University of Washington works because we do. All we want is equity.
By DAVID KUMLER
(May 15, 2018) — As an academic student employee (ASE), I occupy a strange position: I’m both a student and an employee; I’m neither a student nor an employee. You see, my status with respect to these categories is constantly in flux, largely because — in the eyes of a university — sometimes it’s better if employees are seen as students, and other times it’s better if students are seen as employees. The label “academic student employee,” not unlike the term “intern,” offers many advantages to any employer interested in obtaining cheap to free labor.
On the one hand, the university would like ASEs to be perceived as employees. A university needs employees, after all, and very good ones at that. In particular, it needs highly educated and highly qualified academic staff. Unfortunately, high qualifications often come with a high price tag. While professors and full-time faculty are not always paid particularly well at the University of Washington, they are nevertheless significantly more expensive than is desirable. This puts the University of Washington — with tens of thousands of students and billions of dollars in research grants — in a bit of a dilemma: How can it fulfill its obligations to students and grant-providing organizations while keeping costs low? How it offer quality instruction and research without paying the wages that faculty expect?
One answer is to hire “academic student employees,” persons who are both teachers and learners, employees and students. These employees perform the same tasks as professors and tenured researchers — in fact, we perform many of these tasks, like teaching introductory level courses, so that tenured faculty do not have to — but are a significantly cheaper source of labor.
Of course, it is also true that, with any source of labor — cheap or expensive — an employer benefits most when employees are well-trained and well-prepared for the task they have been hired to perform. For this reason, employers pay for their workers to attend training sessions, to visit trade shows, to present and learn at conferences, to teach and learn from their peers — in a word, employers pay their employees to become more educated, because they know that this is in the best interest of the company.
The University of Washington also knows this. The administration is fully aware that it cannot hire students directly out of high school or undergraduate institutions and place these individuals in demanding research and teaching positions without providing some training. The university then has two options: First, they could hire highly qualified staff, with doctoral degrees and ample research experience. This would be a wonderful option, were it not so expensive. The university’s second option, then, is to hire less-experienced employees for a fraction of the cost. The trade-off is that the university must train these employees.
While we might debate which option is better, it seems clear that the University of Washington prefers the latter. Take as evidence the fact that most the actual, direct student engagement is performed by ASEs. The same can be said of the cutting-edge research performed at the UW. We must conclude that, either the university is grossly mismanaging its money, or there is something to be gained from these extraordinarily affordable employees. No one can deny that, if you are a university, employing ASEs is a great bargain.
In fact, the university has managed to pay these employees so little that, according to a recent survey of ASEs at the University of Washington, 82 percent are rent-burdened — which is to say, 82% pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent; the survey also showed that, on average, ASEs pay 44 percent of their income in rent.
We wish to remedy the situation — after all, it’s very difficult to excel as a teacher or a researcher when you cannot afford rent, food, or other basic necessities. On top of our demanding academic schedules, many ASEs must hold second and third jobs to remain above water. Others they live out of their cars or visit food pantries. As employees of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, we’re tired of this. We offer so much to this university, and we ask for so little in return.
So this year, as we bargain our new contract with the University of Washington, we are demanding equity. We have not demanded much. Our entire proposal would constitute one half of 1 percent of the university’s overall budget. The salaries that we have asked for would still categorize us, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as very low to extremely low income. We’re not asking to be rich. We’re just tired of being rent burdened. We’re tired of suffering from continued mental illnesses for which we cannot afford to seek treatment. We’re tired of being asked, through fees levied by the university, to pay for the right to work.
The university’s response has been to cast us as students, not as employees. Students pay for their education. Shouldn’t we, the university argues, also have to pay? It’s not fair to other students, the university contends, if we were to be granted “special privileges.” What status do we have that could make us feel entitled to such privileges as not having to pay to work? Certainly not the status of employees! You are students, they say, and you must therefore do as students do.
Students, students, students, they say again and again — until, that is, they need someone to teach introductory-level courses to their 30,000 undergraduate students, until they need researchers to help fulfill their $1.63 billion in research grants, until faculty need subordinates to grade their tests and papers.
Nevertheless, the university declares again and again: You’re getting a free education out of this! Free education, you must understand, sounds like the most ludicrous thing in the world when you are a university. (Not unlike how free water seems absurd to companies like Nestle, and free Internet is preposterous to abominations like CenturyLink.) It is absurd, the university seems to think, that one would invest enough in one’s own institution to educate one’s employees.
And yet, go beyond the university and almost every job imaginable involves workplace training and education through experience. The jobs we perform are no different. This is particularly true for many research assistants in the sciences, for whom there is no actual distinction between the work done as employees and the work done as students beyond the fact that the latter half — and often more — is unpaid.
One might claim that our training, still, is of a different nature than other jobs — after all, it is quite intensive and it comes with a little piece of paper at the end. (If we finish, that is. If our economic and social stressors do not wear us down, out, and away from the university altogether.) We do not wish to argue against this: It’s true, we do go through intensive training, because the job demands intensive training. And for those of us that finish, our work does come with a little piece of paper at the end — a piece of paper that qualifies us to perform jobs in a saturated job market that few of us will actually be able to enter.
So, sure, like all jobs, ours involves training and learning. And the university is more than happy to provide us with a little piece of paper at the end, if it means they can hire us for significantly less than someone who already possesses that little piece of paper. And yet, when we, as employees, ask for living wages, the university claims that our training for this particular job isn’t a part of the job itself — no, this work is separate, and we must pay for the privilege of performing it. Even when our “education” amounts to empty credits that we must register for in order to maintain our status as students, we must pay.
The fact of the matter is this: It’s probably true that our jobs should not exist. In a better world, undergraduates would have unmitigated access to highly-qualified, full-time faculty. That most of their courses are taught by fellow “students” (or is it “employees”? It’s hard to keep track when the university’s rhetoric bounces back and forth) should be insulting — particularly given the $50,000-a-year price tag that many students must deal with.
But faculty are too expensive, so we go with the next best thing — near-experts who are quickly working their way towards expert status. Near-experts who are passionate about their fields of study and provide students with some of the best education in the world. And really, that’s how the university would like to describe us: as teachers who provide a great education and researchers who are on the cutting edge. They would like to describe us as such, that is, until they are asked to pay us — then we’re just students.
When it comes down to it, the administration needs us. We’re the best means this university has for providing a world-class education as cheaply as humanly possible. But as we struggle to pay for our basic necessities and to access the health care that we need, that educational quality will undoubtedly deteriorate.
Enough is enough! On May 15, we go on strike to fight for a fair contract.
David Kumler is a PhD candidate in English and graduate instructor at the University of Washington. He is a member of UAW Local 4121, the Academic Student Employees’ union at UW.