Faculty at the University of Washington have begun a campaign to form a union, with help from SEIU 925 (the union representing over 20,000 education-based employees state-wide and helping to organize faculty at Seattle University and Antioch). If this drive is successful, nearly 6,000 more University employees throughout the University system—including full, associate, and assistant professors, as well as lecturers and adjuncts—will gain union representation and the ability to collectively bargain with UW.
As graduate and undergraduate student workers doing instructional and research work at UW, we’ve benefitted from collective bargaining for more than 10 years. Like any unionized workforce, this right was won only after we overcame resistance from the University administration who initially opposed our drive to organize. The UW administration claimed that our unionizing would diminish collegiality, drain university resources, hurt competitiveness, and decrease the quality of education. Ultimately, an overwhelming majority of student workers chose unionization and none of the University’s fears came to pass.
Faculty are in the process of deciding for themselves the merits of unionization, and since the current University administration has recently made similar points in opposition to unionizing, UAW 4121 members are eager to share ways in which our experience with collective bargaining has had positive effects on our University. Collective bargaining has brought about increased wages, lower out of pocket fees, no-cost healthcare, as well as appointment security, and the right to take paid time off. We’ve bargained better family-friendly provisions (like $900/quarter childcare subsidies and guaranteed access to lactation facilities), leave policies, and workload protections to ensure that we can continue to make good progress towards our degrees. In addition, through collective bargaining we’ve helped improve conditions for workers outside of our bargaining unit. Examples of these efforts include our recent fight to achieve a $15/hour minimum wage for all workers on campus—regardless of whether they are represented by a union or not; our historic steps to raise the issue of microaggressions and unconscious bias, which affect the entire campus community; and our push for basic accessibility measures like all-gender restrooms for campus. We’ve also bargained processes that enable us to take action under the contract when we believe the quality of our work is compromised by increases in class size, diminished resources, or the like.
Less-frequently discussed successes include winning more budget accountability and less wasteful spending at the University. For example, in recent years collective bargaining has enabled us to discover that the University had overpaid its insurance carrier for the Graduate Appointee Insurance Plan (GAIP). As a direct result, the University recovered nearly a million dollars of public funds that it should never have paid. Our continued advocacy has led us to create with the university a far more transparent process of insurance administration for student employees.
Also worth reiterating is our continued strong relationship with student government: Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) and the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW). The UW administration initially promoted the view that the union would alter or end the efficacy of student governance. But this has simply not borne out, and we’ve enjoyed strong working relationships in advocating for fair wages, low tuition, and educational quality.
And finally, our advocacy off-campus for lower tuition, a more fair taxation system, continued measures against racial and economic injustice, and increased funding for instruction and research helps the University become more visible to lawmakers in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
Faculty Forward leaders have rightly identified that a union provides more power to enact such change, and particularly with a strong union like SEIU. As many of us face a future academic profession with fewer permanent, stable opportunities for work, we applaud the efforts of those faculty who are taking action by seeking to unionize.
We therefore urge the following:
**The University administration remain neutral while faculty determine whether to unionize, and fully and fairly respect their choice by refraining from any additional statements which can have the effect of intimidating those who wish to participate;
**The campus community engage in these critical discussions about how unionization benefits not just those directly represented by a union, but all faculty, staff, and students whose living and learning standards have been improved by a strong labor movement and collaborative workforces.
We further offer that UAW Local 4121 members are ready and willing to further discuss our experiences with unionization at the University of Washington to provide information about our history for the benefit of anyone who wishes to consider this.