University of Washington officials are warning academic student employees not to authorize a strike, but students say the message is designed to intimidate them.
In a letter to thousands of graduate students who work for the university, University of Washington officials are warning the students it’s against the law for them to strike — a message the students say amounts to intimidation.
About 4,000 graduate students are negotiating with the UW on a new contract governing their work for the university. Many work as teaching assistants, or TAs, and teach undergraduate classes. They are represented by UAW 4121, the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, and are currently voting whether to authorize union representatives to call for a strike if contract negotiations fail.
The letter from the UW administration, sent last week and signed by David Eaton, dean and vice provost of the graduate school, and Ed Taylor, dean and vice provost of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, warns students that neither state law nor their contract provides for a right to strike, “and even prohibits the union from even authorizing such a work stoppage.” The contract expires April 30, but under Washington law, the terms and conditions carry forward for up to a year, according to Eaton and Taylor.
Students said the letter appeared designed to intimidate and dissuade members from voting to authorize a strike. “The thinly veiled threats in the letter shocked and outraged members,” UAW representatives said in a statement.
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The union says the Washington Legislature has not expressly prohibited strikes of public employees, although not everyone agrees with that interpretation. In 2006, the state attorney general ruled that teachers and other public employees have no legally protected right to strike; however, the law lacks specific penalties to punish striking public employees. Public school teachers have struck in a number of cases over the years.
Union negotiators say the university wants union members to pay mandatory fees out of their student paychecks, which amounts to a wage cut, and that it has proposed changes to student health care, making it less generous.
Earlier this month, the university agreed to raise the minimum wage of its student workers to $11 an hour, the new city minimum wage. That decision affected about 2,600 students. The UW had said previously that, because it is a state entity, it was unclear whether it needed to comply with a city law that raised the minimum wage.
In the letter, Eaton and Taylor say the base wages of part-time academic student employees have risen by about 30 percent over the last few years. “While a new contract has not been finalized, we are confident the University will continue to bargain in good faith toward achieving a fair agreement,” the letter says.
The vote on the strike authorization ends Tuesday.