Before the UAW: Graduate Student Union Organizing at the UW, 1963-97


By Trevor Griffey

(Originally published as "Exam Graders and Hell Raisers" in Ruckus, Spring, 2005)


The unionization of the University of Washington (UW)’s graduate students last spring was an historic event. It marked the first time in the school’s history that its teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs) could exercise collective bargaining rights to negotiate their wages, benefits, and working conditions with the university. And it brought to a close the six year battle that began in 1998 (and included a university-wide strike at the end of the 2000-2001 school year) to force the UW to recognize the TA/RA union (which now also includes undergraduate academic student employees as well).

These achievements are more significant than most people realize. Conventional wisdom on campus today dates the beginning of TA/ RA concerns about being overworked and underpaid to specific political battles between the UW administration and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS) in 1998. The history of those struggles is nicely summarized (though it ends in 2003, and needs to be updated) on the UAW 4121 section of the Workers and Unions at the UW Project web site of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.

But the movement to gain collective bargaining rights for UW graduate students didn’t really begin in 1998. It began, as far as I can tell, in 1963. This article is an attempt to recover the lost history of graduate students' union organizing at the UW before 1998. The story that emerges is double sided. On the one hand, it is about graduate students being defeated time and again in their calls for collective bargaining. But on the other, it is also the story of a culture of resistance whose long evolution connects current student activism to much longer traditions of UW political culture.

The history I’m presenting here is very incomplete, based largely on UW Daily newspaper accounts. But even if it only scratches the surface, and leaves a lot of stories incomplete or untold, it can still help us see UW power relationships differently. It shows how the UAW did not organize UW graduate students as much as UW graduate students used UAW resources and training to overcome longstanding administration resistance to graduate student power. The story can also provide inspiration for future campaigns for real rather than token representation in university affairs by undergraduate students and faculty.


From what I can gather from university archives, the first attempt by UW graduate students to unionize came in the form of a student request in the spring of 1963 for university recognition of a “Graduate Students’ Association” as a student group. Irked that the graduate students who proposed creating the GSA didn’t speak first to the Graduate School administration, the Faculty Committee on Student Welfare rejected the students’ application to “purport to speak for graduate students” (the Dean’s office’s words), and told the students to work with Joseph McCarthy, the Dean of the UW Graduate School.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes that Summer, Dean McCarthy was already trying to sabotage the unionization effort. In meetings with the faculty, he told them that “he is not satisfied with the proposed organization” and that “he would like to have a meeting with a more representative group of graduate students to discuss a graduate student organization.”

The following school year, graduate students in the English department continued the call for collective bargaining rights when they formed the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). The GSU had a host of complaints, mainly relating to graduate students being underpaid and overworked. But the spark that seemed to launch it was an English department proposal to have undergraduates rate the performance of their graduate student instructors. Students in the GSU didn’t object to being evaluated much as they objected that the department had not bothered to consult with them.

But GSU organizing quickly grew beyond the English department. By spring quarter, 1964, the GSU had outlined eight issues its members wanted to push the university to address, which included not just formal communication between graduate students and faculty, but a number of other improvements: the re-establishment of “thesis only registration”, which allowed PhD students taking no courses and writing their research to pay half the regular graduate student tuition; an end to the requirement that graduate students be continuously enrolled in school; a demand to either reduce tuition or increase salaries to cover tuition; and higher wages to help cover the costs of a “minimum standard of living” for married students.

Most faculty and administrators were open to the idea of having some form of graduate student organization, but they were deeply opposed to granting students collective bargaining rights or any comparable form of power. Most professors willing to speak publicly about graduate student unionization belittled the organizers as too “radical,” and told the UW Daily things like “it sounds like these people don’t have enough to do,” and “these people really have nothing to complain about, they just want to toot their horn.” Many if not most talked about graduate students as apprentices and not employees, with one professor saying that “I don’t think [collective bargaining] is compatible with the dignity of our profession.” Another professor candidly told the Daily that “if the organization were to function as a social group I suppose that would be okay but then it would lose its original purpose in forming.”

