UAW Local 4121

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The Workers
SEIU Local 925
WFSE Local 1488
UAW Local 4121
SEIU Local 1199
GCC/IBT Local 767M


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The Early History of GSEAC/UAW


By Daeha Ko

(June 2002)


The organization of a TA union on the University of Washington campus began early in 1998.  During winter quarter of that year, a group of students from the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) formed a committee to review the TA/RA (research assistant) experience at the UW and to address TA complaints about work overload, low wages and a lack of security regarding benefits.[i]  According to Roberta Gold, a founding member of GSEAC, an incident in the History department was one of the prompting factors. A TA was removed from his teaching position by the department chair after a verbal dispute with a faculty member.  The TA received the message on his answering machine and was mortified to learn that he had been effectively terminated from his position without being allowed to present his side of the story.[ii]  After hearing the TA’s account, the department chair reinstated the TA, and by doing so acknowledged that the decision to terminate was too hastily made. This incident understandably raised concern among many graduate students.  Graduate students in the Geography and History department responded by meeting together to discuss the possibilities of unionizing in order to address conditions of employment and long-standing grievances.[iii]   Students in the History Department  resurrected the Graduate Liaison Committee (GLC), a departmental organization that acts as an advocate for graduate student opinion.  However, members of the GLC realized that they could not do much from a legal standpoint in their attempts to settle TA/RA grievances or in their push for better benefits.  "It was decided that if graduate students were to have a practical say in terms of employment, then a real union was needed," said Gold. 

The realization that a union was required to address long-standing TA/RA grievances lead members of the GPSS TA/RA Committee and graduate students from the History and Geography departments to form GSEAC.  In order to avoid endangering unionization efforts in its infancy, GSEAC registered itself as an Registered Student Organization (RSO), for the purpose of working against shrinking TA/RA benefits, getting more sovereignty in government and encouraging dialogue among TA's and RA's.[iv]  In the spring of 1998, Mary Wheeler – a doctoral candidate from the University of Michigan where TA's are unionized – spoke at a GPSS forum about TA/RA issues.  During the forum, GPSS president Tina Kotek said that UW TAs do not plan to organize but that their wages are lower than peers at comparable institutions.  GSEAC members began suggesting efforts to unionize Campus TAs.  UW President Richard McCormick dismissed the idea, stating that "graduate students are first and foremost students" and "graduate student employees' employment status is derived from their education status and would suggest it is inappropriate for students to seek unionization."[v]  

"What got the ball rolling [toward unionization] was a change in insurance plan for grad students," said Gold.  In the fall of 1998, the plan was changed without any notification. Graduate students were simply told that they would now be required to pay part of the costs of their health insurance plan.  Some students, who had incurred health-related expenses, thought they were receiving full coverage only to find out too late that the coverage had been changed.  The GPSS appointed a committee to investigate the health insurance plan but found itself helpless to change what had happened or prevent such things from happening again.  Many grad students now decided  “that a union was essential,” said Gold.[vi]

During Spring Quarter 1999, GSEAC staged its the first public event to get TA’s and RA’s interested in unionizing.  Around this time, an organizational structure in GSEAC began to take shape in the form of an eight-member steering committee.  This body met on a weekly basis, took responsibility in arranging and scheduling meetings, recruiting organizers and worked to organize a campaign drive for unionization. The first GSEAC Steering Committee was made up of the following members and their respective departments:  Kenneth Lang, Roberta Gold, Steven Marquart of History, Amy Freeman and Rich Heyman of Geography, Heather Easterling of English, Ron Aoyama of Philosophy and Christopher Hibbeln of Psychology.  Another event that caught the attention of GSEAC was when the Graduate School considered a proposal to change the system of standardized wages for TAs, introducing different rates for some departments.  This unequal pay raise and the fact that studies showed that at the UW, TAs receive 3.1 percent less in wages than TAs at peer institutions, led GSEAC to be even more determined to unionize and to get backing from an established major union.[vii]

In the fall of 1999, GSEAC made the decision to affiliate with the United Auto Workers (UAW). “The UAW was a clear choice for GSEAC in that the UAW would be able to provide the union with reliable support,” said Gold.[viii]  A big factor was UAW's role in the long campaign for unionization of TAs in the University of California system. The Association of Graduate Student Employees (AGSE)  at Berkeley won a  representation election for readers, tutors, and acting instructors with an 80-percent majority in the spring of 1993. But the UC administration went to court, refusing to deal with the union. Also in the spring of 1993, a majority of student academic employees at UC Davis formed a union and a majority of readers, tutors, and acting instructors at UC San Diego join AGSE/UAW there – organizing then followed suit at UC Los Angeles and UC Santa Barbara. Finally after a multiyear campaign the University agreed to bargain. In spring 2000, AGSE/UAW  ratified their first system wide contract by a 93-percent margin.  The settlement, 17 years in the making, provided pay raises, tuition rebates, full health care coverage, job security, and basic union protections to 10,000 teaching assistants, readers, and tutors in UAW locals at all eight UC campuses.[ix]  The success AGSE/UAW in California was encouraging and led GSEAC into affiliating with the UAW for financial and moral support.

