UW graduate students plan strike over pay, childcare, trans-inclusive healthcare

Organizers with the University of Washington Academic Student Employees union on the steps of Suzzallo Library announce the graduate students’ plans for a strike on May 15. (Photo by Hayim Katsman.)

Graduate student teachers and research assistants at the University of Washington’s three campuses plan to walk off the job in a one-day strike on May 15, after they say that the university failed to meet their demands on raises in salary, trans-inclusive healthcare and childcare assistance.

“We’re fighting for equity and we’re fighting for having the university to recognize not just the work we do and the way in which the city of Seattle has has changed and made it more difficult for people to live here … without having to sacrifice essentials,” said Monica Cortés Viharo, who is on the executive board of the UW Academic Student Employees union and a doctoral candidate in the School of Drama.

The union members, who authorized a strike last month if their demands were not met, overwhelmingly rejected the university’s latest proposal on May 3. UAW Local 4121 represents 4,500 academic student employees.

They are negotiating a new contract as the most recent three-year contract expired.

UW administrators say a strike would be illegal because it would affect the students being taught by the graduate students, but the union counters that strikes are not expressly prohibited under state law and teacher strikes are not uncommon.

Emily Willard, a doctoral candidate at the Jackson School of International Studies, told The Seattle Globalist in an email that the university’s pay raise offer is not enough to keep up with the cost of living.

“UW admin has rejected our proposal which includes comprehensive transgender health care, and improved access to mental health care,” Willard wrote. “They have only offered a 2% raise which does not even address inflation which is 2.4%. We are asking for 3% but they won’t budge.”

People gather at a rally for University of Washington Academic Student Employees union, as the union announced its plans for a strike on May 15. (Photo by Hayim Katsman.)

The union argues that the students are falling behind, especially in Seattle’s rising rental market. According to the union, the 82 percent of graduate student teachers and research assistants say they pay more than 30 percent of their salary towards rent, and 25 percent say they pay more than half their salary towards housing.

The union is also asking for greater assistance for childcare, which is important for students who rely on it to enable them to keep working for the university as they pursue their advanced degrees.

Trans-inclusive healthcare

Along with increased salaries and increased support for childcare, the union says the UW’s healthcare coverage for trans individuals needs to improve.

“The only trans-inclusive health coverage that my employer has provided for me consisted of letting me have an appointment with a nurse who managed to misgender me twice,” said Os Keyes, who is pursuing a doctorate in University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering.

While UW insurance covers transition surgery, the insurance does not cover transition-related procedures such as facial changes and hair removal. Keyes said all the procedures are important component of how a trans person is accepted in the world, which affects a person’s anxiety and mental health — as well as their personal safety.

“[W]hether [they] are are subjected to transphobia, attacked, harassed or assaulted … or murdered,” Keyes said.

Keyes drained their savings of $8,000 for laser hair removal, which was not covered under the UW’s insurance. Other graduate students wouldn’t necessarily be as fortunate to have the financial means to pay for hair removal and other procedures not covered by insurance, Keyes said, and some need more intensive hair removal procedures such as electrolysis, which costs more than laser.

“And the worst thing about this is I am the best case scenario,” Keyes said.

Representation in negotiations

Willard also questioned why the university was holding the negotiations with the union’s bargaining team in a campus space that could be closed after business hours, and not accessible to a large crowd.

She said campus police were called after 400 people came to hear the university’s latest proposal, which was delivered after hours on April 30.

“[I]t felt like the administration was not willing to give us that proposal and look us in the face and say, ‘this is our best.’” she said. “It was definitely a power move to get us out of the room and then give their proposal.” 

Willard said the move was not made in good faith.

“Because when you are not in the room [of negotiations], you can’t necessarily hear what all the administration’s arguments are. For me, as a member of the union I want to understand both sides. And I think part of negotiations process is to understand the other side’s perspective and actually hear them say it. So when they shut us out of the room that it was very clear signal that ‘you are not welcome as part of this conversation,’ and the second thing it was very much a power move because it was an administrative building, they called the police on us and they were using force of the police [to remove us] from a conversation that should be a good faith between two equal parties,” she said. “It made so abundantly clear that they feel like they are the ones that have more power to exclude us from the conversation.”

Next steps for the union

Cortés Viharo said that the negotiations with the university have been difficult.

“I just get the sense they are out of touch with the importance of what we do[research and teaching] and how difficult it’s to live in Seattle on our current stipend. I don’t think they really understand how difficult it is for us especially when for many students we are the university.”

“We’re the people who are teaching a lot of the courses, grading a lot of the papers, doing a lot of the research. And we wanna do a good job but it’s hard to do a good job when you are teaching your own classes and barely scraping by in terms of rent and medical costs,” Cortés Viharo said.

Cortés Viharo said the demands are a matter of equity and making sure that graduate education is open to everyone, and not just limited to those with means.

“Our bargaining demands are about equity and making sure that people who want to pursue higher education and go into academia that they don’t have to be independently wealthy to do it… that they can do it and earn a living wage, especially living in Seattle.” she said. “So we need the university to address the skyrocketing cost of living in the city. This is our way of having them to pay attention. We want to make sure a diversity of people can come and do a good work.”

The union, which says it has support from UW undergraduates, and the university have another bargaining session on May 14.

Cortés Viharo said while the May 15 plans are limited to one day, the union has not ruled out an extended strike in the future.

“We care about our students and we don’t want to not be there for them. We don’t want to miss our own classes,” she said. “If we still can’t come to an agreement we will probably do open-ended strike around finals.”

Update: This story has been updated with a person’s current name.