The University of Washington Graduate Students Strike of 2001
By Josh Kennedy
The first day of June in 2001 saw the beginning of a fifteen-day strike by the Academic Student Employees (teaching assistants, readers, graders, and tutors) at the University of Washington. This strike was led by GSEAC (Graduate Student Employee Action Coalition), who is affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), and claimed to represent 1,600 academic student employees (ASE). The strike disrupted the last two weeks of the spring academic quarter and left professors and the University Administration grappling for ways to be able to read all of the final papers and tests and then to distribute grades in a timely and fair manner. What follows is a discussion of the events leading up to the strike and also of the strike itself.
The University of Washington campus is home to 3,700 ASE (academic student employees). In March of 2000, 80% of the ASE voted to be represented by GSEAC. GSEAC, in affiliation with the UAW, attempted to ratify an agreement with the University that would make it the exclusive bargaining unit for wage negotiations, benefits, job security and working conditions on campus. At this time, the ASE claimed to be responsible for fifty percent of the teaching going on at the University but was compensated for far less. Student employees had no job security and no guaranteed contract to assure them of their jobs. Graduate students wanted the stability of a guaranteed living wage, medical benefits, and improved working conditions that did not take advantage of their vulnerability as students. Unfortunately, the University was willing to promise these things in faith only and this was unacceptable to almost all ASE working on campus.
The University was first confronted with the possibility of a strike in 2000. This prompted a sudden willingness on the part of the University to talk with student employees about certain labor issues such as wage negotiation and better benefits. The University, however, was unwilling to talk to any group affiliating with the UAW and they would not grant exclusive bargaining rights to GSEAC. The University hoped that the GSEAC/UAW alliance was not strong enough to create the mandates that they were requesting. By sidestepping the Union and offering only some of what was being asked for by student employees, the University Administration hoped to maintain control of this particular facet of labor on campus – they did not succeed.
On October 31, 2000 GSEAC members voted 984-164 to authorize a strike if the University failed to recognize the Union and extend it collective-bargaining rights. As the strike date neared, the University Administration feared the consequences and struck a deal with GSEAC/UAW to pursue legislature that would make GSEAC/UAW the sole representatives for Graduate Students at the University of Washington. This deal served to postpone the possibility of a strike in the winter of 2000. GSEAC members were hopeful that the University would work with them and that legislation would pass that would allow the University to recognize them. Furthermore, it was the first time that the University Administration recognized GSEAC as representatives of the student employees working on campus.
As part of the deal, GSEAC agreed that they would not strike until the legislation was decided on. Unfortunately, things did not run smoothly in Olympia and the legislation died before it came to a vote. Without the legislation, the two sides were again at an impasse. The University Administration claimed that without the legislation, they could not authorize exclusive collective-bargaining rights to GSEAC. GSEAC claimed that this is not necessarily the case and that the University was just using this excuse as a way of stalling and not having to recognize the union. GSEAC declared that it does not explicitly state in the Washington State's Constitution that without legislation the University could not hand over exclusive bargaining rights to GSEAC. If the University wanted to recognize the Union, they could do so and that it did not need legislation to do so. At this point, GSEAC took a vote and agreed to extend a strike date to one week before Spring Term finals. If the Administration would not come to an agreement by this date, the graduate students were going on strike.
The GSEAC bargaining committee and University Representatives met several times during the next couple of months but no agreement was reached. The University continued their anti-strike propaganda by stating that they would be willing to negotiate with students about wages and benefits, and that it was in fact GSEAC that was unwilling to compromise. The University Administration stated that their hands were tied without legislation, and that it would not be legal to grant exclusive bargaining rights to GSEAC/UAW without it. GSEAC was not moved by the Universities position, and in a grand show of solidarity they voted to strike with 93% of the turnout in favor of striking.
