- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Wednesday, June 7, 2,400 academic workers walked off the job at the University of Washington in Seattle for six days. About nine hundred postdocs represented by United Auto Workers (UAW) 4121 Academic Workers and 1,400 researcher scientists/engineers (RSEs) represented by University of Washington (UW) Researchers United–UAW were striking in response to what they describe as bad-faith bargaining by the university. Academic workers complained in particular about the university’s trying to unilaterally reclassify some employees as hourly workers in order to avoid paying them a higher minimum salary as required by Washington state law. The strike continues the wave of labor militancy that’s been crashing across US universities, including a massive strike in the University of California system last fall that UW workers say inspired their own walkout.
Workers suspended their strike on Thursday, June 15, after the unions reached tentative agreements (TAs) with the university; on June 20, members of both UAW 4121 and UW Researchers United voted overwhelmingly to ratify the agreements, which included significant pay raises for postdocs and researchers. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with postdoc Sora Kim and researcher Jai Broome after the TAs were released to discuss why they went on strike, how the university responded, and what the workers won.
What led to the decision to strike?
I’ve been on the bargaining committee or on the organizing committee [for UW Researchers United] since 2020. The administration did its damnedest to slow us down and put us in a less powerful bargaining position every step of the way.
Before bargaining started, we were at majority card check. Rather than a) voluntarily recognize us, which it absolutely could have done, or b), just let the state of Washington count the cards and confirm we were at majority, the university challenged the inclusion of around three hundred workers in our bargaining unit, which happened to be just above the 20 percent threshold that, in the state of Washington, means it couldn’t count the cards; it needed to resolve these challenges before it could determine if we had majority.
That was the end of the year 2021. It took us until June of 2022 to finally win our union recognition. UW was able to drag its feet so long with these challenges that we voluntarily agreed to an election, because we knew we could out organize them. We won the election with a supermajority, and the state has since resolved these challenges. Of the three hundred workers the university challenged, it was only about three workers that ended up not belonging to our bargaining unit. It was just a blatant union-busting tactic by them.
Before the research scientist bargaining team started bargaining, there were a number of former postdocs who had bargained with the University of Washington before and understand the lengths it’ll go to keep us from asserting our right to a democratic workplace. Besides the stubbornness and unwillingness to agree to many articles or versions of articles that would substantially make the lives of research scientists better, the university broke Washington state labor law during negotiations by making unilateral changes to the working conditions of a group of workers in our bargaining unit.
For me personally, the skyrocketing cost of living in the city of Seattle has been really hard, and the bad-faith bargaining in response to our demands for a living wage. The issue here was that for postdocs in science, we don’t [get overtime pay]. As a postdoc, I’m working at least fifty, sixty hours a week, and the Minimum Wage Act in Washington stipulates that there’s an amount of money every year that you’re going to get if you are overtime exempt. [Every year until this TA, the University of Washington has classified postdocs as salaried overtime-exempt workers, making their salaries above the minimum threshold determined by the state of Washington. This year the threshold was raised to $65,000; in response the university was trying to classify some postdocs as eligible for overtime so it wouldn’t have to raise their salaries above $65,000.]
The fact that UW’s labor relations team and its bargaining team were not interested at all in following the law made me feel that I needed to take action and to demonstrate that this is a huge issue. I need to afford rent; I need to afford basic human needs, to make ends meet.
[The Minimum Wage Act in Washington is structured] to put upward pressure on wages for salaried workers, not just hourly employees. The thinking is, if you earn less than a certain amount, you have to be eligible to earn time and a half.
So, if you’re a salaried employee just above, say, the 2022 pay threshold, you’re not tracking your hours. The threshold was moved up at the beginning of 2023. There’s a group of workers whose salary was in between those two thresholds. Rather than bargain about how to handle these cases, the University of Washington unilaterally moved all of those affected workers to hours tracking. It’s more feasible for certain workers than others in the RSE camp. But it’s just totally not workable for postdocs.
Both units filed unfair labor practices (ULPs) [about this issue]. About the ULP: I think it’s important to talk about how the University of Washington broke labor law, but also, this is a law designed to get more workers a living wage. This was a way for the University of Washington to get out of paying wages to workers.
Could you give me a brief timeline of the organizing around this? When did bargaining start, and when did the idea of a strike start to spread?