GSU leaders lacked the power to overcome the faculty or the administration’s resistance to graduate student union power. GSU reps didn’t show up to a meeting they had originally scheduled with Dean McCarthy. Afterwards, when GSU representative Patrick Gleason re-applied for university recognition in 1964, “he stated,” according to internal Dean’s office documents, that “the application had been pending for nearly a year, and that if the University did not grant recognition soon his organization would have to press legal action against the University.” When an official at the Dean’s office told him that the GSU wouldn’t be recognized until its leaders met with the Dean, “Mr. Gleason became quite excited and stated that the Graduate Students’ Union had nothing in common with the Graduate School, and that his group failed to see eye to eye with Dean McCarthy. He stated further that his organization met the requirements of a student organization and believed that the University should take immediate action upon their application.” Which, of course, it didn’t.

But the UW administration did respond: It increased graduate student pay, though it didn’t tell the GSU about the decision until a month after it was made. And, ironically, it continued to talk about the need for improved communication with graduate students.

In the Fall of 1964, the GSU seemed torn over whether the university's concessions signified progress or cooptation. Its leaders wanted to continue to negotiate with the university, but some of the GSU’s most active members saw further attempts to gain official recognition as fruitless and wanted to become a more activist organization. In response, the GSU President, Vice-President, and Corresponding Secretary all resigned, and bitterly complained in an open letter about “a radical change of purpose within the organization. Clearly, the Graduate Students’ Union is rapidly becoming a protest group, of limited membership, dedicated to expressing extreme views contrary to the original purposes of the organization.” It’s not clear whether more than 30 or 40 students ever attended a GSU meeting.


In the Spring of 1965, in response to ongoing calls for increased graduate student power, the UW did what most bureaucracies do in response to social movements: it killed it with a committee. Working with the Graduate School and the Dean’s Office, the Associated Students of the UW (ASUW, the undergraduate student government) created a Joint Committee on Graduate Programming to survey graduate students and discuss the creation of a graduate student social organization that could respond to student concerns without granting them collective bargaining rights. But the members of the committee were appointed by “graduate program advisers” and not by students themselves, its budget was minimal, and it accomplished almost nothing.

When, almost two years after its inception, the Joint Committee held a retreat for graduate students to discuss their concerns with the UW, its members decided to hold elections for paid positions, and thereby transformed the Committee in 1967 into the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), which continues to this day. By this time, though it’s not clear exactly what had happened to the GSU, the GPSS’s first Secretary could look back on its attempts to unionize graduate students as little more than “abortive.”

The hype that some graduate students initially threw around about the GPSS—that, unlike the ASUW, it would bring a “revolution” on campus, and “get things done” and take “quick and effective action on significant issues”—seemed like remarkably vague promises when compared to the specific issues that the GSU had tried to organize around only a few years earlier. It did take on significant issues in the 1960s, like racial discrimination in rental housing in the U-District and the effect of the draft on graduate students. And it was an effective tool for lobbying the State Legislature. But it still offered graduate students no real power in university budgeting decisions.


It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that by 1968, some graduate students were again trying to create a movement to improve their working conditions. The campaign was led this time by radical students in the philosophy department during the time that Michael Lerner--a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) activist from UC Berkeley and founder of the Seattle Liberation Front (SLF)-- was teaching there. But this new round of union organizing quickly butted up against the same issues that had foiled the GSU.

The university’s committee to handle this new round of graduate student grievances was chaired by Dean McCarthy, the same person who had been instrumental in stonewalling the GSU out of existence. And its task wasn’t to give graduate students additional power or money, but to rewrite Memo 26—the list of graduate student employee rights and responsibilities.

Graduate student campaign literature expressed contempt not just for McCarthy, but for liberal bureaucracy. In anti-fascist language common to the New Left at the time, it claimed that when they first brought their concerns to the university in 1968, “these rumblings among the natives understandably caused some worry within the administration. Hence, the University of a Thousand Years took action: it appointed a committee… The committee would not do anything to change the slave status of the University’s ‘subfaculty.’ It could not even make us better paid slaves.”

