recent years, centering on profits and using student employees as a source of inexpensive labor in some of the most pivotal areas of academia: instruction and research, Hutchens said, adding that student employees began to feel more like employees than students, seeking collective representation.

“I do think that at a lot of institutions there’s a lot of rhetoric around, ‘We basically want you to be students, we don’t want to have to pay you, but then in other instances we really kind of want to treat you like an employee to get as much work out of it as possible,’ “ Hutchens said. “And the students just get that if you’re going to treat me like an employee in terms of how you treat me with benefits and compensation, don’t be surprised when I act like one and I want to form a union.”

Elena Perry’s work is funded in part by members of the Spokane community via the Community Journalism and Civic Engagement Fund. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.