Frequently Asked Questions

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General Questions

What is WAWU / UAW?

Western Academic Workers United (WAWU) is the union for ALL student employees at Western. We are working together to improve the wages, working conditions and lives of working students at Western. Our work contributes substantially to the operational, learning and research missions of Western. By forming a union we are able to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that legally protects and makes transparent the terms and conditions of our employment. 


By forming a union, we strive to create a stronger and more equitable University, just as tens of thousands of other unionized employees at campuses like ours. Closest to home, we’ve begun working closely with the University of Washington Academic Student Employee Union, UAW Local 4121, whose collective bargaining history has resulted in numerous improvements.

Who are Educational Student Employees (ESEs) and Operational Student Employees (OSEs)?

Educational Student Employees (ESEs) are students employed by Western to do instructional or research work. ESE is an umbrella term that includes Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, Peer Advisors, Library Assistants, Tutors and any other student employee doing substantially similar work, regardless of funding source. 

Operational Student Employees (OSEs) are students employed by Western to do many kinds of work including operationtional, clerical, and other kinds of program support. OSE is an unbrella term that includes Laborers, Program Support Staff, Childcare Assistants, Program Coordinators, Writers, Editors, and many other kinds of student employees regardless of funding source.

What is a Union?

A union is an organized group of employees who work together to improve the working conditions of all through the power of collective bargaining. We, the student workers at Western, are the union. By forming our union here at Western, we gain the right to negotiate terms and secure benefits in a legally binding contract with the university that cannot be unilaterally changed. We also gain more power to influence other decisions that affect us: see for example how unionized academic workers played a role in helping reverse recent decisions targeting international student workers.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process, protected by state law, that equalizes the power relationship between employees and their employer

Under collective bargaining, student employees elect peer representatives to negotiate as equals with Western’s administration. These negotiations result in a proposed contract called a Tentative Agreement (TA) which guarantees the terms and conditions of employment for student employees. All student employees represented by the proposed agreement will then be asked to vote to democratically approve the tentative agreement. If approved, the tentative agreement becomes a legally-binding contract.

Through collective bargaining, other academic workers across the country (such as Teaching Assistants, Postdocs, and Academic Researchers) have successfully negotiated improvements in their wages, benefits, job security, leaves, protections against harassment and discrimination, and many other terms and conditions of their employment.

Without collective bargaining, Western has unilateral power to change our working conditions. We cannot bargain as equals over stipends, health insurance, a fair grievance procedure for addressing harassment/discrimination or other isues, and more.


Why We’re Forming a Union with UAW

Why create a union?

Student employees at Western have long identified ways to improve working conditions but we have not had power to bargain as equals. A union fundamentally addresses the power imbalance which exists between student employees and university administration by making us part of the contract negotiation process. As a collective bargaining unit student workers are protected against the university making any unilateral changes to existing contracts. Moreover, collective bargaining units work to improve working student’s conditions by bargaining for greater pay, benefits, and more equitable working conditions university wide. It also will strengthen the voice of student employees in an increasingly difficult political environment.

With collective bargaining, we can set our own priorities and our own agenda— we elect a bargaining committee composed of our peers and co-workers as representatives to negotiate on an equal footing with Western administrators for improvements such as salary increases, improvements to health insurance, anti-discrimination and harassment protections, parental leave, and much more. 

What improvements have Student Employees bargained for at other universities?

Nationally, student employees have negotiated improvements to their wages, health insurance benefits, tuition waivers; have established fair processes for stopping sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and microaggressions; and have and negotiated guaranteed short and long-term family and medical leaves. 

Read more about what Student Employees have won at other universities:

Why are student employees choosing to join the UAW?

UAW is the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW). UAW has historically been one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. In recent decades, 100,000 workers in higher education have joined, making UAW the single largest union of academic workers across the US. UW Academic Student Employees have found that joining the UAW has allowed them to democratically determine priorities as a workforce and dramatically increased power to win improved rights and benefits through collectively bargaining with UW. 

We reached out to UAW about supporting our campaign to form a union at Western because it is the union with expertise bargaining with similar employers in Washington, and it has a proven track record. Having the same union represent student employees across the state builds power and allows us to draw on years of UAW experience in representing employees in higher education, in Washington State and beyond.

Will I have to pay dues?

Everyone who voluntarily joins the union as a member will contribute dues, which are a way for us to pool our money so we can keep things running, stay independent, and not have to seek external funding.