So in the spring of 1970, dissatisfied by McCarthy’s committee, graduate students staged what was probably the first RA/ TA strike in UW history. It’s unclear how large the strike was, how long it lasted, or what effect it had on the university’s operations. But its effect on the graduate students who organized it was to inspire them to keep the heat on the university through a new group, the RA-TA Union.

RA-TA Union organizing, which began during the Autumn quarter of 1970, generated only mixed results. “One of our basic problems,” reported one graduate student, “is to get many of the TA’s and RA’s to realize that they are workers… Professionals are what we should be… but we aren’t now because we have no control over what we do.” The campaign, noted the UW Daily at the time, was also divisive because some graduate students in the GPSS preferred to be considered students instead of workers so that the IRS might consider their wages as tax exempt “scholarships.”

Reflecting the changed political climate of the campus, the RA-TA Union was much more radical than its GSU predecessor, and actually more radical than any UW graduate student union since. Organizers described the union not as a narrowly defined collective bargaining tool, but as a part of a broader movement to democratize U.S. society. As a movement vehicle, Union members participated in solidarity campaigns with the Black Panther Party and the Black Student Union. Through these campaigns to democratize the UW, the Union sought to combat the militarization and professional bureaucratization of the modern university that Union members believed stood at the center of the American project to oversee the production of economic inequality at home and war and empire abroad.

Part of one TA-RA Union newsletter claimed that “the primary function of the University of Washington as it is now constituted is to convert raw high school graduates into slick, gleaming technician-cogs for the socio-economic machine. Each student buys a part interest in one cog, and he himself and the faculty share in the labor of production. Teaching and research assistants work at the nerve-center of the production line, and if a large number of us organize then we can threaten an effective strike; we can gain bargaining power to determine the conditions of our employment. Conditions are bad, but we can improve them; we want to bargain in terms of educational reform, university policy, and importantly, TA-RA job security and working conditions.”

One Union organizer speculated to the Daily about what TA-RA Union control of working conditions might look like: “The TA should have the right to control the classroom. He should be free not to grade, not to take attendance, not to give tests, for instance.” Another later told the Daily that the Union wanted to create a “permanent, no exam program” for MA and PhD students. As part of this radical vision, the union held educational workshops with titles like “Liberated Spanish” to promote anti-authoritarian teaching methods, and advocated for a “democratized university” that included everything from undergraduate student power in shaping course contentto ending university research for military purposes.

As usual, Dean McCarthy continued to warn about the dangers of unionization with rhetoric that would define the University’s position for the next 35 years: that there are no social classes at universities, only colleagues. “To move toward a [graduate student] union is intrinsically unwise and will be damaging to the University. The University is a community of scholars, which means people working together in a cooperative way. And a union creates a type of adversary situation.”

McCarthy’s definition of cooperative (in which TAs had no voice in shaping the condition of their workplace) and adversarial (in which TAs actually had some power to work in partnership with the administration) offered a paternalistic view of TAs that depoliticized graduate student complaints about being overworked or underpaid. In response to TA-RA Union claims that they were being exploited, McCarthy told the Daily that “there are a lot of people who want these appointments and if they (the TA-RA Union members) don’t want one, they don’t have to have one.”

During this time, the UW administration found the existence of the GPSS a very handy way to deflect calls for graduate student unionization. When Dean William Phillips from the College of Arts and Sciences claimed that graduate students did not need a union, he explained to the Daily in 1971 that “the mechanisms which have been worked out with the Graduate and Professional Student Senate in this area have been satisfactory.”

Whereas the union had mixed results organizing graduate students around its radical politics, the Spring of 1971 brought a new reason for graduate students to complain about poor university relations: increased tuition, combined with budget cuts directed disproportionately at TAs and RAs. That year, the UW proposed to eliminate between 120 and 132 TA jobs, a roughly 15 percent reduction, in order to prevent cutting faculty positions. It also sought to increase TA and RA workload through increased class sizes. In response, graduate students loosely united their resistance through the TA-RA Union, the GPSS, and an ad-hoc “anti-tuition increase coalition.” Through these various groups, they demanded more power over how budgetary decisions were made at the UW.

