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News / Northwest

UW student workers strike, rally for wage increase

By Catalina Gaitán, The Seattle Times
Published: May 15, 2024, 7:42am

SEATTLE — Thousands of University of Washington teaching assistants went on strike Tuesday after their union and university officials failed to reach an agreement on future wage increases.

The union for student employees, United Auto Workers Local 4121, said its members voted nearly unanimously last month to authorize their bargaining team to call for the strike.

By Monday, the union and school had held 19 bargaining sessions and agreed on all but one of 37 provisions in the contract, with the school offering a base salary rate increase of 8% by July 2025 compared to the union’s requested 12% by the same period.

The union, which represents 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants, tutors and predoctoral instructors, staged picket lines at five locations on UW’s Seattle campus and organized a 1 p.m. rally at the university’s Red Square.

Union president Levin Kim, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant at the university’s Information School, said the strike would keep student employees from doing work that “makes the UW run,” including grading other students’ work, doing research and teaching their own classes.

Hundreds of people gathered as they listened to speeches made in front of the Suzzallo and Allen libraries building. Many carried signs bearing messages like, “Fair wages now,” “Students on strike” and “Respect, protect, pay us.”

The union’s demand for wage increases is to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living in the Seattle region and make UW competitive with other universities, Kim said. Under UW’s current contract, base wages for student employees are less than $2,700 per month, which Kim said “simply isn’t enough.”

“We need a competitive UW if UW will be a sustainable institution for employees to live and teach and work at,” Kim said. “We’re really proud of the work we do at UW and striking wasn’t an easy choice.”

UW spokesperson Victor Balta said negotiations ran until late Monday and are continuing Tuesday.

“We value our academic student employees and we are committed to reaching a fair agreement,” Balta said in a statement Tuesday. “We have been working to ensure academic continuity, laying the groundwork to keep classes and degree completion going, and we are hopeful that any disruption to UW students as a result of this strike will be minimal.”

Among Tuesday’s speakers was Oviya Krishnan, an organizer with UW’s United Front for Palestinian Liberation, which has set up an encampment calling on the university to cut ties with Boeing and divest from Israel. The encampment has grown to about 100 tents since it was set up in early May.

Krishnan said she met last week with organizers of Tuesday’s rally because the two groups shared the same goal of putting “people over profits.”

“UW claims to be for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, but they operate like a business,” said Krishnan, a senior undergraduate student studying community environment planning. “It’s up to them to make the morally correct decision in both these actions, both for the workers on strike for a fair contract and the United Front for Palestinian Liberation at UW.”

Joice Tang, a 25-year-old Ph.D. candidate and technology research assistant at UW, said striking was necessary because current wages paid by the university were “not livable.”

“Seattle is extremely expensive,” Tang said. “We need meaningful raises to be able to live here and teach here and make this institution the prestigious institution it says it is.”

After the speeches, people gathered at the Red Square either returned to one of the five picket line locations or entered the nearby Gerberding Hall to stage a “peaceful sit-in.” One event speaker urged attendees to leave the building if police instructed them to, but said a “dedicated and prepared team” would stay behind if the university did not meet their demands.

Bargaining sessions started in February and grew contentious on May 2, when UW alleged that several dozen union members “harassed and engaged in intimidation tactics” toward the dean and staff of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The student employees allegedly filled Dean Dianne Harris’ office area that day for hours, chanting, “Shut it down” and repeatedly knocking on Harris’ office door. The crowd became “increasingly confrontational,” according to an unfair labor practice complaint filed May 9 against the union by UW assistant vice president of labor relations Banks Evans.

Sally Clark, UW’s vice president for campus community safety, eventually called UW police and asked the officers to escort Harris and other staff out of the building, according to the complaint.

Banks alleged that the union members engaged in threatening and intimidating behavior and failed to bargain in good faith, and requested they sign an apology letter to Harris and her staff and pay for any damage done to the building during the demonstration, the complaint states.

In a May 10 statement, the union criticized the school for calling UW police on the group of student employees who were “engaging in protected union activities to peacefully yet powerfully make their voices heard.”

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About 2,400 UW research scientists and engineers represented by the same union went on a nine-day strike last June after failing to reach agreements on their respective contracts. Their new contracts included a 33% increase to the minimum pay over the life of the contract, which ends in 2026, and future wage increases that keep up with the cost of living.

The group narrowly avoided a threatened two-week strike in June 2018.