More Western Wash. University student workers seek union

“The truth is that the university could not run without student employees.”


BELLINGHAM, Wash. (May 4, 2023) — Western Washington University’s 1,500 Operational Student Employees rallied Tuesday to announce their intention to form a union. OSEs will join 1,100 Educational Student Employees (or ESEs)—Tutors, Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and others who do research and instructional work at Western— who filed to form a union, WAWU-UAW, last December. The OSEs in WAWU-UAW will be the first unionized Operational Student Employees in Washington state.

Operational Student Employees include Program Support Staff, Recreation Assistants, Clerks, Laborers, Lifeguards, Resident Advisors, Assistants, Attendees, Editors, and many other student roles that keep WWU running. OSEs perform critical work at the university, managing events, providing support services, doing outdoor education and recreation work, and much more.

Operational Student Employees rally on May 2 at Western Washington University in support of their union. (Photo by Mara Rafferty)

However, OSEs cite ongoing struggles around low and late pay, unsafe work environments, unpredictable schedules, and the need for a voice at work to determine their working conditions as reasons for their collective action.

“I work at the recycling center as a laborer. We operate heavy machinery, work with hazardous materials, and our job is very physically demanding,” said Nico Cardiel. “We do all of this with little to no training and our jobs put us at increased risk of injury and illness. Despite this many of us don’t have health care or an option for hazard pay. We deserve safe working conditions and fair pay.”

“Many jobs at Western are not seen as ‘real jobs’ by the university, and are compensated as if they are just a bonus, and not necessary work,” said Madeline Schaffer, Program Support Staff, Disability Access Center. “The truth is that the university could not run without student employees. Student employees deserve to have their work treated as real work, and if Western really believes in the values printed all over this campus, they should pay us a living wage.”

ESEs, sometimes also referred to as Academic Student Employees, filed to form a union in December, and hope to hold a union election in May, which would finally certify this group and allow them to start bargaining with Western Washington University administration.

In April, after much work by WAWU-UAW members and other labor and student groups across the state, Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5238, which enshrines into law the collective bargaining rights of student employees doing teaching and research work while enrolled in Washington’s regional colleges and universities.

SB 5238 was also championed by UAW 4121, the Union of Academic Student Employees, Postdocs, and Researchers at the University of Washington, as well as the Washington Students Association, the Washington State Labor Council, and other activists from regional schools in Washington.

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