Our contract expired in January of 2023. Before that contract expired, there were several months when our bargaining team and the University of Washington admin’s bargaining team were in negotiations. These sessions had been very unproductive. Administration was going through a mediator, a third party — we weren’t actually coming to the table together. Administration was communicating through this third-party negotiator who was trying to communicate to each of the parties asynchronously, so negotiations dragged on, and I think they really only took off in the spring.
So the contract had been expired for now at least three to four months. April is when I started hearing more from our postdoc bargaining team about the situation, and how it felt that it wasn’t looking promising that UW’s bargaining team was even going to consider having the next salary increase be overtime exempt.
In the beginning of May, the union started to come together in true grassroots fashion. I started getting emails informing me about the situation. I started asking more people who were sending those emails, and then I started roping in people around me — people in my lab, people on my floor — and spreading the word through word of mouth. Also, we had a lot of emails go out trying to educate as many of the union members as possible about the situation.
We had a pretty quick turnaround once we wanted to conduct the strike authorization vote. Both bargaining units conducted their strike-authorization votes concurrently on February 23.
Seeing how little the University of Washington was willing to move on some of the articles that were most important to us, it became very clear that we would need to escalate to the point of a strike and likely beyond. A really encouraging thing for me, watching this as an organizer, is that we had more people vote to go on strike than voted to form a union. It’s hard to gauge exact numbers on the picket lines, but people who were previously in the camp of “Unions are good, but I don’t think I want to go on strike” were ready to keep striking after research scientists got their TA and postdocs hadn’t gotten theirs yet.
What were your core demands?
For postdocs, the main sticking point was this overtime-exempt salary, and then a continuance of our existing benefits.
In terms of secondary demands: there are different classes of postdocs in terms of job categories. The university makes a distinction between postdoctoral scholars, postdoctoral fellows who have independent funding — they have fellowships that they’ve applied to, and these fellowships then pay money to the university and the university disburses them — and then a third category of postdocs called “paid direct.” Paid-direct postdocs have the least amount of support from the university by far. These are postdocs whose funding sources pay them directly.
The university has not really treated all three categories of postdocs equitably; I get different benefits than a postdoctoral fellow, and the same is true for paid-direct postdocs. That was also something the union was trying to push for — parity. If we’re all postdocs, we should be getting the same benefits. In our TA, we were able to get fellows at least to the overtime-exempt salary by 2024. We weren’t able to get our full demands there, but we got increases in support for those paid-direct postdocs.
By the time we went on strike, we had already secured a great improvement to the salary floor of each job class in the research scientist unit. Three things were still on the table for research scientists: across-the-board raises for those whose wages weren’t bumped up by the salary floor, a $90,000-a-year childcare assistance fund, and inclusion in a program that was already won by other bargaining units in my local — it’s a peer-led sexual harassment prevention program, peer-designed, with a very good data-driven track record at making workplaces safer. It’s designed to make workplaces safer, not shield the bosses from liability, which I would argue is the point of any sexual harassment program voluntarily implemented by the bosses.
How did the University of Washington respond to the strike?
There was a lot of misinformation and misrepresentation and distortion of not only what our union representatives have said or have done, but also of the law. One of the things that happened very early back in May, when we were all thinking about when we would strike, was that UW president Ana Mari Cauce wrote a letter to L&I [Labor & Industries, the Washington state agency in charge of labor standards] pleading with it that postdocs are like medical residents and therefore we should be exempt from the Minimum Wage Act requirements.
What was really telling was when she received a response — and the union was copied on this response — saying, “No, postdocs are not medical residents because they do not treat patients,” which is true. I am not a licensed medical practitioner. I’ve never gone into a hospital clinic to ever see a patient in my life. The email showed that we are not exempt from this law. That’s one very concrete example that got my unit just perplexed. This is a law that went into effect in 2016, and up until this contract the university had basically played by the rules.
During the strike, hours-tracking employees were retaliated against by the university. Normally, if you’re in an hours-tracking position, you would be logging your hours [in UW’s tracking system]. But multiple people, including postdocs, received emails saying that they should be reporting any vacation time. [What these emails conveyed was that] if you’re participating in any of these strike activities, that you would be taking it as unpaid leave.