The Strike: A Show of Solidarity
On May 11th GSEAC had a second strike vote which prevailed by a vote of 1,061-100 in favor of a strike. GSEAC’s negotiating committee, which comprised of five members, decided that June 1st would be the date the strike would begin. As mentioned earlier, the major obstacle that kept the two sides apart was the disagreement over whether or not the University had the right and/or ability to acknowledge GSEAC as the sole representative of all of the student employees and grant it collective bargaining rights. Kristin Intemann, a member of the negotiating committee stated, “The Union will not settle without a collective bargaining agreement. If we did settle, student employees could fall prey to the whim of the Administration.” The student employees did not want to strike but as they saw it, they had no other choice. Melissa Gjellstad, a TA in the Department of Scandinavian Studies put the issue in perspective in her statement, “Nobody wants to go out on strike, but we’re all willing to do it if the terms of a fully enforceable contract aren’t met by the bargaining teams.” A strike during spring finals would make grading difficult for the university and disrupt final exams. The committee realized that students would be hurt in the process of the strike, but they felt that it was a necessary loss to gain long-standing stability for all academic student employees. Graduating students would be hit the hardest. If their final grades were not processed, they would be unable to graduate. The GSEAC committee felt that these were unfortunate but worthwhile and necessary hardships that would have to be faced. They felt bad for the students but they also hoped that the students would understand and support their cause.
During the strike, GSEAC saw support from other areas besides their own rank and file. There was constant picketing on all three campuses (Seattle, Bothell, and Tacoma) and many teachers honored the picket lines of the graduate students, showing their support for what the student employees were trying to accomplish. Metro Bus Drivers did not drive buses onto campus through the duration of the strike as their union wanted to show solidarity with and support of GSEAC and its strike. Truck drivers and construction workers also refused to come onto campus as well, and as it can easily be imagined, this created serious delays on construction projects in the University. All of these factors helped to show the solidarity of the strikers and to put more pressure on the University to come to terms with the GSEAC negotiating committee.
Strike Demands and Effects
The effect of the strike was widely felt through the different University programs, but the College of Arts and Sciences was hit the hardest. It is comprised of 42 departments that teach 21,000 undergraduates and employ two thirds of the university’s teaching assistants. Furthermore, two of the foreign-language divisions were forced to cancel their finals. The English and History departments, which relied heavily on TA's to give and grade essay exams were equally disabled. Some students who were expecting essay exams were given multiple-choice tests. This upset many students, “If you’re taking a class in U.S. history and you’re expecting to write an essay to show your knowledge, you’re going to be a little upset if you’re suddenly given a multiple-choice test,” ASUW President Jasmine Weaver told the Seattle Times, “It just doesn’t reveal what students have learned as well”
Some teachers, in a show of solidarity, were not willing to do the work that the TA's were supposed to do for by doing so, it would have symbolically meant crossing the picket line which is something a number of them were not willing to do. Other teachers complied with University demands that it was their job to do the work, whether it was originally designated for TA’s or not. All of the graduate students did not go on strike, however, as many of the TA’s in the science departments chose not to walk out. The science and math departments pay their TA’s higher wages than other departments, and because of this disparity of wages between departments, many of the higher paid TA’s did not feel that the University was treating them unfairly. A group of TA’s from the chemistry department refused to strike and went as far as to form an opposition group called, Graduate Students for Informed Choices on Unionization. This group worked to try and stop the UAW involvement on campus. The opposition group however, did not diminish the strength of the strike. For two weeks, strikers picketed outside the University every day, drawing honks of support from drivers passing bye. Picketers sang Union songs and were jubilant and very noticeable to the eye of the general public.
The GSEAC bargaining committee was comprised of five people elected by the membership at a GSEAC election meeting. This team met regularly with the University Administration to try and resolve strike issues so that student employees could get back to work. Had an agreement been reached between the GSEAC bargaining committee and the University Administration it would have then been brought back to the union members for a vote. Unfortunately, the two sides were unable to compromise. They were still stuck on the issue of exclusive bargaining rights for GSEAC and a guaranteed contract. The University was willing to concede or negotiate on issues of pay, benefits and workload but were unwilling to bend when it came to exclusive bargaining rights. The refusal of the University to acknowledge GSEAC was unacceptable to the bargaining committee. They felt that to accept an agreement with the University without exclusive bargaining rights and a contract would have been a loss. This impasse created a stalemate in negotiations between the University Administration and the GSEAC bargaining committee, as neither side was willing to give ground.
