UW grad students get 36% raise as academic unions gain traction

Inflation and increasing reliance on non-tenured faculty are driving student employees to unionize in Washington and across the country.

A crowd of students hold signs as they strike for better wages and benefits

University of Washington academic student employees hold signs during a UAW Local 4121 one-day strike over pay and working conditions, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (Ashley Yu for Cascade PBS)

Tahiyat Rahman, a Ph.D. student researcher in the UW physics department who has been attending the University of Washington for nearly six years, says the academic student employees’ contract is not perfect, but provides something to look forward to.

“I am so excited to finally get an eye exam after putting it off for six years despite working in a laser lab,” Rahman said in a statement. Rahman is a bargaining team member of United Auto Workers Local 4121, which represents the UW academic student employees. “These are great wins, but this also isn’t the contract that we all needed.”

Last month, the UAW 4121 and the UW agreed on a contract that included a significant pay increase for 6,000 academic student employees, graduate students who teach classes, conduct research and do other significant work at the university. The contract settlement followed a one-day strike that impacted academic operations at the UW, including class cancellations, tenured professors acting as substitutes, and the rescheduling or canceling of exams. 

The UW strike reflects both nationwide trends in higher institution employment and a surge in union bargaining power on university campuses, said Moon-Ho Jung, professor of history at the UW and chair of the UW Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. 

“These [union] efforts are driven by rising living costs and the need for better working conditions, leading to increasing unionization among graduate students,” said Jung, who is a tenured professor and not in the union. 

This isn’t the first time in recent years that UW academic workers have walked out. Last year, UAW 4121 members held a nine-day strike to demand the recognition of the UW postdoctoral scholars’ union and a stronger contract for UW research scientists and engineers. As a result of the strike, postdoctoral scholars gained recognition of their union and research scientists and engineers gained salary increases and improved international worker protections. 

The academic student employees (ASEs) are graduate students who work at least 110 hours per year, though most work significantly more, with some exceeding 40 hours a week while also managing their academic responsibilities. They divide their time between conducting research for their academic education and fulfilling their duties, which include positions such as teaching assistants, research assistants, graders and tutors, all of whom are integral to the university’s academic operations. UAW 4121 represents these students, as well as postdoctoral scholars and research scientists and engineers, who have separate contracts. 

ASEs have been represented by UAW 4121 since 2000, and they were recognized by UW in 2001 following a two-week strike and the passage of legislation. In 2004, UAW 4121 members ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with the UW.

The graduate students argue that they play an increasingly important role in instruction, which also reflects the national trend of universities hiring fewer tenure-track positions.

In a report summarizing data from the National Center for Education Statistics on faculty appointments and graduate student employment, Glen Colby, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), notes that U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly relied on faculty with contingent appointments who are not eligible for tenure. These positions include contract-renewable roles as well as adjunct positions, which are usually part-time, fixed-term or temporary.

The report shows that in 2021, over 68% of faculty members in U.S. colleges and universities held contingent appointments, up from about 47% in 1987. Additionally, 48% of faculty were employed part-time in 2021, compared to about 33% in 1987. The proportion of full-time tenured faculty members decreased from about 39% in 1987 to about 24% in 2021. Graduate student employees increased 44% from 2002 to 2021, compared to only a 19% increase among full-time and part-time faculty. 

UW is no exception. In 1998, 45% of UW faculty were tenured or tenure-tracked. By 2023, only 34% of professional faculty were tenured or tenure-tracked, according to a report created by the UW Office of Academic Personnel. UW is one of the two public universities in the state where tenured faculty are not unionized.

“Overreliance on contingent appointments, which lack the protection of tenure for academic freedom and the economic security of continuing appoints, threatens the success of institutions in fulfilling their obligations to students and to society,” said Colby in the AAUP report

Jung states that ASEs play a significant role in teaching and research at the UW, contributing to its status as a prestigious, world-class university. He argued that ASEs deserve appropriate compensation and support for their contributions. 

“The university has to recognize the role of labor unions in helping the university function,” said Jung. “Especially during moments when labor unions and the administration are negotiating for a collective bargaining agreement. There can be significant tension.”

“Many people are recognizing the only way they can have any power within that context is to form a union and come together collectively,” said Jung. 

