The Stand

1,600 WSU student workers file for union representation

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The following is from WSU-CASE:

PULLMAN, Wash. (May 6, 2022) — On May 4, graduate and undergraduate Teaching and Research Assistants, as well as Tutors and Graders and others — collectively known as Academic Student Employees or ASEs — across all campuses and extension centers of Washington State University filed their representation petition with the Public Employment Relations Commission.

They are seeking to be recognized as a new bargaining unit, WSU-CASE/UAW (Coalition of Academic Student Employees / United Auto Workers), joining thousands of their colleagues at the University of Washington, University of California, and elsewhere to form student worker unions. WSU is currently the only major public research institution on the continental U.S. West Coast that does not have a union for student employees.

“We worked really hard for this day, and are so proud to be giving voice to a majority of ASEs at WSU who want a union to improve their lives and working conditions. In thousands of conversations with our colleagues we kept hearing the same things: that people are struggling. The health insurance is inadequate for many ASEs, compensation isn’t keeping up with housing and other costs, there isn’t recourse against discrimination and bullying, and the list goes on,” said Priyanka Bushana, Research Assistant in Translational Medicine and Physiology at WSU Health Sciences in Spokane. “By forming a union, we can negotiate as equals with the WSU Administration to have more transparent working conditions and build a stronger, more equitable university.”

After Wednesday’s filing, Academic Student Employees gathered across WSU campuses and extension centers to celebrate and deliver their union petition and a statement to WSU Administration. They gave speeches about their accomplishment, why they are forming a union, and what they plan to do next to begin bargaining as quickly as possible. (Photos above are from some of the celebrations.)

Academic Student Employees power WSU’s learning and research missions. Yet they — like many others nationwide who have formed unions — struggle to make ends meet while pursuing their PhDs and making their way through the higher education career pipeline. A growing number are speaking out about their experiences, citing toxic work environments, discrimination, inadequate institutional support, and in too many cases the prospect of being forced out of academia. In joining the growing movement to unionize in higher education they’re seeking not only to improve their own conditions but help change the national landscape.

“Like the 17,000 UC Student Researchers in 2021 and the tens of thousands of other academic workers who have organized with UAW in recent years, WSU Student Workers have taken a huge first step toward making our universities more equitable,” said Ron McInroy, Director of UAW Region 4. “The UAW is proud to stand with workers in higher education who, like workers in auto and every sector of the economy, deserve a voice at work.”

“It’s really a testament to everyone involved in this effort that we were able to build statewide majority support for our union from every campus and research extension center, especially during COVID. We’re proud Cougs, but we see the immense need to make change at WSU in order to ensure that people who choose to pursue a career in higher education can do so, regardless of race, gender identity, citizenship, sexuality, or whether they have independent financial means,” said Kelsey King, PhD student in biological sciences and Research Assistant at the WSU Vancouver campus.

“For international students like me, forming a union means having a greater say in some of the unique challenges we face,” said Yiran Guo, School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in Pullman. “I look forward to negotiating a strong contract that secures our rights and fair working conditions, including stronger protections against arbitrary treatment, fair compensation, job stability, and more protections against discrimination and harassment. With a union, international students gain a stronger voice at WSU and nationally.”

The UAW is the single largest union of Academic Student Employees and Postdoctoral Scholars across the U.S., representing nearly 100,000 academic employees at more than 40 universities and colleges nationwide, including Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at the University of Washington and University of California. Last December, 1,500 Research Scientist/Engineers at the University of Washington filed to form a union.

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