Graduate assistants planning to unionize

Nicholas Tucker, News Editor

A group of CWU graduate assistants has begun holding the first meetings to discuss unionizing and negotiating with administration for better pay and to implement greater support systems. 

The assembly, led by geology department graduate assistants Elizabeth Curtiss and Amy Gilliland, is largely fighting to increase the stipend they recieve. According to Curtiss, that stipend hasn’t been increased since 2006 when it was set at $8000 annually. Meanwhile, the cost of living has continued to rise.

“We are living below the poverty level and many of us have to be on food stamps and still live paycheck to paycheck,” Curtiss said. “We’re not trying to make money. We’re just trying to do our research.”

According to Curtiss and Gilliland, part of the difficulty graduate assistants are having is that they are prohibited from getting another job working on campus, and it is frowned upon for them to seek additional off-campus jobs. 

“They expect us to be physically available Monday through Friday eight to five,” Curtiss said. “So even if we wanted to get an outside job, finding one that’s flexible with that is extremely difficult. So we’ve talked about it for since I’ve been here last year, about wanting to increase the stipend to be livable.”

Gilliland said one of the major issues graduate assistants face is that their healthcare isn’t covered over the summers, which is difficult for students who want to do field work or research.

“It puts people in these bad positions where they can’t complete their research because if anything happened to them, they would have to pay out of pocket,” Gilliland said.

The two geology graduate assistants also said CWU has lost potential graduate assistants because of the conditions they are offered. Curtiss spoke about a graduate student who visited and expressed that she wanted to attend CWU because it was the best fit for her research. However, Western Washington University offer graduate assistants full tuition waivers as opposed to CWU’s partial waiver, and also offers an annual stipend of about $13,000 compared to CWU’s stipend of about $8,000.

“She said she would prefer to come here, but the money is what’s stopping [her],” Curtiss said.

Curtiss and Gilliland started looking into other universities to see how graduate assistants have gone about negotiating for better wages and found that most of those groups did so through unionization. The University of Washington, for instance, has the The Union of Academic Student Employees and Postdocs at the University of Washington. Western Washington University has the Graduate Assistant Advocacy Council. 

Curtiss and Gilliland spoke to union representatives from other universities and from other workers unions such as the United Auto Workers Union (UAW). With their help, they have begun the first steps of organizing. 

“We are in the heart of talking to all the graduate assistants on campus because it has to be a collective thing, it can’t be by department,” Curtiss said.

Curtiss and Gilliland said they held a meeting on Feb. 17 with about 20 other graduate assistants out of the 152 on campus this quarter. There they discussed the early stages of organizing with the help of a representative from the UAW. They have drafted a petition to find out exactly what percentage of the graduate assistants are in support of unionizing, and are also working on assembling a committee which can represent all 22 of the graduate departments on campus. 

Once they have an idea of what percentage of graduate assistants are in support of unionizing, they can officially file with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC). PERC is a state-run organization which helps state employees with collective negotiation, legal assistance and to navigate potential labor rights issues and unfair labor practices. According to Mike Zellers, executive director of PERC, the grad assistants need to confirm that at least 30% of their members support collective negotiation. Once they do this, a ballot will be mailed to all graduate assistants for a majority vote on unionization. However, if the graduate assistants confirm over 50% in support of collective negotiation, the ballot election will be skipped. 

“It’s hard because I know from an outside view, it could sound like we’re being greedy. Like, we’re given stuff already,” Curtiss said. “But the whole point of an assistantship is that you can support yourself and focus on your work.”