This most recent contract between the University of Washington and UAW 4121 ASEs includes paid leave for immigration hearings; reappointment opportunities after a loss of work authorization; vision coverage for eye exams; zero-cost health care premiums; and a historic 36% raise, the largest ever for the ASEs.

“[The contract] makes up for lost purchasing power due to inflation, puts base rates above Washington State University Vancouver, and immediately puts hundreds of dollars into ASE’s pockets every month starting in July,” said Miro Stuke, a Ph.D. student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, in a statement released by UAW 4121.

While many UAW 4121 members regard the new contract as a significant success and the union’s best option, others feel it does not fully address their needs.

“I understand that it is a historically high offer for what the institution has presented in the past, but it still does not account for the increase in [the] cost of living that has many of their students under the poverty line,” said Jennifer Ortiz, a Ph.D. student in the UW biology department in a statement released by UAW 4121. “It can be historical and bad.”

The contract negotiated between the UW and UAW 4121 includes the highest raises ASEs at UW have ever secured, promising a cumulative 36% raise over three years. This agreement sets the stage for the next contract negotiations in 2027.

According to the UW, the union’s initial proposal added $940,520,320 to the existing cost of the contract over the next three years, while the UW’s initial proposal added $18,273,418 over that same time period. The approved contract ended up adding $77,259,111 over the next three years. 

The relationship between the university and UAW 4121 was strained during the negotiations. The UW filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint alleging that the union conducted unfair labor practices during a sit-in. The complaint detailed threats felt by employees due to chanting and blockades, while participants outside the building banged loudly on the building’s windows and obscured them with flyers. 

The union disputed the characterization in the labor complaint, saying that members complied with police and kept pathways clear.

“The depiction of what [the UW is] putting in the complaint and saying it’s intimidation was really just a peaceful protest,” said UAW 4121 head steward Soohyung Hur, a graduate student in the UW geography department.

Hur characterized these actions as “union busting,” and noted that similar issues arose last year during the contract negotiations with UAW 4121’s postdoctoral scholars and research scientists and engineers, as well as with other campus unions such as Service Employees International Union Local 925 (SEIU 925). SEIU 925 is the largest union on campus, representing more than 8,000 UW employees and over 17,000 education workers statewide. 

“You never want to have to go on strike as a worker,” said the president of the UW Libraries Union, Chelsea Nesvig. “If you’re going on strike, it means things have gotten really bad.”

The UW Libraries Union operates as a smaller division within SEIU 925. In October 2022, the librarians went on a one-day strike.

“We dealt with typical UW tactics during that bargaining process, where they would come to the bargaining table with nothing prepared, as a tactic to delay things,” said Nesvig. 

The surge in the academic union movement comes as membership in labor unions is steadily declining in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, since 1983, the percentage of American workers in a union has decreased from 20% to 10%.

Jung attributes this decline to “legislative changes that disempower labor unions” and employers’ resistance to recognizing unions as workers’ rights. He describes these actions as deliberate union-busting. 

However, Jung believes there are signs that this trend may be reversing as unions become more organized.

Student employee union efforts across the country have seen varied success. Last year, Rutgers University saw a five-day strike by faculty and staff rallying for better wages, improved working conditions, and greater job security. This marked the first strike by academics in that school’s 257-year history, with all instructional workers — including full-time faculty, graduate workers and part-time faculty members — walking out. 

Two years ago, over 48,000 University of California graduate student workers, represented by United Auto Workers, held a six-week strike.

The UC labor strike spanned all 10 campuses within the University of California system, disrupting grading and classes just before final exams. Over 430 tenured and tenure-tracked faculty members canceled lectures and withheld grades in solidarity, leading universities to extend grading deadlines. Contracts were ratified with graduate student workers from UAW and Student Researchers United (SRU) that included 55%-80% salary increases for ASEs, a 27% increase in child care subsidies, improved paid time off for parental or medical concerns, and a complete waiver of all campus fees. 

The United Auto Workers, originally founded to represent car-industry workers, is at the forefront of the nationwide labor movement, said UAW 4121 trustee Tricia Wu. “They [are] reviving the movement [and] making people aware that unions are not just for factory workers.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ashley Yu

Ashley Yu

Ashley Yu is a student journalist at the University of Washington. You can find her on the social media platform X at @ashley_yu03.