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UW postdocs and research scientists go on strike

By Mantak Singh

Postdoctorates and research scientists and engineers (RSEs) at the University of

Seattle, WA – On June 7, postdoctorates and research scientists and engineers (RSEs) at the University of Washington Seattle, members of the UAW 4121 went on strike. Over 700 workers, students and community members turned out to picket lines in support. While postdoctorates and RSEs have separate bargaining committees, they are united in their fight for a strong contract.

In December 2021, RSEs submitted a union certification petition, and they are still fighting to achieve a strong agreement. The certification process faced a significant delay of over six months when the University of Washington administration contested the inclusion of more than 300 individuals in the bargaining unit. However, the subsequent adjudication process revealed that 99% of these challenges were unfounded.

Once bargaining finally began, the administration displayed a sluggish approach, openly stating there was no foreseeable conclusion to the contract discussions. By failing to bargain in good faith regarding the decision to convert overtime-exempt RSEs into overtime eligible, the University of Washington has violated the law.

Postdoctoral researchers, much like the RSEs, have been engaged in bargaining efforts for several months. Initially, progress was made, but in January, the administration unexpectedly changed their stance and began asserting that the Washington Minimum Wage Act does not apply to postdocs. This claim was utterly unreasonable, and the union to promptly filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge.

Subsequently, the administration sent a letter to State Labor & Industries in an attempt to garner support for their position. In response, the union countered with a letter of their own and took further actions to intensify the threat of a strike. This included disruptive measures such as intervening in a Board of Regents Meeting and staging a sit-in within the administration building.

Before long, Washington State Labor & Industries issued a memorandum aligning with the union's position, affirming that postdocs are indeed protected by the law. This served to inform the University of Washington administration of their obligation to comply. Once the state denied this claim, the university then asked for more time to adjust to the “surprise.”

The primary demands are living wages, childcare and support for an inclusive workforce. 47% of RSEs live below the threshold for subsidized housing in Seattle and are paid 30% lower than the national average. Postdoctorals are in a similar situation.

The university is trying to deny raises for the time that contracts were under negotiation, and the current proposal is for 2% raises for this year and the next year – and nothing for the third year of the contract. Childcare is a similar issue for many, with the university claiming it does not have the funds for research scientists to have childcare paid. Other university demands include preventing tracking of hours, and keeping workers salaried, which would open workers to wage theft, and to increase training against sexual harassment.

To quote UW research scientist Beth Martin, “You have worked so hard to get into your careers. You discover new truths about life and the universe. You create new technologies. You have skills that no one else has. Your research and knowledge fuels this university. You deserve to have a life where you are not struggling. You deserve to thrive.”

Starting at 5 a.m., people were out at picket line. Chants were loud, trucks were being stopped, and solidarity was demonstrated. To quote, academic student employee Avi Matarasso and organizer with UAW 4121, “The past few days of picketing have shown the type of mutual investment and trust that years of organizing can build.”

In regard to his experience at the picket lines, undergraduate student Mathieu Chabaud and vice-president of The Progressive Student Union said, “As a student, I go to this university because of how good it is at research. These are the workers who make the university as good as it is – not administration. As students, we need to be on the picket lines as long as it takes for them to win the strong contract that they deserve.”

Union leadership and the rank and file are prepared to strike for as long as it takes until workers receive a strong contract. Other workers on campus are speaking to their colleagues and preparing to engage in solidarity. They plan to continue fighting until they win.

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