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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 10, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 15
UW student workers demand more inclusive workplace - Charge school with stalling labor negotiations
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UW student workers demand more inclusive workplace - Charge school with stalling labor negotiations

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Student workers at the University of Washington have adopted a novel tactic to dramatize their demands for a more open and inclusive workplace. Beginning April 6, they bombarded UW administrators with 'micro-disruption' emails.

'Consider this email disruptive?' the email asks. 'How about hundreds of 'micro' disruptions like it? Does it make it hard to accomplish your agenda? To stay on track with your professional and academic goals?

'Women, people of color, LGBTQ, undocumented immigrants, international students, and others experience subtle, everyday words and actions that degrade and exclude them based on who they are. These micro-aggressions create barriers to academic and professional achievement every day they work as Academic Student Employees (ASEs)....'

The emails underline one of the key demands in negotiations for a new labor agreement between ASEs and the university - formal rules to prevent 'micro-aggressions' based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

David Parsons, president of UAW 4121, the union that represents ASEs at UW, says he is surprised that this demand has become so contentious.

'I thought the non-cash stuff would be easy,' Parsons told SGN. 'I thought we'd present our demands on inclusivity, and the university would say 'OK,' and then we'd move on to the economic issues.

'Instead, they've showed incredible resistance. The university has just been unacceptably slow. They haven't said 'Get out,' but they're just sitting on their hands.'

Micro-aggressions can include everything from misgendering Transgender employees, to assigning some employees to demeaning tasks far below their skill level, Parsons explained.

'For example there are women in the sciences who are assigned tasks that men would never be assigned,' Parsons noted, 'like note-taking or getting coffee for the workgroup. Some people are subjected to hostile or demeaning remarks. We also have a proposal for restroom equity - gender-neutral restrooms on campus.'

'These things might not come up to the level of sexual harassment,' added UAW 4121 member Liz Mills, 'but they're serious. They're micro-aggressions but they can have a macro effect on your self-esteem and your ability to contribute to the group.'

The union says formal rules are needed for workers to be able to hold the UW accountable for such micro-aggressions.

'Some people experience micro-aggressions all the time, but with no clear way of getting support and making change, they just suffer through or drop out,' Elizabeth Scarbrough, member of UAW 4121's bargaining committee, said in a statement. 'This could easily be changed if UW takes some concrete steps to end this.'

'We're asking the UW to be a leader on this issue,' Mills added. 'What we're proposing is proactive measures, so the university can get out in front of this issue. It's like preventative care.'

UAW 4121 represents some 4500 workers, most of them graduate students on salary, but also some undergrads on hourly wages. One of the union's economic demands was to get the university to comply with Seattle's new $15 per hour minimum wage law, something UW officials say they are not required to do.

'They told us they would increase the minimum wage for the lowest-paid workers in our bargaining unit,' Parsons told SGN, 'but for no one else. That response made us change our proposal. We demanded an increase for everyone, in the bargaining unit or not.'

High tuitions and student fees are also areas of concern, Parsons said.

'For us, tuitions and fees are part of our conditions of employment,' he explained. 'We have to be students to keep our jobs, so when tuition and fees go up, that's a cut in our income.'

The university has also been slow to respond to the union's economic proposals. The workers' current contract expires April 17.

In hopes of motivating the university to take contract negotiations seriously, the union has called for a week of action, with major protests on April 15 and 17.

April 15 is a national day of action for the $15 minimum wage, with demonstrations at the UW and other locations around the city. On April 17, the UW's tuition deadline, union members plan to pack the UW Registrar's office in Schmitz Hall, to protest low wages and increased tuition and fees.

Community members - especially UW alums - can help, Parsons and Mills said, by contacting the university and expressing support for a fair contract.

'The UW has a reputation for being an inclusive and progressive institution,' Parsons concluded, 'but that image is contradicted by their bargaining position. I hope people will contact the university and tell them that's not acceptable.'

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