The UAW provided GSEAC with office space off-campus and training for professional organizing.  Two graduate students were selected by the GSEAC Steering Committee to become staff organizers, meaning that they would not teach or do research work for the quarters they were organizing but that the UAW would compensate for the pay and benefits normally received in those positions.  Kenneth Lang and Stephanie Burkhalter became the first organizers for GSEAC, starting their work during Winter Quarter 2000.  At the time the UW administration was aware of GSEAC’s existence as an RSO but the administration was completely unaware of the card drive that GSEAC had kept quiet about.  They had been using grassroots organizing methods to avoid the use of e-mail, which helped prevent any surveillance from happening[x].

During the process of organizing, it was discovered that GSEAC already had support in many departments all over campus. In January 2000, GSEAC began a card drive to collected signed union representation cards from teaching assistants authorizing GSEAC to represent them. At the end of Winter Quarter 2000, GSEAC submitted signed union cards representing over 80 percent of the UW's 1,650 graduate-student teaching assistants, readers and tutors to the state's Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC). PERC is a Washington State agency that oversees labor relations for government employees.  By the time of the card drive, undergraduates as well as graduate students were joining GSEAC/UAW because of awareness that many worked in the same jobs as graduate students: as teaching assistants, readers, graders, and tutors. GSEAC/UAW asked that it be allowed to represent TA/RAs in contract negotiations with the university in a letter on 15 March 2000, sent to President McCormick and PERC requesting legal recognition.[xi]  In order for this to happen, the UW needed to release a list of employees that PERC could compare with the cards signed by the student employees, but the University refused to do so.  Although PERC accepted the cards, the university refused to agree to PERC jurisdiction. According to Karen Kavanagh, UW vice president for human relations, the UW sent a letter on 25 March 2000 to PERC indicating that the organization needed more information regarding the legal framework under which PERC will consider the GSEAC petition.[xii]  "This is a complex issue because there seems to be no state law on collective bargaining - and this involves student employment," she said.[xiii]

Kavenaugh sent another letter dated 22 March 2000 saying that the UW was comfortable with the GPSS being the voice for graduate students, regardless of GSEAC.  However, PERC Executive Director Marvin Schurke said he never received any letter sent by the UW.  GSEAC member Christopher Hibbeln said the GPSS is useful as a student government body to address concerns, but the UW is not legally bound by GPSS resolutions.  "But if GSEAC has the authority to collectively bargain and create a legal contract, the UW is bound to that contract," he said.[xiv]  GSEAC said it received no response from the UW administration following the card drive but had a letter from the UW sent to a UAW California branch for unknown reasons.  Washington State has no legislation that compels the university to recognize collective bargaining rights of academic employees at 4-year institutions.  The same goes on the federal level with the 1935 Wagner Act, which provides collective bargaining rights to private sector employees but does not cover public employees.

GSEAC asked that the University respect the wishes of their employees (as expressed in the card signatures) and recognize GSEAC/UAW as the sole bargaining agent, but the University refused .  "I would rather that you didn't organize a union.  I think we can achieve the goals collegially through existing methods," said McCormick at a GPSS meeting 16 April 2000, citing task forces and legislative lobbying as possible ways to give teaching assistants, readers and graders the pay compensation and health-care benefits.[xv] He repeated this same stance in an open letter printed in The Daily on 24 April, insisting that the UW must remain "competitive" in order to maintain the highest quality of education available.[xvi]  But a counter letter, written by GSEAC committee member Freeman said, "McCormick feels that unions are somehow inherently adversarial.  Yet, it is only because the UW is unwilling to cooperate with GSEAC/UAW that it risks recreating the long and costly adversarial situation that occurred between the graduate student employee union and the administration at the University of California," and he also cited that there were at least 26 recognized unions on university campuses in the United States and that the UW has no reason not to follow this trend.[xvii]

At a 15 May 2000 GPSS meeting, McCormick offered to form a committee dedicated solely to addressing graduate student issues in lieu of unionization, but was rejected by the GPSS executive board.  "We cannot, in good faith, honor both tracks.  If we were to serve on this committee, we would be betraying our commitment to graduate students and [would] undermine our unionization," said GPSS secretary Jamie Clausen concerning McCormick's offer.[xviii]  "I'm not under the illusion that this will dissuade you from unionizing – you'll do that anyway," McCormick said, claiming that his offer wasn't in response to the union, but to the administration's poor job handling graduate student issues,  "This isn't a replacement, but you haven't got a union yet."[xix]

The UW's refusal to recognize GSEAC was because University officials – who hired outside attorneys to handle the case – were confident that there was no legislation or legal precedent that existed that would allow the union to collectively bargain for wages and benefits, and they knew that getting new legislation through Olympia could be a long shot knowing that bills that would have given collective-bargaining rights to UW faculty have failed since the 1970s.  GSEAC criticized the school for using outside legal help, calling it a waste of public resources. Norm Arkans, executive director of university relations, said it is standard practice for the state Attorney General's Office – which acts as legal counsel for state agencies – to retain outside attorneys in cases involving specialty law and that it only cost $458 to do so. "The administration has clearly made the choice to fight this, and they've made it clear the route they've chosen is litigation, which would be costly and protracted," union spokeswoman Heather Easterling, a graduate student in English, told the Seattle Times.[xx]