Student Employees at Western will not pay dues until after negotiating and voting to ratify our first contract. Once a contract is ratified, each individual student employee can decide whether or not to become a dues-paying member. Dues provide the resources that enable fair and effective union representation. To learn how dues enable a strong and active union, read “Dues in Action” from the academic workers union at UW. UAW membership dues are just 1.44% of gross income and are automatically deducted. 

Typically, the value of increased salary and benefits greatly exceed the cost of dues. Since 2015, UW Academic Student Employees (ASEs) have bargained median wage increases totaling more than 30% and have reduced the costs of mandatory out of pocket fees, including the elimination of a fee imposed solely on international students. UW ASEs have also secured comprehensive health insurance, childcare benefits, and paid family/medical leave. This is in addition to appointment security, protections from harassment and discrimination and arbitrary dismissal and lay-off, among other benefits.

Stipend and wage rates for Western graduate appointees have only increased slightly since 2015 and the out of pocket costs of required student fees have also increased. Many of us, with extra financial costs – parents, caregivers, international students – receive little if any additional support. Arguably we have paid more as a result of not having a union than we would pay in dues.

How is dues money allocated? What are dues used for?

Union members democratically decide how union dues are spent. In UAW 4121, members approve a budget for the year. Individual expenses throughout the year are then approved by the Joint Council (leadership from both the ASE and Postdoc Units), which is elected union-wide and meets monthly. Meetings of the Joint Council and Executive Board are open to all members of the union. Additionally, elected trustees audit the union’s income and expenditures twice annually, and the Joint Council reviews and approves the union’s financial report every month.

Most of the work of enforcing the contract and representing membership is financially supported by the Local Union. The Local Union receives 28% of its dues to support the following:

  • Educating new employees about their rights and the union
  • Contract negotiations
  • Advising members in difficult situations and supporting them through contract enforcement grievances
  • Events, including educational seminars on topics like visa and immigration rights, healthcare, and taxes
  • Advocacy for public policy that supports research and researchers

To see union dues at work, read this summary of contract wins by UAW Academic Workers or the ways UAW Academic Workers are taking on inequality in academia. At UW, Local Union members have recovered over $7 million just since 2014 through enforcing the contract. 

Another 25.5% of dues goes to the International Union’s General Fund, which provides technical support for contract negotiations and contract enforcement and supports new organizing campaigns including Academic Student Employees United / UAW. The remaining dues are allocated to the Strike and Defense Fund (44%) and Community Action Program (2.5%). Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund (if the balance is $500M or greater), an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate” is given back to the Local and International Union. 

Dues allocated to the International Union will support Western student employees during contract negotiations by providing:

  • Technical and legal support for student employee contract negotiations
  • Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals at the bargaining table
  • Researchers who can help independently analyze employer finances to help make responsible decisions about bargaining proposals

International Union dues will also continually support Western student employees outside of contract negotiations by providing:

  • Legal advice and advocacy to impact policy makers, especially those in Washington, DC. For example, in 2017 UAW International filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case challenging the Trump administration’s travel ban. In 2016, UAW helped win the Optional Practical Training STEM extension
  • Effective response to federal policy. In July 2020, the UAW filed a declaration to support a lawsuit challenging the H-1B entry ban announced on June 22 highlighting the detrimental impacts on affected UAW Academic Workers. In April 2020, the President of the UAW International wrote to Congressional leadership urging action to protect researchers and research funding in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Guidance on grievance and arbitrations. For example, UAW International aided UW ASE in winning increased fee waivers and back pay.
  • Advice on best practices for ensuring strong education and mobilization programs to keep members involved.
  • Other services as requested by the Local.

In addition, dues help support new organizing campaigns. For example, the organizing staff and legal support for the WAWU-UAW campaign is paid by current UAW members’ dues. 

A portion of dues money also goes to support political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members. For example, UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform, which would include more visa access and an improved green card process, and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: Legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues, in a program called VCAP (Voluntary Community Action Program)].

These resources have been key to major victories for academic workers including:

  • Defeating the directive to deport international students attending classes remotely
  • The recent landmark NLRB decision extending collective bargaining rights to Teaching and Research Assistants at private universities.
  • The extension of Optional Practical Training for international students.
  • The inclusion of Postdocs in the 2016 Department of Labor’s overtime ruling resulting in wage increases and new wage standards for Postdocs across the country.
  • Paid family medical leave, which benefits workers statewide by establishing 12 weeks of paid leave 
  • An increase to the state minimum wage, which benefits workers statewide and strengthened the economy

Initiation fees, like dues, are set by UAW membership. Each ASE will pay a one-time $10 initiation fee when they become a member.

Can the union guarantee any specific improvements?

