Building Power in STEM Requires Championing Broad and Local Goals
By Shua Sanchez
In May 2018, over two thousand academic student workers went on strike at the University of Washington, the largest strike in the state of Washington in three years. About half of these workers were graduate students in STEM fields, with the other half representing all other academic disciplines. Prior to the strike, a four-month contract campaign had secured wins on many but not all of the contract priorities, and ultimately the union membership voted 92 percent to reject the administration’s “last, best and final offer” and initiate a strike. From this “final” offer to the actual final contract signed after the strike, an additional $1.3 million in direct compensation was added to the contract, as well as numerous benefits improvements, including free mental health coverage, increased child care subsidies, new healthcare benefits for trans workers, a new anti-harassment program run by workers, and a contractual guarantee of no new student fees.
I was a member of the seventeen-person bargaining committee of our union, UAW Local 4121, and played a role in organizing members to take action and in leading the negotiations with the administration. In this article, I aim to give snapshots of how we built power and won a strong contract so STEM workers new to organizing can get a sense of the process. I also want to share an insight I gained from this experience: in order to win the broadest goals like a pay raise, it is crucial to also organize around the needs of specific subgroups of workers in order to keep as many people engaged in the movement as possible. And to accomplish this, it is likewise crucial to have leadership that reflects the diversity of the membership.
Engaging Workers On Membership-Driven Priorities
A union builds power to make transformative change in the workplace by engaging a large majority of union members in collective action, and to do so requires fighting for goals that are voiced by and directly benefit all members. For instance, every single STEM worker needs fair pay, adequate medical coverage, and job security. Nonetheless, people have numerous identities besides just being STEM workers, such as their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender; their country of origin, citizenship, and immigration documentation status; and their parental, medical, and disability status. Workers don’t leave their identities at the door when they enter the workplace, and STEM workers in the same job can have vastly different experiences based on their identities. Therefore, priorities specific to these identities must also be championed by the union.
Does this strategy of expanding contract goals actually help workers win better pay? In organizing conversations with hundreds of workers, I sometimes heard the argument that since a pay raise would benefit every worker, while more targeted goals might benefit only a subset of workers, these “smaller” goals should be abandoned to focus organizing power on the “biggest” goals. What this line of thinking overlooks is that a union’s ability to win contract goals is directly proportional to the number of people working together towards winning them. Goals like a pay raise and affordable healthcare are essential priorities of a union, which in fact disproportionately benefit workers from marginalized groups more due to historical inequities in compensation. That said, new protections and benefits that seem specific to smaller groups of workers really do benefit all workers (even if indirectly) in that they increase the power of workers to stand up to their employers and make changes to the workplace. In many conversations with workers, it was clear that these “smaller” goals (e.g., trans rights, anti-harassment protections) were in fact the top priorities of many members who were active participants in the contract campaign and organizers who put in substantial time and effort to organize their coworkers. Thus, had our union thrown out every contract goal except for a pay raise, we would have demotivated many union members and some of our most involved organizers. This then would have only made it harder to win a substantial wage increase. From the employer’s standpoint, it’s just as easy to say no to one demand as it is to ten, but it is harder to say no to a larger group of striking workers than to a smaller group. Therefore, the collection of contract goals should motivate the broadest coalition of workers possible.
To determine the needs of our members prior to the start of contract negotiations, we ran a bargaining survey and worked for weeks to get responses from a majority of all graduate student workers. We then consolidated these goals into a list of bargaining demands and again reached majority sign-on to this petition: this list of over two thousand names was printed on a giant poster that we carried into our bargaining meetings. These two actions operated as what labor scholar Jane McAlevey refers to as “structure tests,” which are opportunities for union members to engage in a majority participation action and to identify and develop new organizers.1 Our basic strategy for each bargaining committee member was as follows: (1) each chose one or several departments to organize, (2) they worked with both elected stewards and rank-and-file organizers to identify a supportive union member in every lab, office and other workspace who could help carry the message to their coworkers, (3) organizers had conversations with as many workers as possible to get majority participation in the survey and petition. We prioritized having physicists talk to physicists and chemists talk to chemists, etc., to build tight networks of workers from the same field, and these networks were then activated to mobilize workers.
