Militant Journalism

Postdocs and researchers on strike at U of Washington in Seattle

On June 7, hundreds of post doctorate workers, research scientists and engineers at the University of Washington in Seattle began an indefinite strike due to months of unfair labor practices by the university and unmet bargaining demands. 

For months, these workers with United Auto Workers 4121 have been bargaining for a fair contract. They still have not been offered a fair contract, with key holdouts including a child care fund, fairer compensation and the right to a more inclusive workspace. 

Bargaining history and demands 

Research scientists and engineers voted to unionize first in December 2021, which due to classic union busting tactics by the university, was finally certified by a representation election in April 2022. Bargaining sessions began in early August 2022 and now nearly nine months later a first contract has still not been negotiated. The UW has characterized bargaining as a process with “no end in sight.” This is unacceptable to RSEs who deserve not only good faith bargaining but a just and equitable contract. 

Similarly, Postdocs had been bargaining since Fall 2022, when in January, UW dramatically shifted gears and claimed that the Washington Minimum Wage Act did not apply to them. This is a ridiculous and false claim and the union immediately filed for an Unfair Labor Practice charge. The Department of Labor and Industries later responded in agreement with the union’s position, affirming that postdocs are covered by the law. This is just one challenge postdocs are facing out of a number, including the demand for a more equitable hours reporting process. 

On June 7, a day after their last failed bargaining session, hundreds gathered in the campus’s Red Square to show support for the beginning of the strike. All day June 5 and 6, workers were in negotiations with the university, but a fair contract was still not offered. Although the university is downplaying the extent of the strike and trying to push worker demands under the rug, Jai Broome, a Research Scientist 4 at Internal Medicine said, “We are walking off the job until they can offer us fair contracts.” 

Among the specific key demands RSEs are holding out for is the creation of a $90,000 fund to be dispersed to workers in need of child care support. Additionally, workers are still demanding fair compensation. Right now, the university has offered a mere 4% raise for this year and a 3% raise for the following two years, with no increase in pay for last year. With an inflation rate of nearly 5% and a cost of living adjustment of 8.7%, these misnamed “raises” in reality translate to lower salaries for workers who are already facing unprecedented living costs in a city that is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. 

The demands that workers should be making enough money to afford to live in the same city as they work, as well as be able to raise children in that city, are basic and necessary at any workplace. It is an especially basic demand given the context that these workers and their research are bringing in billions of dollars to the university and in turn they are being priced out of the city where they work. 

Widespread community solidarity

Support for the strike has been widespread with acts of solidarity originating from many parts of the community. Graduate students and TA’s joined postdocs and researchers on the picket lines while unionized mail delivery services have refused to cross the picket line and deliver anything to the university for the past several days. 

Luana, a grad student who has joined the picket lines, said that she came out “to support the colleagues I work with, the post-docs and research scientists, and it’s really because they, the graduate students and teaching assistants all run UW. We’re the reason that UW brings in billions of dollars and yet we’re being paid starvation wages.”

Luana is spot on too. In fiscal year 2022, UW received $1.67 billion in sponsored grants and contracts, $1.27 billion in federal funding, and $400 million in non-federal funding. Despite these billions of dollars, according to a multi-year study conducted by UW itself, research scientists at the university are paid 30% under the market rate. 

Zerach Coakley, a research scientist on strike at the UW who works directly with patients with end stage prostate cancer, said of the underpayment of workers: “Disgusting. UW admin has refused to address this embarrassing statistic for too long, and we’ve heard directly from their mouths their reasoning for this was because they ‘haven’t heard anyone complain.’ That’s offensive. We’re out here showing them we can unite and will take control of our work spaces. I wouldn’t be out here striking if I didn’t enjoy my work. I would just leave this institution.” 

Many of the workers on the picket lines have expressed that they find their work meaningful and wish to provide their services, but without fair compensation among other basic working conditions, they cannot go on without a change. 

Union busting tactics and racist intimidation 

Many of the striking RSEs are international scholars. On the first day of the strike and in a seemingly unprecedented move, the university mischaracterized facts regarding these international workers and striking, writing to several departments on campus: 

“We have also been informed by OAP/ISO [Office of Academic Personnel/International Scholars Operations ] that we are required to notify the Department of Labor in the event of a strike by visa holders. Please look for additional information from OAP/ISO on this requirement soon.”

U of Washington administration

The wording of the university’s guidance describes the action as a strike by visa holders and thus intentionally and falsely threatens international students’ participation in the strike. In reality, UW has no obligation to report any information on visa holders who are striking and are merely required to report that a strike is occurring amongst workers in the same classification(s) as H-1B visa holders. These actions by UW, whether intentionally malicious or carelessly misworded, caused alarm and worry among all international strike participants and interfered with their rights as workers to withhold their labor. This is an egregious action that is strongly condemned by the community. 

To read the letter of solidarity and sign on in support of international scholars, please visit this link.

History of labor abuse at UW 

Workers across the campus and unions feel they cannot go on without a change as UW continues to prioritize itself over the lives of workers. One striking research scientist, Jess Godwin, who works at the Center for Studies and Demography and Ecology and who was formerly an academic student employee and Ph.D student in the Statistics department, said this is her fourth bargaining cycle with the university and her second strike: “I have spent most of the last 10 years fighting the administration for a living wage in an increasingly unaffordable city. We just want to do our science and provide public education and public good. That is so much of what we all want to do — but housing costs money, child care costs money, and it used to be that these salaries could give you a holistic happy life in this city and they don’t anymore. If we want good science, if we want equitable public institutions, UW has to cave somewhere.” 

Not only do postdocs and research scientists find themselves in labor battles with UW administration,   but so have librarians and academic student employees in recent history.  

In October 2022, workers with SEIU 925 and UW Libraries Union held a one-day strike because of the lack of a full contract. Finally, after the one-day strike and the threat of another one in January, 38 bargaining sessions and 16 months, workers won a fair contract. 

In May 2018, Academic Student Employees went on strike for one day with UAW 4121 after months of bargaining for fair compensation, trans-inclusive health insurance and mental health coverage.

With many strikes involving thousands of workers on campus over many years, clearly UW has a pattern of forcing workers into a corner and to take last resort actions. Workers shouldn’t have to go to extreme lengths to demand basic worker benefits, a living wage and fair conditions. 

Dare to struggle, dare to win 

Whether it’s librarians with SEIU 925, researchers with UAW 4121 or any academic worker in this country, one thing is clear: All workers need a living wage and decent working conditions and these workers will put up a fierce struggle. 

A win is possible through unity and struggle. Some 36,000 student workers at the University of California campuses proved the power of united labor in 2022 when they won historic contracts after a 40-day strike.

For updates about the strike, visit here.

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