On May 23, 2000 GSEAC/UAW received news that the official authorization card tally from a second Union Card drive held had determined that 84 percent of TAs/RAs voted in support of unionization.  "It's a huge victory," said GSEAC/UAW organizer Ken Lang who also said the UW's refusal to recognize the union is intended to deny "us, as employees, to have an actual meaningful voice."  However, the UW refused to allow PERC to oversee the card tally so a third party, the Reverend John Boostra, was selected to oversee the count.  When asked to comment, McCormick replied "[We are] very serious about addressing the concerns and needs of graduate students but not through GSEAC/UAW."[xxi]

GSEAC activities resumed during the 2000-2001 academic year.  On 24 October, John Sweeny, president of the AFL-CIO speaks in favor of GSEAC/UAW on campus, pledging for his union to stand in solidarity with GSEAC.  Here are some highlights from his speech:


“[Graduate students] are living examples of how people are standing up for their rights.”

Sweeny: Are you TAs second-class citizens?

Audience (roaring): No!

Sweeny: You’re damn right you’re not!

“By ignoring the 80 percent and 84 percent support of graduate TAs for unionization, the UW is mocking democracy at the most basic level.”[xxii]



State representative Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; Rick Bender of the Washington state Labor Council (WLC); and Steve Williamson, executive director of the King County Labor Council (KCLC) all pledged solidarity with GSEAC/UAW.  Rep. Phyllis Kenney, D-Seattle, co-chair of the state House Higher Education Committee refuted the University’s stance on graduate students’ position in that they are students, not employees.  “Students are hired to do a job.  Your job is to pay for your education.  But whatever your role, you are teaching.”[xxiii]  The support from major figures continued with Jesse Jackson’s endorsement of GSEAC’s effort to unionize on 31 October 2000 during a campaign stop for Al Gore. During the week of 31 October to 3 November 2000, GSEAC held a weeklong strike vote during which 86 percent of 1,148 TAs voted in favor of a strike should the UW continue to disregard their union.  On 14 November at the UW Faculty Senate meeting, passed a resolution urging the administration to begin bargaining with GSEAC/UAW.  President McCormick announces that the UW will support TA unionization but not without prior “enabling legislation” that would define TAs as employees and allow them to collectively bargain with the Board of Regents.[xxiv]

On 27 November, in reaction to McCormick’s response, GSEAC/UAW set the strike date for 4 December at midnight if UW administration refuses voluntary recognition.  On 1 December, President McCormick sent out a mass e-mail stating that he wanted to work with GSEAC/UAW to convince the legislature to pass collective-bargaining legislation.  McCormick said that the university would bargain with GSEAC/UAW once the law was changed..[xxv]  On 3 December, McCormick said “[The administration] recognizes that the TAs want a union.  We accept that and respect their choice.  We will cheerfully recognize and bargain with GSEAC/UAW once legislation is in hand.”[xxvi]

This was only the start of the campaign to achieve full recognition for GSEAC/UAW by the UW.  TAs would go on strike in June 2001 after the legislative session ended without new collective bargaining legislation.  The strike did not produce any settlement between UW and GSEAC. But the next year the legislature passed House Bill 1464  and Senate Bill 5826 authorizing collective bargaining for UW employees who are enrolled in academic programs. 


© 2002 Daeha Ko


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[i] 4 Dec 2000, The Daily. "The Story of the Strike."

[ii] Interview. Roberta Gold

[iii] Interview.  Roberta Gold

[iv] 4 Dec 2000, The Daily. "The Story of the Strike."

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Interview.  Roberta Gold.

[vii] 4 December 2000, The Daily. “The story of the strike.”

[viii] Ibid.


[x] Interview, Roberta Gold and Nick Velluzzi.

[xi] 20 March, 2000, The Daily "TA's Push For Union Recognition."

[xii] 20 March, 2000, The Daily "TA's Push For Union Recognition."

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] 20 April, 2000, The Daily "McCormick unwilling to support TA unionization."

[xvi] 24 April 2000, The Daily "An open letter from Richard McCormick. Re: TA unionization for representation."

[xvii] 24 April 2000, The Daily "An open letter to Richard McCormick. Re: The Future of Graduate Student Labor at the UW."

[xviii] 16 May 2000, The Daily "GPSS refuses McCormick's offer to resolve without union."

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] 29 April 2000, The Seattle Times. "A union yields on its legal fight to organize at UW."

[xxi] 24 May 2000, The Daily "Students employees' overwhelming support for union is official."

[xxii] 25 October 2000, The Daily. “AFL-CIO president speaks in support of TA unionization.”

[xxiii] 25 October 2000, The Daily. “AFL-CIO president speaks in support of TA unionization.”

[xxiv] 4 December 2000, The Daily. “The story of the strike.”

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.


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These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.