The University of Washington, where student employees plan to strike next week.
The University of Washington, where student employees plan to strike next week. july7th/getty

With contract negotiations stalled, teaching assistants and other student employees at the University of Washington say they’re ready to strike next week.

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Members of UAW 4121—which represents 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students who work as researchers, tutors, graders, teaching assistants, and resident research assistants—announced Wednesday night that if they don’t reach a deal with UW, they will strike for one day next Tuesday. According to the union, it would be the biggest walkout in Washington State since teachers went on strike in 2015. According to the union, a walkout would disrupt classes and research on UW campuses in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell.

The union and university leadership have been bargaining for months. Employees’ current contract expired on April 30. Last week, union members voted 2,272 to 196 to reject the latest contract offer from the university. During their final scheduled bargaining session Tuesday, the two sides bargained for 15 hours with a mediator present, according to the union, but again failed to reach a deal.

As negotiations dragged on last month, union members authorized a potential strike. UAW 4121 members also authorized a strike in 2015. In both 2015 and this year, the university has said a strike would be against state law. The union disputes that characterization. Asked about whether the university would take action against student employees in the event of a strike, UW spokesperson Victor Balta said, "Academic student employees are critical to our mission as a research university and we do not intend to take any action against them if they walk out."

Among their asks, student employees want pay raises and improved healthcare coverage.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Tyler Gordon, a second-year astronomy graduate student. “I’ve been in Seattle almost two years and I’ve never managed to put any money into savings.” According to the union, the average UW graduate student pays 44 percent of their income in rent and 82 percent of UW graduate students are rent burdened (meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent).

Gordon said graduate students see peers with similar education land high-paying jobs at tech companies. “We recognize we’ve chosen a different path and people don’t regret that,” Gordon said. “But there’s a feeling this is not a path that should put us in a situation where we can barely afford to make ends meet.”

UAW 4121 is asking for a 3 percent pay increase, a freeze on new or increased fees, improvements to make their health insurance more trans-inclusive, and better coverage for mental health care.

UW has offered a 2 percent pay increase per year. Without a fee freeze, the union worries the university could implement new or increased fees that could negate those raises. Balta, the UW spokesperson, said in a statement that because the employees are also students, “we believe it is fair that they continue to pay the remaining fees other UW students pay along with their tuition.”

The union is asking the school to increase its spending on childcare for graduate students, which is now $45,000 a year. The school has not offered to increase the total amount it spends on childcare for graduate students, according to its negotiation updates. The union is also calling for improved insurance coverage for mental health care and more trans-inclusive insurance coverage. Student employees say their mental health care coverage currently allows for only 12 visits per year and they are subject to long wait lines at the on-campus facility that takes their insurance. Balta said student workers’ coverage includes 1,500 in-network providers, a $75 quarterly deductible, and 10 percent copays. The union argues quarterly deductibles and copays at each visit “makes long-term mental health coverage financially untenable for many [student employees].”

On the request for trans-inclusive insurance, Balta said the university is “sensitive to [student employees’] concerns about trans-affirming procedures.” The current insurance plan covers "gender reassignment surgeries deemed medically necessary,” but adding coverage of procedures “deemed cosmetic” would be costly, Balta said. The union says the university is using insufficient definitions of what is medically necessary, leaving out services covered by other health plans.

The union has also advocated for improved sexual harassment training, though the two sides are still negotiating over whether those changes will be made as permanent changes to the contract or something more temporary.

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Sam Sumpter, UAW 4121 financial secretary, described union members’ unique role as both students and employees with graduate students in particular often tied to a specific adviser they rely on to “make or break their career.”

“There is nothing that exists at the university right now that addresses the particular needs of our members,” Sumpter said. “Members of the bargaining committee went to every training offered and none sufficiently got to the particular power dynamics and job situations that people who are both students and employees face.”

Members of UAW 4121 will rally on campus Thursday before speaking at a meeting of the UW Board of Regents. In a statement, the union said the “administration has brought a strike to their doorstep.”

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