From the bargaining survey, most members gave high urgency to winning a substantial pay increase and a reduction to student fees to accommodate life in Seattle’s expensive housing market; there was a universal desire to protect our $0 premium healthcare plans won in previous contracts. Notably, many members gave high urgency to workplace safety goals that encompassed topics such as stronger protections against harassment, and financial and academic support for victims of harassment and abuse. Furthermore, the survey also identified strong support for community-specific goals, such as increased support for international workers, access and coverage for gender-affirming healthcare, and expanded access and financial support for childcare. All of these goals became central to our campaign.
Diverse Needs Met Through Collective Action
The core of our negotiation strategy was mass member participation in bargaining meetings with the administration.2 By packing the meeting room full of union members, we demonstrated our organizing power to the administration, but even more importantly, we built urgency and confidence among our members. For every topic under discussion, we brought one or many workers to discuss their lived experience and explain in their own words why we needed to make changes to our contract. An astronomer discussed the difficulties of finding and affording childcare. An engineer from Iran spoke to the need for more support of the nearly one hundred graduate student workers affected by the Trump travel ban. A biologist spoke to the shortcomings of the university’s bereavement policy. Numerous women scientists spoke on their experiences facing harassment at the university and how our contract goals could make improvements to the workplace. Several trans members discussed the need for gender-affirming healthcare to be included in our plans, which otherwise was far too expensive to afford. This process reassociates our bargaining demands from words on a page to the faces, names, and lives of the people who need these contract wins, bringing awareness to workers about the needs of their coworkers and creating long-term solidarity between different kinds of workers that builds power for the contract campaign.
Mass participation bargaining also gave our members firsthand experience of the administration’s callous bargaining tactics, which further motivated people to organize (as the old adage goes, the boss is the best organizer). Months of back and forth negotiations led to a final major action where over four hundred members overflowed the negotiation room and surrounding hallways to demand better compensation.3 While even that mass action did not deliver a vastly improved “final” contract offer from the administration, it emboldened our membership to resoundingly reject that offer and go on strike for the first time since 2001.4 The following month of organizing, striking, and bargaining eventually achieved all of our major contract goals, including additional compensation and numerous benefits expansions.
A notable win worth examining in detail is our anti-harassment provisions, which include new protections against retaliation after reporting harassment, a new jointly developed annual equity survey with official publication of harassment data, and a new university-funded training program developed and implemented by paid graduate student workers. While standard employer-mandated harassment training often only exists to reduce employer liability in lawsuits, our innovative new program focuses on shifting the power and culture of the workplace and creating new community norms to prevent harassment from taking place, as well as empowering members to respond to it when it does occur. Embedding these protections in the contract demonstrates that concepts of workplace safety can be expanded when workers are united behind them.
Indeed, these different struggles intertwine and reinforce one another. For instance, winning harassment protections and expanding workplace accommodations (e.g., making gender-neutral restrooms widely available, pushing for increased accessibility of the campus for disabled workers, establishing lactation stations for parent workers) not only protects the most vulnerable workers in academia, but also builds the union’s power to reshape the conditions and physical environment of the workplace to be overall less hostile and more dignified for all workers. This has proven especially true in the COVID-19 era in which enhanced workplace safety standards and accommodations for sick and immunocompromised workers have been a major point of contention between workers and administrators across all sectors.
Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that while the power of a union is directly proportional to the overall participation of its rank-and-file members, inevitably a core group of these members will be putting hundreds of hours and the whole of themselves into organizing over the course of a campaign. It’s been my experience that many committed organizers are strongly motivated by a desire to support and uplift everyone in their community. This can be accomplished not only by winning better direct compensation, but also by fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., through winning more rights in the workplace and by pushing new policies in local, state, and federal government. In fact, identity-based issue campaigns are a common pathway that brings new people into the larger union organizing movement, and so it is synergistic for community-focused goals to be prominent in a union contract campaign.
Organizing For Local Goals, Building Power For Broad Goals
For a union to win the most expansive contract goals, as many members as possible must be engaged in the fight. To accomplish this, it is necessary to prioritize contract goals specific to the needs of diverse communities of workers. Another real necessity is to develop new leaders and organizing networks year-round so that worker power is sustained between contract campaigns. One of the best ways to achieve this is by initiating organizing campaigns around localized goals important to specific groups of workers. Here I share three examples of STEM workers who organized around a targeted goal in the year before the contract negotiation. The worker power they built led to above average participation from their departments in the contract campaign and strike, and notably, many of the leaders of these movements later became elected leaders of our union.
