UW’s assistants threaten to strike

Associated Press

SEATTLE — Hundreds of graduate teaching assistants at the University of Washington are threatening to go on strike.

The teaching assistants say they don’t get paid as much as they should, have inadequate health insurance coverage and must work longer hours than the 20-hour work week specified for them.

Assistants also don’t have enough say in the decisions that affect them, said Nick Velluzzi, a graduate student and teaching assistant at the university.

"Under the current system of what the administration calls shared governance, we don’t have any decision-making power, nor are they bound to anything they agree to," Velluzzi said. "I want to see graduate students enabled to be part of the decision-making process."

In a letter to students, UW President Richard McCormick has admitted that graduate-student teaching assistants at the university earn less money than those at similar universities, such as the University of Michigan. The university has formed a task force to deal with the issues.

But a union is not something administrators want.

Norm Arkans, associate vice president of university relations, said the UW has no problems with talking to graduate students about grievances they have, but not with a third party such as a union.

Like all major research institutions, the UW relies heavily on its graduate students to help professors with their workloads and to teach core curriculum classes. Nearly all of the university’s 1,348 graduate teaching assistants are located on the Seattle campus.

They work 20 hours a week and receive a nine-month stipend of between $10,440 and $12,051. They also get tuition waivers and health insurance.

The university included a request for pay raises for graduate assistants in the school’s biennial budget, but members of the Graduate Student Employee Action Coalition/United Auto Workers say that’s not good enough.

Last spring, graduate teaching assistants, tutors and readers voted to unionize and affiliate with the United Auto Workers Union. Last week they voted 984-164 to authorize a strike if the university doesn’t recognize the union and give it bargaining rights.

A strike could be a risky move, however. Union members make up only about one-sixth of more than 8,400 graduate students at the UW, leaving a large pool of potential candidates to fill their jobs.

Not every teaching assistant sees a need to strike.

"I don’t feel I’ve been treated unfairly by the university," said Colin Costin, a graduate student in chemistry. "Not only do I not have to pay tuition but I don’t feel the medical benefits are bad, and I don’t feel the workloads are unfair."

But Costin said conditions aren’t the same everywhere on campus.

James Gregory, associate professor of history who supports the students’ efforts, said the trend toward unionization is the product of financial pressures on graduate students. Many, he said, find it difficult to make ends meet as their pay falls behind the rate of inflation.

Gregory said he expects the students to prevail ultimately, but unless administrators drop their opposition, he expects years of contention and class disruptions.

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