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Academic student employee contract negotiations and the UW’s position

This blog post was published April 11, 2024. Please see the Labor Relations website for details on bargaining sessions that have taken place since then and for other regular updates.

In February, academic student employees and the University of Washington entered into negotiations for their next collective bargaining agreement. I have tremendous respect for our graduate students and the bargaining process, and I have every confidence that through these conversations we will find the path that allows all of our students to pursue their education and degree attainment so they can engage in fulfilling careers, advance our knowledge, and have a positive impact on the world.

Because of the central role of graduate students in our mission, many members of our University are understandably invested in the negotiation process and its progress. Today, I am writing to provide an update and the framework for how the University is approaching these conversations.

The UW’s commitment to graduate students

At the core of its foundation, the University of Washington is committed to graduate students and their education. First and foremost, they are students earning graduate degrees to advance their careers, fields of studies and communities.

We also recognize graduate students’ valuable contributions as academic student employees to the research and academic mission and impact of our University. Salaried academic student employees (ASEs) hold part-time positions of no more than 20 hours per week in which they contribute to and gain experience in all aspects of our mission. In learning settings, academic student employees organize course material, assist with grading, mentor students, teach courses and lead study sessions. In research and discovery, they engage in textual and narrative analysis, conduct interviews and surveys, engage in field research, run experiments, analyze findings and communicate their results. In administrative units, they support activities such as outreach, advising and program planning.

In addition to being paid for their work and in recognition of their student status, most salaried academic student employees’ tuition is waived, meaning they pay no tuition. When wages, benefits and tuition waivers are considered, these part-time positions currently pay an average of approximately $70 an hour. There are also other benefits for academic student employees – some of which are available to all employees and others that are specific to ASEs – which are described in detail in the contract.

ASE positions are governed by a collective bargaining agreement, and the University is committed to negotiating this agreement in good faith. ASEs are represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4121. You may read updates on the bargaining process, including the proposals from the union and those from the University that have been made during the eight bargaining sessions so far. As both sides agreed, all initial proposals were made by March 22.

Current proposal from UAW Local 4121

The UAW is currently proposing a 56% base salary increase beginning July 1, 2024. That raise would be followed by another 6% increase next year, and another 6% increase the following year.

The UAW has also proposed that the University waive student fees for all 50% or greater salaried ASEs and extend tuition waivers to graduate and undergraduate students in hourly ASE positions. Numerous other proposals include increases in health-care benefits, guaranteed year-long appointments for many ASE appointments, regardless of departmental research activities and coursework, and increased spending on programming. Those are detailed in the updates on the bargaining process mentioned above.

In total, the increases proposed by the UAW amount to $463,597,541 over the three years of the contract. This is in addition to the existing costs of pay, benefits and tuition waivers for the ASE population. For context, the University’s approximate budget for academic student employees—when factoring in wages, tuition and fee waivers, and health-care coverage—is $291 million per year.

The proposed increases by the union would result in an increase from the current minimum equivalent rate for salaried ASEs of $36 per hour to $57 per hour when considering compensation alone. When considering all of the union’s proposed increases, plus the current benefits and tuition waivers, ASEs will be paid an average of approximately $112 an hour.

The UW’s position

We recognize the impact of inflation on the cost of living in our region. It is clear that we must do more to compensate ASEs so that we continue to provide fair and appropriate compensation for these important part-time student employees. Reaching this shared goal will require us all to work together to balance the needs of all members of our University.

Why is this balance necessary? Because there are real constraints on the sources of funding – tuition, state funding, grants, etc. – for academic student employees. Grants have limits on what can be paid and are time limited; state funding varies by year; and tuition increases are capped by state law to maintain the affordability of a UW degree for students whose tuition isn’t waived.

While it may seem possible to consider the ASE contract in isolation, the comprehensiveness of our mission as a University requires a more holistic consideration of many factors including:

  • the availability of assistantships
  • the robustness of course offerings
  • access to faculty mentors
  • availability of support and services, both academic and non-academic

Together, these considerations determine access to education, success and time to degree for both graduate and undergraduate students, and the impact of our research, scholarship and creative activity.

By virtue of our contributions, we are all stewards of the mission of the University of Washington. We have a shared responsibility to be intentional about the impact of the decisions we make as the foundation of good faith in bargaining.

The way forward

As a faculty member, I have had the honor and privilege of working directly with ASEs in my teaching and research over the course of my career, and I have a deep appreciation for their important contributions to our academic mission. My own time as a teaching assistant and a research assistant provided my first window into what an academic career might entail. I am committed to reaching a fair and appropriate contract that enables graduate students to focus on their learning, teaching and research and to meet their financial needs. UW Labor Relations regularly shares updates on its website if you want to follow the negotiations.

Although I have confidence that we will ultimately reach an agreement that provides the best path forward, and we are working hard toward a positive outcome with a minimum of strife, past experience also shows us that we must unfortunately be prepared for strikes and other disruptions. So, we are actively engaged in those preparations.

I sincerely hope we can avoid that outcome, for the sake of all students and our shared enterprise of education, research, and service. We remain committed to reaching an agreement that meets the needs both of academic student employees and the University.