We are the union and will democratically prioritize which improvements to pursue in contract negotiations. Unionization is not a process in which a third party entity “guarantees improvements,” but rather a process by which we decide whether to gain rights and power to negotiate as equals with the administration for the changes we want to make. A contract will also legally secure those improvements against unilateral changes by the administration.

Working with GSAC and ASWWU

How is this different from GSAC (The Graduate Student Advisory Council) and ASWWU (Associated Students of Western Washington University)?

GSAC and ASWWU are different from a union in that they cannot bargain as equals with Western over terms and conditions of student employment. In contrast, with our union, Western Administration is legally required to negotiate with us over wages, hours, and working conditions of employment. While GSAC and ASWWU are strong advocates for all students, they are not as focused on student employees. GSAC and ASWWU are also funded by student fees whose expenditures are ultimately approved by the University Administration, whereas a union is funded independently through membership dues.

Why don’t we just work through GSAC and ASWWU?

Many of us are active in GSAC and ASWWU and have come to the conclusion that without a union we don’t have the legal standing and power necessary to make necessary improvements to student employees’ terms and conditions and help Western become an even stronger University. Western Administration is not required to bargain with GSAC and ASWWU, and therefore can – and has – ignored some attempts at advocacy through those channels. Given the track record of success at unionized campuses like UW, we believe this important change is critical and overdue.

Would the Union replace GSAC and ASWWU?

Absolutely not. We are excited to be partners with GSAC and ASWWU in these efforts, and many of us who are active in the unionization effort are also active in student government. At other campuses where Student Employees have unionized, the union works closely with student government and jointly advocates on many issues to improve conditions for all students. For example, UAW Local 4121 and GPSS (the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at UW) worked together to bargain strong contracts, fight for affordable tuition, fight sexual harassment, increase funding for higher education and more.

Process of Forming a Union

Why and how do I sign an authorization card?

We are asking Operational Student Employees (OSEs) to sign union authorization cards in order to certify our union and begin collective bargaining. These cards say that OSEs want the union we are forming — Western Academic Workers United / United Auto Workers, or WAWU/UAW — to represent Operational Student Employees in collective bargaining with Western Administration. It takes a majority of Operational Student Employees signing authorization cards in order to certify the union as the collective bargaining representative for OSEs at Western.

Washington regulations require that each employee’s printed name, signature, job title or classification and the date on which each individual’s signature was obtained be present on cards, and state that cards are valid for one year after the date on which they are signed. Authorization cards are confidential and will not be shared with Western Admin.

Ready to sign a union authorization card? Click here.

What does “exclusive representation” mean?

Exclusive representation means that the union Student Employees formed – Western Academic Workers United – UAW (WAWU / UAW), is the union for all Student Employees at Western. In May of 2023, Educational Student Employees (ESEs) won legal recognition and formally adopted WAWU-UAW as our exclusive representative, which means we are empowerd to netogiate and represent ourselves at the bargaining table and in any disputes with our employer. ESEs have elected a bargaining team (made up of ESEs) to negotiate with Western administration and reach a tentative agreement. Without exclusive representation, Western administrators could undermine the bargaining process by negotiating with an organization other than the democratically elected bargaining team chosen by Educational Student Employees. Operational Student Employees (OSEs) are currently collecting authorization cards to formally adopt WAWU-UAW and win the same kinds of benefits and protections as ESEs.

Will my authorization card be confidential?

Yes, authorization cards are confidential and will not be shared with Western Admin.

What is the process of forming a union for OSEs and bargaining a contract?

Here is a summary:

  1. Operational Student Employees form a diverse organizing committee to gather information and make a plan to form a union.
  2. A majority of all OSEs (50% + 1) sign authorization cards indicating they would like to form WAWU / UAW.
  3. OSEs deliver our authorization cards to the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) which oversees public employee unionization efforts. PERC requests a list of OSEs from Western to verify that all cards are valid and represent a majority.
  4. If PERC finds that a majority of OSEs have signed cards,
  5. Then job titles in the unit are determined, and
  6. PERC certifies Western Academic Workers United / UAW, and OSEs can begin bargaining with the Western administration.
  7. OSEs elect a bargaining committee of OSEs.
  8. OSEs fill out comprehensive bargaining surveys, hold discussions, request information from Western administration, and gather feedback to draft our initial bargaining priorities.
  9. Initial bargaining demands are sent to all OSEs for review, and OSEs vote on whether or not to approve them.
  10. The bargaining committee negotiates as equals with Western administration and provides regular updates to all OSEs. OSEs participate in the process, including engaging in collective action about their demands. Learn more on the “bargaining process” fact sheet.
  11. Once a tentative agreement is reached at the bargaining table,
  12. All OSEs vote on whether or not to ratify the agreement.
What happens if ESEs vote down a first contract?

