Western Wash. University student employees vote ‘Union YES!’

WAWU-UAW victory—by 98% margin—part of a wave of academic organizing in higher education


BELLINGHAM, Wash. (June 13, 2023) — By a massive 98% margin (805-19), 1,100 Educational Student Employees (ESEs) at Western Washington University voted in favor of their union, WAWU-UAW, or Western Academic Workers United-UAW, in a vote that was tallied Monday. ESEs are Tutors, Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and others who do research and instructional work at Western. This new union will be the largest in Whatcom County and the first majority undergraduate employee union in the state.

“The turnout for this vote was huge, and so was the ‘Yes’ margin,” said Lily Rayor, an undergrad teaching assistant in Biology and a member of the organizing committee. “Even though the election was scheduled during finals, we saw voter turnout over 75%! There’s a buzz on campus — everyone here knows that having a union is long, long overdue.”

ESEs make critical contributions to teaching and research at WWU, but many lack secure rights and protections in the workplace, struggle with low compensation and inadequate health care, and face uncertainty about their careers.

“The cost of living in Bellingham is rising fast, but a lot of student wages haven’t been adjusted since the ’90s except for statewide minimum wage increases,” said Karna Ringham, a graduate teaching assistant in Kinesiology. “My coworkers and I have to work multiple jobs off campus after class, between teaching and on weekends. We know this makes it harder for people to stay enrolled and graduate on time. We’re looking forward to the administration working with us to make Western a better place to work so we can improve the quality of education for everyone here.”

This year, the Washington State Legislature passed and Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5238, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), which enshrined into law the collective bargaining rights of all academic student employees enrolled in Washington’s regional colleges and universities. The bill was championed by WAWU-UAW, UAW 4121 and others, including the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO (WSLC).

“We congratulate the Educational Student Employees of Western Washington University on their resounding victory,” said WSLC President April Sims. “The WSLC was proud to stand alongside members of WAWU and our affiliated unions to support SB 5238 this year so that ASEs at our regional four-year universities do not face barriers when joining together. By empowering themselves, WAWU has paved the way for others to improve their working conditions — and the quality of our higher education system — through collective bargaining.”

ESEs, sometimes also referred to as Academic Student Employees, filed to form a union in December. The Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) is expected to issue an interim certification for the union in the coming days. Once certified, their next step will be a demand to bargain with Western Washington University administration. Union members have been preparing for bargaining for several months. The union has already democratically elected a bargaining committee, and has conducted detailed bargaining surveys with hundreds of members. The union has also had a series of membership meetings focused on formulating priorities and goals for the first contract.

“We can’t wait to bargain,” said Chris Reid, a graduate teaching assistant in English. “There are far too many problems that prevent people from attending Western and succeeding once they get here. For things to improve, we need to listen to the demands of the student workers who run our institution. We need protections from wage theft, access to short- and long-term leave, reasonable scheduling, and fair and equal pay for equal work. As it stands, none of these things are guaranteed at Western.”

Meanwhile, an additional 1,500 Operational Student Employees, who perform maintenance, clerical and other types of work, have recently started gathering authorization cards with the intention of seeking recognition with WAWU-UAW. If successful, their effort would make WAWU-UAW the largest majority-undergraduate union in the country, and the first to win wall-to-wall recognition for student workers employed by a public university.

Educational Student Employees at Western will join the UAW, which represents nearly 100,000 student employees at more than 40 universities and colleges nationwide, including at the University of Washington, Washington State University, the University of California, and Columbia University. Learn more at wawu-union.org.

Get more information about how you can join together with co-workers and negotiate a fair return for your hard work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!

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