Citing sexual-harassment issues and low pay at the University of Washington, a majority of the graduate students who work for the university have given their leaders authority to call for a strike if they cannot settle on a union contract with the school.
However, there are no immediate plans to strike, said Shua Sanchez, a Ph.D. candidate in physics and a member of the bargaining committee for UAW 4121, the union that represents academic student employees who teach classes and do research.
The contract expires on Monday. Under Washington state law, the terms and conditions of an expired contract carry forward for up to a year while efforts are made to agree to a new contract.
Union officials say that of the union’s 4,500 members, 2,630 cast a ballot, and 96 percent voted in favor of authorizing the union’s leadership to call for a strike, if necessary. It’s not the first time UAW 4121 has tried this approach. In 2015, the union membership also authorized a strike, although the contract was eventually settled.
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Andrea Canini, vice president of UAW 4121 and an anthropology graduate student, said one of the big sticking points is that the university lacks a mechanism by which individuals can report and prevent institutionalized discrimination and harassment. The students want to use the contract to help create such a mechanism, she said.
“We know that women, nonbinary people and people of color are constantly harassed and discriminated against in the lab, in the field and in the classroom,” Canini said during a Workers’ Memorial Day event on the UW campus Wednesday.
She said graduate students have developed “whisper networks” about people to avoid because they are harassers, and she has been told of people she shouldn’t work with or go into a room alone with, because of these issues.
Sam Sumpter, the union’s financial secretary and a philosophy grad student, said the uneven power dynamic between graduate students and faculty make it difficult to report issues.
“If you’re being harassed by someone who’s writing your letters of recommendation, it’s very unlikely you can report harassment — you don’t have a lot of options,” she said. “You can just suck it up and deal with it, or some leave academia entirely.”
Graduate students are especially concerned that when it comes to sexual harassment, “bad actors can stay in positions of power for literally decades,” Sanchez said.
One such example: microbiology professor Michael Katze was removed from his lab in 2016 after two university investigations found he sexually harassed women who worked in his lab and asked employees to solicit a prostitute for him. The UW, which had received complaints about Katze’s behavior on six separate occasions dating back to 2006, fired Katze last year.
Sanchez said the negotiations so far have yielded one important area of agreement: Both sides will work together to create training sessions for all employees on sexual-harassment issues. The university says it has offered pay for two part-time academic student employees for preparing and delivering sexual-harassment training.
But students also want an agreement to form equity committees in academic departments — composed of faculty and graduate students — to address issues of gender and racial equity before problems develop.
Sanchez said some departments have a good record of being inclusive, but others do not. Among those departments: pharmacology, anthropology, physics and microbiology, where Katze worked. “An equity committee could have helped resolve that issue (with Katze) without it dragging on,” he said.
In terms of pay, the university has offered a 1 percent increase, which would amount to about $250 a year for most students, Sanchez said. At the same time, building and health-care fees are going up $1,400 a year, making it “a massive pay cut, effectively,” he said.
But university officials say that over the past five years, academic student employees have received compounded salary increases totaling 50 percent as part of a plan to closely align their pay to the amount that student employees make in the University of California system. Those pay increases included an increase of nearly 12 percent in 2015.
“We have bargained in good faith these past few months and have made substantial progress on issues important to the academic student employees,” Mindy Kornberg, vice president for human resources, said in a statement. “The University has been responsive to several of the union’s concerns, both economic and non-economic, and remains committed to reaching a fair deal for our academic student employees.”
University officials said that if a strike were to occur, they have plans in place to enable undergraduates to complete their course work and have their grades recorded in a timely fashion.