If ESEs do not ratify the tentative agreement reached between their elected bargaining team and WWU administration, then the bargaining team will return to the negotiating table. Contract ratification is often the subject of rigorous democratic discussion among UAW members, with “vote yes” and “vote no” campaigns in which members make the case for or against ratification.

What about international students?

International Student Employees have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens. In fact, international student employees hold many of the leadership positions in UAW Academic Worker locals and are active in driving the advocacy agendas of UAW Locals.

Visa requirements in no way compromise any student employees’ right to belong to a union in a US workplace. No academic union members have ever reported any complications arising from being both an International student employee and a unionized employee.

Can international students/scholars sign up for membership in the union and participate in union-related activities?

Yes! Academic worker unions have been formed by and are led by international students/scholars, who have been actively involved in union leadership, committees, work groups and other decision-making bodies. The UAW Local 4121 workforce is comprised of approximately 30-40% international students/scholars, and as such, the issues they face comprise many of their core demands: equity, anti-discrimination, job stability, adequate health care, and more. International students/scholars have regularly taken the lead in union advocacy, including contract bargaining, policy advocacy, and also direct action on these issues (see for example the successful campaigns to counter the effects of the Trump Travel Ban, to strengthen protections against discrimination and harassment, to extend STEM OPT funding, and more). This is in addition to the work done through the union to fight for rights of all immigrants and undocumented folks (see other examples on this page).

Could signing a union authorization card jeopardize or delay application for permanent residence (green card)?

When International scholars at Western sign authorization cards they have the same legal protections as U.S. citizens who sign cards, and signing an authorization card should not jeopardize or delay application for legal permanent residence. Authorization cards that get submitted to Washington PERC (the state agency, Public Employment Relations Commission, that will verify and count union authorization cards) are confidential and not released by PERC to the Western Washington University or other government agencies. See WAC 391-25-110. 

Thousands of academic workers have signed union authorization cards at WWU, and there are no known instances of delayed or rejected visa or green card applications due to signing a card or otherwise participating in unionization. This includes 1,000 UW Postdocs, 1,500 Columbia University Postdocs, and 5,000 University of California Academic Researchers, with a large portion of each workforce (roughly 30%) composed of international workers. 

If you have questions about your particular situation, please contact . We are also working closely with the UAW 4121 International Solidarity Workgroup who can provide additional resources.

Can international students/scholars contribute to the Union's political action fund (VCAP)?

Only individuals who are eligible to register to vote in the U.S. are eligible to contribute financially to this program. However international students/scholars may (and often do) get involved in other aspects of the political process.

Where can I find out more about what unionization has meant for International Student Employees at other universities?

You can find out more about how unionization has made a difference for International Student Employees at other universities here.

Potential Impacts

I am already making a good amount of money and feel protected and fine in my department. Why should I want a union?

We believe that at Western we succeed and fail as a community and hope that any relative security we experience does not prohibit us from advocating for those student workers who may face institutional barriers. Moreover, without the collective power that comes with a union there are no guarantees that individual positions or contracts are protected which means they can change at any time. Collective bargaining enables us to preserve best practices at Western and establish them for everyone.

Because collective bargaining agreements are approved by a democratic vote of all members, they will only be supported if they result in a net benefit for students. Without collective bargaining, Student Employees are required to accept whatever the university decides to provide us. This reinforces a status quo that has equity impacts and makes it less likely that the University will achieve objectives like the goals outlined in the university’s 2018-2025 Strategic Plan.

Will forming a union cause Western to reduce benefits or lower pay?

Once a union is formed, Western cannot unilaterally alter any terms and conditions of employment—including pay and benefits. Instead, changes to terms and conditions of employment are subject to collective bargaining, through which Student Employees have the power to negotiate with Western administrators as equals and democratically approve a binding, enforceable contract. This means we would have to democratically approve a contract that reduces our benefits or pay for such a thing to happen.

If we form a union does that mean we’ll only be able to bargain every three years?

The duration of a collective bargaining agreement is one of the topics of bargaining, so we will negotiate this term with Western Administration and then vote. The duration can also vary from contract to contract: for example, UW ASEs have approved CBAs lasting from 1-3 years.

Won’t jobs go away if Student Employees get raises?