It’s not entirely clear what resulted from these battles. The ad-hoc coalition faded quickly, its members probably returning back into the GPSS. The campus antiwar movement had declined, and with it much of the organizing of the New Left. The SLF was driven out of existence by a highly publicized trial in 1970, the UW Philosophy department fired Michael Lerner in 1971, and the student radicals who had once been active in the TA-RA Union appear to have been succeeded by moderate reformers. Within a year, in the Winter of 1972, the TA-RA union was haggling over the content of Memo 26, and didn’t seem to be pushing for collective bargaining rights. Registering a campus-wide decline in student activism common to the early 1970s, by the Spring of 1973, even the GPSS was in trouble. Graduate student apathy toward and lack of interest in the GPSS reached its apex when Alan Louie ran unopposed for GPSS vice president and won on the platform that he wouldn’t serve if elected. Soon after, the Daily ran a front page story with the headline: “GPSS facing crisis, may dissolve next year.”

But it was the TA-RA Union, and not the GPSS, that dissolved, under circumstances which still need more research to determine. As far as I can tell, though this may be incorrect, the movement for labor rights among UW grad students went effectively dormant in the early to mid 1970s, and didn’t seriously revive until the early 1980s. I have found no evidence to suggest that the TA-RA union ever had a membership that exceeded 70-100 members, and its actual core was probably much smaller.

The late 1970s, perhaps not coincidentally, were relatively decent years for UW graduate students. According to the Seattle Times, the state legislature granted graduate students a raise in 1975, and the UW administration gave TAs and RAs regular 2.5 to 5 percent pay raises between 1975 and 1981 “by skimming monies off the funds for professors’ salaries or taking from the operations budget.” This was obviously unsustainable, for financial and political reasons. And when this system of helping graduate students keep pace with inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s buckled in 1981, it set off a new round of graduate student organizing that dwarfed all previous TA/ RA organizing campaigns.


After nearly two decades of sporadic attempts by UW graduate students to unionize in the 1960s and 1970s, graduate student labor unrest exploded in 1981. As usual, the revival of graduate student organizing was precipitated by threats of unilateral budget cuts, tuition increases, and increases in workload— all of which dramatized the powerlessness of graduate students to shape policy decisions or maintain a decent standard of living during economic downturns. And also as usual, the movement was led by students from the English and Romance Languages departments, whose heavy workloads often have them teaching their own classes at “quiz section” pay levels.

The state legislature was faced with heavy budget cuts in 1981, and the UW tried to pass a significant portion of its cuts onto graduate students without first consulting them: through a 68 percent increase in tuitions and fees while also increasing the proportion of their tuition that TAs and RAs were expected to pay, from 18 to between 25 and 33 percent. But this time, and for much of the next 15 years, instead of demanding labor rights, graduate students mainly focused on bread and butter issues. This brought them some important short-term victories, but at the expense of their long-term ability to hold onto those victories.

Graduate student resistance to UW budget cuts in 1981 was essentially channeled through two groups. The GPSS organized a lobbying campaign to get state legislative support, while an ad-hoc “subgroup” of the GPSS— the TA/RA Economic Action Committee— branched off to independently lobby the UW administration, hold rallies of hundreds of students, and try to lead a strike.

Mainstream media gave sympathetic coverage to the graduate students, whose main message was that they were exploited workers and not privileged apprentices. “For a significant portion of us,” one Sociology TA told the Seattle Times, “TA is a misnomer. We don’t assist anybody. We teach all our classes.”The GPSS-organized lobbying had an effect, and the legislature provided funds for graduate students to receive a roughly 7.2 percent pay increase for 1981-2 and a 7 percent increase for 1982-3.