People later received communications from the HR system that they had requested unpaid leave, which was not true. Someone on the back end was forcibly overriding their hours reporting and saying that the employees had requested unpaid leave. This sowed a lot of panic among a lot of our unit members, because that has major implications for whether you’ll be paid during that pay period.
The third example I’ll bring up, which received some publicity, was that the university sent a memo out saying that it had to report any postdocs or members who were on visas to the Department of Labor for participating in union activities. That interpretation of the law is very misleading, because nowhere does it say that it has to do that. This really drummed up a lot of outrage from the greater community that the university is really trying to intimidate as many people as possible into not participating.
One of the articles that the university had dug its heels in the most was about wages and compensation. We actually saw movement; just the fact that we were organizing around turnout for the strike-authorization vote was able to move it. Following the results of the strike-authorization vote, where overwhelming majorities of both units voted to authorize a strike, we saw further movement, but not enough to let the university off the hook and call it a day.
A big part of this process that radicalized people and gave them the strength and endurance to stay on the picket line was when, on the first day of the strike, several departments with a large number of postdocs sent messages that were intentionally vague and threatening to international workers out to workers in both bargaining units. The message they sent out was intended to convey — and was indeed interpreted this way by a large number of the recipients — that if you’re a worker on a visa and you go on strike, the University of Washington will report to the government that you’re on strike.
The law is something like, if you’re a workplace that employs workers on visa and there’s a strike, you have to let the Department of Labor know. It does not say that you have to turn over a list of your striking employees to the government, which is what they intended to convey with this vague language. That was the message received by a good number of the recipients.
I talked with people who at first said, “My union says we’re going on strike, so I’ll go on strike and sign up for picket shifts the first three days. But if it goes on much longer than that, I don’t know how much pay I want to lose or how far I want to get behind on my work.” Then they see that message go out, threatening their international colleagues, and they’re immediately like, “No, I’m staying on the picket line until we get ours.”
At a strategic level, I think it was a pretty clear attempt to drive a wedge between research scientists and postdocs. Very few research scientists are on visas because of the way the University of Washington currently decides how to sponsor visas, but about 40 percent of postdocs are on visas.
What was it like being on strike?
It was scary because this is my first time being in a union period. I didn’t know going into this at all how it was going to play out. This was definitely the longest strike for our local chapter because prior to this, most of the other strikes in our union’s history had been only a single day.
I was thinking about it in terms of, “Well, the UC strike lasted forty days. It was a really long time.” So I was worried about whether I would be able to afford my basic expenses. Our union provides $500 of strike pay per week. But I was worried how long I’d be able to last on that. I didn’t know what to expect.
I feel like I gained more things than I lost through the process. I got to meet so many people; I felt this sense of civic engagement that I, frankly, generally don’t feel. I felt like I was working toward a better good, not just for our unit, but also in the grand scheme of the larger movement of academic union workers and unions striking across the country, and now across the world in the UK and Scotland.
It’s exhilarating, it’s exhausting, it’s emotionally draining, it’s uplifting. One of those things I’ve had people telling me for years, while I’ve been doing this organizing, is that it’s super important to the success of the strike to have people who have been through the motions before; they have practiced carrying out a successful strike. And I was like, “Yeah, sure, that makes sense.” But actually going through it, it’s just like, “Oh man, this is so damn complicated,” and we pulled it off. I’m so glad that the next time research scientists are bargaining contracts, we’re going to have hundreds of workers in our union who have recent experience carrying out a successful strike.
Anything else to add?
Research scientists and postdocs very clearly benefited from being able to bargain at the same time. We were able to do minimal joint bargaining, where both our bargaining teams had people at the tables at the same time, but we collaborated with each other every step of the way. The strength of the RSE contract is made possible by the nine hundred postdocs bargaining concurrently with us. Similarly, the deal postdocs got, I don’t think would’ve been attainable if they’d been bargaining by themselves.
This is a huge own goal by the University of Washington; it could have avoided this entirely. We were at majority at the end of 2021. It could have recognized us, then bargained a contract, and had it ratified before postdocs were bargaining. Instead, UW dragged its feet every step of the way — so long that research scientists and postdocs were at the bargaining table at the same time.
We saw the strength of multiple bargaining units bargaining and striking at the same time in our sibling locals at the University of California: UAW Locals 2865 and 5810. That was a result of a multiyear organizing effort to get the contract expirations to line up. I think it’s hard to overemphasize how important that was.