THE APPROACH OF EXAM WEEK puts stress on any college undergraduate. This fall, the pressure's been even more intense for University of Washington students who've been wondering whether their finals were going to happen at all.
Chaos was narrowly averted Monday morning, when the UW administration agreed to recognize the Graduate Student Employee Action Coalition's right to bargain about pay and working conditions. "We're completely elated," said Communications School TA and GSEAC spokesperson Melissa Meade. "We see this not only as a victory for the union but for the students, the greater community, and the university, as well."
As recently as mid-November, the administration, led by President Richard L. McCormick, adamantly refused to recognize even the possibility of a graduate-student labor union, saying that the monies teaching assistants earn as instructors and graders are student stipends, not employee salaries.
On November 3, 86 percent of the GSEAC membership authorized a strike if the UW administration continued to ignore the group. And since many graduate-student "teaching assistants" are essentially the only teachers undergrads have, a walkout would have disrupted the whole end of term.
Last Thursday, facing a December 4 strike deadline, President McCormick told the regular session of the Faculty Senate that the administration would recognize the right of TAs to organize—if GSEAC called off the strike and ceased demands for substantive negotiation until the state Legislature could be persuaded to create a "legal framework" under which negotiations would take place.
Given the narrow political divisions in both houses of the Legislature and the enormous workload facing the body, co-Speaker of the state House of Representatives Frank Chopp says such enabling legislation would have had a very poor chance of passage. Chopp also points out that there is nothing in state law or administrative practice requiring such legislation. Little wonder, then, the TAs have charged that McCormick's insistence on a "legal framework" was nothing more than a ploy to avoid sitting down to bargain.
This situation has been developing since last spring. In April, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate called on the UW administration to recognize GSEAC, the newly formed union affiliated with the United Auto Workers (which represents students at other institutions). On November 1, the National Labor Relations Board raised the ante by ruling that private universities must recognize the right of their students to organize. Two weeks later, the UW Faculty Senate passed two resolutions, the first in support of GSEAC's efforts, the second encouraging faculty members to "vote their consciences" if a strike led to campus picket lines.
Monday's agreement signaled almost total victory for the student side, though it included some face-saving terms for the administration: GSEAC agreed that any terms negotiated with the U would apply only to its own membership, not all TAs, who would be brought collectively under the union wing only if and when "enabling legislation" is passed. Virtually all such legislation covering state employees contains clauses forbidding strikes and providing for binding arbitration of disputes. So the strike that didn't happen now may never happen; but as far as celebrating UW grad students are concerned, it has more than served its purpose.