The University carried on a public relations campaign to try to undermine support of the GSEAC Union effort. President McCormick and other officials were quoted several times by the press saying that they would agree to authorize higher pay and benefits to graduate workers but without legislation, they could not and would not give GSEAC exclusive bargaining rights. Not only was this not true, but it did little to sway the effort or the solidarity of the GSEAC strike. GSEAC had compiled union cards signed by 80 percent of all graduate student employees. Against normal union procedure, GSEAC offered these cards to the University Administration for examination and proof of support. The University did not dispute the support and solidarity of GSEAC but they still refused to budge from their stance.
What the University was asking was for the GSEAC committee to take an advisory stance. This meant that the University would make all decisions concerning wages, medical benefits, workload, or any other labor related issue and that GSEAC would then be able to give input into the situation, but would have no real strength. This was obviously unacceptable for the GSEAC committee and they saw it as being a total loss if they were to agree to it. Had they agreed to it, student employees would still have been subject to any whim of the University Administration. The administration could raise wages one year and then lower them the next, and the student employees would have no organized body to take action on their behalf. A contract that acknowledged GSEAC as the sole bargaining agent for the student employees was what was needed in order to provide secure employment for graduate students and stop a strike.
It became clear that neither side would be willing to budge, so the University Administration and the GSEAC negotiation committee agreed to allow a third party mediator to sit in on meetings. Both sides were optimistic that this third party would be able to shed new light on the issues at hand. Unfortunately, the mediator had little effect. While the mediator brought the two sides closer on issues of wages they were unable to sway either side on the main issue at hand. GSEAC still demanded that the University agree to a fully enforceable contract and the University refused.
Effects of the Strike
The GSEAC strike lasted from June 1 to June 15, which was the end of spring quarter. The strike was successful in crippling the University’s ability to complete the academic grading for spring quarter as TA’s and graders are responsible for about half of the grading that is done during finals week. The University was unable to compensate for the loss of such a large workload and a year later, the University is still trying to complete some of the grades that should have been administered in the spring of 2001. Understandably, students who were graduating in the spring term of 2001, were very upset when they had to wait for diplomas because their final grades had not been processed.
The graduate student strike of 2001 forced the University Administration into making a concerted effort to get a deal done that would prevent a similar strike from happening again in the future. Today, those efforts seemed to have paid off. UW President McCormick has taken a great deal of heat for putting a labor dispute before the needs of his undergraduate students. GSEAC is prepared to strike again if the workers needs are not met in the near future. They now have the know-how and the resources to stage a larger strike and cause further havoc for the University if it comes to it. Moreover, the graduate students have the support of the community and an unyielding belief that what they are fighting for is important and worth the battle.
©2002 Josh Kennedy
“Graduate-student teachers at UW petition for union.” Seattle Times, march 16, 2000.
“UW teaching assistants authorize strike for bargaining rights.” Seattle Times,
November 5, 2000.
“TA vote overwhelmingly to strike, now the question is when?” The Daily, November 6,
“UW Faculty Senate backs graduate-student union” Seattle Times, November 15, 2000.
“TAs will strike Monday” The Daily, November 29, 2000.
“Strike averted, TA's declare victory” The Daily, December 5, 2000.
“UW, grad union extend deadline for labor talks” Seattle P-I, March 23, 2001.
“Spring strike authorized by TA vote” The Daily, May 14, 2001.
“Teaching assistants prepare to walk; some faculty say they’ll honor strike” Seattle
Times, June 1, 2001.
“Teaching-assistants strike heads into finals week” Seattle Times, June 4, 2001.
“Talks resume in UW teaching assistants’ strike” Seattle P-I, June 7, 2001.
“TA strike ending with quarter at UW” Seattle P-I, June 15, 2001.
These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.