But when the UW administration offered to skim from faculty salary money to bump the raise up another 2 or 3 percent, many graduate students were still dissatisfied. English students in particular complained, noting that tuition increases nullified most of the effects of the salary increases. They also objected to the unsustainable and divisive strategy of taking money from faculty salaries to pay TAs. And so the English department’s TAs, soon joined by all Romance Language TAs as well as individuals in departments across campus, pledged to stage a two day walkout from classes that threw the University’s administration into a panic. The TA/RA Committee’s demands included a call for a five percent wage increase instead of a two percent increase; tuition waivers; a reduction in the number of minimum credits required of graduate students; bringing RA wages up to TA levels; and a staggering of tuition and wage payments rather than having them due all at the beginning of each quarter.

At the last minute, just as the Committee was about to have a campus-wide vote on whether to walk out in late May, the administration gave just enough promises and money to divide the Committee and avert a strike. The concessions included a total 14 percent pay increase for RAs and an 11.6 percent increase for TAs (which weren’t that different than the UW’s original proposals), and the creation of a Standing Committee on Conditions of Graduate Student Service Appointments that would include fiscal policy discussions.

The offer of representation in the university’s budget planning seems to have caused division among graduate students. One TA called it “radical," and stated that graduate students would finally have “direct input in the budgetary process.” But others were angry that the walkout didn’t occur-- they thought that a real chance for change had been lost, and called hope in a new committee “naïve.” One student told the Daily that TAs and RAs had shown the administration that they were “easy to handle.” Some RAs, mainly in the sciences, were frustrated that they still wouldn’t be paid as well as TAs in the liberal arts, and didn’t seem as invested in the idea of a walkout.

When UW Deans met with the TA/RA Committee a couple days later to discuss the creation of new administrative committee, it became obvious how little the university had given graduate students in exchange for their not going on strike. Ronald Geballe, the Graduate School Dean, told students that “I doubt that a committee of that kind [created in response to the threat of the walkout] will ever be given the power to make a decision.” Ernest Henley, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, added that “It’s not a collective bargaining committee. It’s an advocacy committee, and you hope the advice will be heard.”

To be heard, however, you have to be invited to the bargaining table. But when the UW Board of Regents declared a state of fiscal emergency for the university during the summer of 1981, and created a Financial Emergency Committee to steer the institution’s fiscal policy through the following year, the new Committee didn’t include a single graduate student. UW Deans then suggested that graduate students stop lobbying the university and instead beg the State Legislature for more money.

That same summer, the TA/RA Committee transformed itself into the TA/RA Congress and some of its leaders began to openly discuss the eventual need for collective bargaining power during Autumn Quarter, 1981. A year later, during winter quarter, 1983, the GPSS passed a resolution calling for a collective bargaining unit that would include both graduate students and professors, presumably to put an end to the UW’s divisive policy of pitting the two against each other during budget cuts. In response, State Representative Dan MacDonald introduced legislation that would have made it illegal for TAs and RAs to unionize at any state school. I haven’t been able to figure out what the result of that battle was. Nor have I been able to discern whether there was any kind of student organizing that went along with the politics of demanding collective bargaining in the 1980s. But two things are fairly clear: regardless of state law, neither UW TAs nor faculty gained collective bargaining rights, and the TA/ RA Congress seems to have folded sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s.


From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, the GPSS, despite being relatively weak, was the main voice of graduate students and one of the few effective vehicles through which to raise concerns over ongoing power plays against basic graduate student requests. Two issues from 1992 highlighted the GPSS’s importance for continuing to raise graduate student issues, as well as its inability to extract concessions from faculty or adminstrators.

The first issue grew out of a 61 to 7 vote by the GPSS against sexual harassment. The GPSS requested that the Faculty Senate pass a resolution urging faculty to not initiate romantic relationships with any graduate students whom they supervised or were likely to supervise as TAs or RAs. The Faculty Senate balked at the request, argued that faculty didn’t want their personal lives legislated, and voted down the GPSS proposal 44 to 21. The Senate did, however, issue a limited recommendation that faculty not make decisions affecting the job prospects of graduate students that they enter into relationships with.

The second issue was the decision by the UW in early 1992 to deny graduate students health benefits despite the fact that state law required that all state employees receive such benefits. The UW administration blamed the state legislature, which had failed to fund benefits for the following school year. Further, it argued that TAs and RAs were students, and not really state employees, and so not entitled to the same kinds of benefits that other state employees had.