As a union, Student Employees will have access to Western financial information that affects us. This will increase transparency and make it possible to be well-informed and conscientious during bargaining. All bargaining decisions will be made by Student Employees, including what proposals to make in bargaining, and whether to approve any proposed contract. 

By developing thoughtful bargaining proposals and advocating successfully for increased higher education and research funding, unions of academic workers have made significant improvements to their working conditions. As examples, bargaining and advocacy by UAW 4121 (ASEs at UW) has resulted in an increase to the median wage of 32% since 2015, while over the same span the total number of graduate appointees has remained fairly constant (and the number of hourly ASEs, whose wages increased by twice as much, has significantly increased). UAW 5810 (the Union of Postdocs at UC) has bargained a 34% average wage increase for Postdocs since 2010, while over the same span the number of Postdocs employed by the University of California has increased from 5,800 to 7,000. 

Finally, Student Employees have more power to protect jobs through collective action and the protections of a legally binding contract. Most collective bargaining agreements prohibit the employer from terminating positions due to arbitrary or discriminatory reasons, or to take action inconsistent with job offers accepted by the employee. Not only would student employees be able to act collectively, but we would also have the full backing of unionized Academic Workers and the larger UAW International Union.

Will forming a union limit Student Employees’ direct relationship with supervisors?

As a union, student employees will be negotiating with the University, not with our professors and supervisors, because it is the policies of the University that define the conditions of our employment. Moreover, student employees will set the bargaining agenda and decide what improvements to prioritize in collective bargaining.

As such, a union contract would only create limitations if we democratically chose to adopt them. And forming a union would mean that the Western administration would not be able to make unilateral changes to working conditions that student employees choose to preserve. This same process used at Universities around the nation have resulted in numerous improvements, and research suggests if anything, a net benefit to relationships with supervisors as a result of unionization.

If I support the union, can Western or my supervisor retaliate against me?

No. Washington State Law is clear: “No public employer, or other person, shall directly or indirectly, interfere with, restrain, coerce, or discriminate against any public employee or group of public employees in the free exercise of their right to organize and designate representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of collective bargaining, or in the free exercise of any other right under this chapter.” 

UAW currently represents 80,000 Academic Student Employees, Postdocs, and Researchers in the US, and has represented tens of thousands more over the years. There has never been a recorded instance of an academic worker being retaliated against due to their involvement with a union.

The WAWU/UAW organizing committee will support any student employee concerned about possible retaliation. Please contact us if you have concerns and/or questions.

Can departments voluntarily pay above negotiated pay rates? Will a union force us to accept a rigid “One Size Fits All” contract?

We will democratically decide how we want to negotiate pay and other terms and conditions of employment, but no academic worker contract has ever stipulated that all workers must be paid the same. Collective bargaining is a creative process, where we bargain as equals in good faith with the Western Administration to establish terms and conditions that work for all. At the University of Washington, ASEs democratically decided to keep a variable system of pay after forming their union. The contract sets a minimum standard and departments are free to pay above that standard. Both the base rate and the variable rates have seen substantial increases. Postdocs at UC and UW both negotiated pay scales that guarantee minimum salaries but stipulate that UC and UW may pay more. 

Will having a union mean I’m only allowed to work a certain number of hours?

Student employees will democratically decide on the terms of employment that most benefit our ability to perform research at a high level. Recent contracts negotiated by other UAW academic unions have emphasized protections against excessive workload while allowing flexibility to allow for maximal productivity. For example, the contract for ASEs at the University of Washington protects against excessive workload by setting an hourly limit to the amount of work that may be assigned, but allows work assignments for Research Assistants to exceed their hourly limit if that work contributes to their dissertation project. UW grant revenue has significantly increased over time while ASEs have been able to protect themselves against doing work that slows their time to degree.

Will having a union mean I’m going to have to start submitting time sheets?

Student employees will democratically decide on terms of employment like this. Currently, Western Administration has the right to start requiring time sheets, but under collective bargaining a provision like this would have to be voted on by student employees to go into effect.

Will Student Employees have to go on strike?

The elected bargaining team may ask Student Employees to vote to authorize a strike if necessary to win a fair contract. In order to authorize a strike, 2/3rds of voting Student Employees must vote in favor. 

UW Postdocs, UC Postdocs and UC Academic Researchers all recently negotiated strong contracts without striking, but were prepared to strike if necessary. In those cases a supermajority of Postdocs and Academic Researchers voted to authorize a strike.

If Western Student Employees decide that a strike is necessary to win a strong contract, there will be time to make contingency plans to ensure important experiments and research are not damaged.

May 2023 Recognition Election