Washington State University student workers join organized labor push

Student employee group on Washington State University campuses file to form union (Photo courtesy of UAW)

On the heels of unionization efforts at the University of Washington and the University of California, about 1,600 graduate and undergraduate student workers at Washington State University have filed a petition to form a labor union known as the WSU Coalition of Academic Student Employees / United Auto Workers (WSU-CASE/UAW). 

Consisting of mostly graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, research assistants, tutors and graders, the new collective bargaining unit seeks to improve the work-life conditions of academic student employees, Shawnee Kasanki, a third-year PhD student studying natural resources and environmental sciences, told the Tri-City Herald. 

Because of their student status universities often pay college workers less than the state minimum wage and the student employees are not permitted to seek additional work off campus, despite WSU’s weekly work cap of 20 hours, Kasanki said.

Other issues student union members want to address include toxic work environments, discrimination and inadequate institutional support, according to a news release. 

WSU is the only major public research institution on the West Coast that does not have a union for student employees. 

“In thousands of conversations with our colleagues, we kept hearing the same things: That people are struggling,” Priyanka Bushana, a research assistant in translational medicine and physiology at WSU Health Sciences in Spokane, said in a statement. “The health insurance is inadequate for many [academic student employees], compensation isn’t keeping up with housing and other costs, there isn’t recourse against discrimination and bullying, and the list goes on,” she said. 

The UAW is the single largest union of academic student employees and postdoctoral scholars across the U.S. It represents nearly 100,000 academic employees at more than 40 universities and colleges nationwide.

“Like the 17,000 UC student researchers in 2021 and the tens of thousands of other academic workers who have organized with UAW in recent years, WSU Student Workers have taken a huge first step toward making our universities more equitable,” Ron McInroy, director of UAW Region 4, said in the news release. “The UAW is proud to stand with workers in higher education who, like workers in auto and every sector of the economy, deserve a voice at work.”

The push for unionization is not limited to college campuses. In April, employees at Seattle-based Starbucks and Amazon voted for organized labor as a means to bargain with their employers. 

Emery Reddy helps workers. Call us if you have questions about worker protection laws, or if you have an L&I, workers’ comp, injury, or other employment law claim. You won’t get better advice.

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