Gene Woodruff, the Graduate School Dean, told the Daily that “‘Classifying those TAs and RAs as state employees could seriously undermine the system,’ he said. When asked after the meeting what he meant by ‘seriously undermine,’ Woodruff said he was opposed to classifying TAs and RAs as employees, because he was concerned that they might try to unionize. ‘We feel a union would be adversarial to the process,’ said Woodruff. ‘There are places where unions do more harm than good, and this is one of them.’”

Thus began a game of political hot potato. The Legislature left it to the UW to decide whether graduate students were employees or not, and the UW promptly asked the State Health Care Authority to make a decision. It seems that by hook or by crook, the TAs maintained their benefits, though their claim to them remained precarious: politically unstable and vulnerable to fluctuations in the UW’s budget which determined whether or not they received dental or vision packages any given year.

In both instances—attempts to limit sexual harassment as well as preserve graduate student benefits— graduate students bumped up against ways in which both UW faculty and administrators relied upon advisory committees to reduce graduate student complaints to ad-hoc and arbitrary processes of conflict resolution. Those processes provided little substantive power and required regular activism by graduate students to simply maintain what little they had.


From 1963 to 1997, graduate students at the UW struggled to have their grievances about workload, pay, and working conditions taken seriously. On the one hand, the history of their failed attempts to unionize is mainly a history of the university out-maneuvering them time and again into accepting token victories to save face as they suffered major defeats. But on the other hand, the history of graduate student organizing shows a long tradition of resistance to UW paternalism, of civic engagement by graduates and not just undergrads in the UW’s political culture, of ways in which students faced overwhelming odds but refused to abandon hope for eventually attaining collective bargaining.

So as the 1990s brought more graduate student organizing on other campuses, and more aggressive support for graduate students by large labor unions, UW graduate students could finally tap the legal, financial, and political resources they needed to help them do what they had long wanted to: tip the scales of campus power relations.

But the official unionization that happened last year meant more than affiliating with a national union or assimilating graduate students into the university power structure. It meant transforming the political culture of the university. Claiming power requires asserting new rights. Changing how the university treated graduate students required changing how graduate students thought of themselves. This process is still ongoing, and because the union is still young, these are crucial years for determining what role the new union will play in campus affairs.

For this reason, it’s important to remember that union organizing drives on campus were also calls for a more democratic and egalitarian social structure to the UW, rather than merely the creation of a new bureaucracy or interest group. Instead of consolidating power among TAs and RAs, hopefully the new graduate student union can serve as a beacon for new, “non-traditional” organizing on campus— among faculty, among undergraduates, and among non-union staff.

The main propaganda that the university has relied on to stifle unionization, not just of graduate students but also of faculty and other workers, is that a university is an egalitarian community of cooperative scholars and students rather than a hierarchical workplace like any other. A history of graduate student unionization shows how the myth of university benevolence, embodied in powerless advisory committees, has been the university’s main tool to rationalize who on campus would be protected from budget cuts during lean economic times and who would suffer more than their fair share.

But those powerless committees shouldn't be completely dismissed. They also provided the ideological and political space to develop a culture of resistance to UW paternalism. Members of the ASUW and Faculty Senate should take this history to heart as they struggle in vain to significantly affect UW budget policies. Both organizations, despite their relative political marginalization, have long histories of resistance to tuition hikes and salary freezes.

It’s only a matter of time before undergraduates, faculty, and non-union university employees get fed up with accepting the insults that come from playing into the UW administration’s culture of appeasement. They may not win their battles— faculty unionization and undergraduate movements for affordable education are still woefully underdeveloped and isolated in U.S. politics. But sooner or later, egged on by some new outrage that aggravates all the accumulated frustrations that come from being “heard” but ignored, these groups will almost certainly do what graduate students at the UW did in the late 1990s: reinvent their traditions of resistance and demand new forms of power to create a more democratic university. Get ready.


2005 Trevor Griffey