In one life science department with a majority-women student population, an established professor was infamous for making crude, culturally insensitive, and sexully charged “jokes” during his lectures. Given that he taught a required introductory course every year, this essentially forced all students in the department to have to endure a hostile environment. Department-wide organizing led to a petition with nearly 100 percent sign-on from the department’s graduate students, and later to the filing of a grievance. The professor was ultimately removed from the course and barred from supervising graduate student TAs. This campaign not only improved the climate significantly within this department, but was also critical for building momentum to successfully enshrine new anti-harassment protections in the contract. Furthermore, one of the core members involved in this effort went on to become a major organizer in the contract campaign and turned out 90 percent of her department to the strike.
In a physical science department, graduate students were highly dissatisfied with the record low number of women in the incoming student cohort. The following months of individual interactions with the department administration (mostly via the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee) failed to enact any new policies to boost recruitment of women and minority scientists. In response, a new organizing committee of student workers wrote a petition demanding new recruitment and retention policies, and achieved a 70 percent sign-on rate through one-on-one conversations with graduate students. This mass action eventually resulted in policy changes leading to a record high recruitment of women and minority students the following year. In this local campaign, the central point of pushback from the administration was that student workers should have no say in administrative decisions such as recruitment policies. In actuality, it should be the goal of unions to push the boundaries of what can be negotiated for in the contract, and what can be won through organizing outside of the contract. Several months after this victory, this same organizing committee turned out a large majority of their departmental coworkers to the picket line, again demonstrating how organizing networks can be redeployed to new actions.
In yet another department, graduate student researchers of climate science had been organizing for years to support ballot initiatives to implement a carbon tax in Washington state. While these efforts included general public advocacy such as op-eds and canvassing, perhaps their biggest impact was participating in county and state labor council meetings and winning over the support of union members employed in industries traditionally hostile to environmental initiatives. These organizing efforts continued even after the ballot initiatives were ultimately defeated by the fossil fuel industry’s record-breaking ad spending. The next year, the state legislature passed the most ambitious clean energy bill in the nation, with broad support from the labor movement owing to strong worker protection provisions.5 Throughout the months of our contract campaign, workers from this department had some of the highest turnout rates at our bargaining meetings, direct actions, and the strike, all owing to the organizing skills and relationships built through these climate-focused legislative efforts.
Union organizing should not be thought of as a zero-sum game, where prioritizing community-specific goals comes at a cost to broad financial goals. Our organizing experience at the University of Washington proved that prioritizing goals crucial to different communities of workers keeps people highly engaged in the fight, and makes it more likely to win foundational goals like wage increases and affordable healthcare. Importantly, having leadership composed of members from these different communities strengthens the union as a whole by making it more cohesive and responsive, both during negotiations and year-round. I offer this perspective with the hope that it may be useful to other STEM workers in their own organizing efforts.
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- Jane McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford University Press, 2016), 34–35; The Harvard Law Forum, “Building Worker Power in The New Gilded Age: Jane McAlevey at The Harvard Law Forum,” filmed April 12, 2018, YouTube video, 59:32, April 12, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoOZFEyxBBU.
- McAlevey, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, 57; Theresa Aliwarga, et al., “Provost Admits ‘No Plan to Deal with Rent Increases’>>Last day to Vote>>6 Days Until Expiration!”, UAW Local 4121, April 24 2018, https://www.uaw4121.org/provost-admits-no-plan-to-deal-with-rent-increaseslast-day-to-vote6-days-until-expiration/.
- Theresa Aliwarga, et al., “400 Members Removed from Bargaining by Police,” UAW Local 4121, April 30, 2018, https://www.uaw4121.org/400-members-removed-from-bargaining-by-police/.
- Jane Hadley, “TA Strike Ending with Quarter at UW,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 14, 2001, https://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/TA-strike-ending-with-quarter-at-UW-1057335.php.
- “100% Clean Electricity Legislation Passes Washington State Senate in Historic Vote,” Audubon Washington, April 6, 2019, https://wa.audubon.org/news/100-clean-electricity-legislation-passes-washington-state-senate-historic-vote.