Student rates

University student workers make progress in organizing efforts – The Daily Evergreen

University students are about to unionize and win higher wages, better health care and protection from discriminatory environments.

WSU Coalition for University Student Employees learned Tuesday evening that more than 50% of ASEs support the organizing effort, submitting their signatures in support of the union, Claudia Skinner said, PhD student in American studies and culture.

“We back and support each other whether you’re ASE or not,” she said. “All of us at WSU – we make WSU what it is. We can’t give up when we know people are experiencing unfair labor practices, not being paid a living wage, being discriminated against and harassment.”

Today, the Employment Public Relations Commission will verify ASE signatures against WSU employment records with physical copies of their signatures as part of a cross-check process. WSU must provide the records within 10 days and notify PERC if they need an extension to obtain them by Thursday, Skinner said.

WSU doesn’t view this step as a barrier, but compiling student signatures will be somewhat challenging, said Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications.

“We do not keep people’s signatures in our files as such, so it would probably be a process of having to reach out to everyone and say we don’t already have one for you,” he said.

However, Skinner said ASEs curated a list of at least 10 different documents they physically signed while at WSU, including I-9 forms, Cougar cards, annual exam papers, and their acceptance letters for WSU.

“We know what we signed for college, so we’re quite sure there are a number of different ways to get our physical signatures,” she said.

WSU also announced in early September that it now recognizes research assistant service at the university, Weiler said. This summer, WSU interrogates whether or not RAs provided a service to WSU, as it contacted approximately 600 employers to determine whether or not RAs met this standard.

WSU has consistently excluded three students from its current list because they do not meet the definition of providing service, Weiler said.

The university and WSU-CASE agree that number is a significant reduction from the originally disputed 600 RAs, Skinner said.

RAsses are mission-critical to the university, and WSU-CASE expected the challenge to go away due to the precedent of a previous Washington University Casewhere ARs were eventually included in the student union bargaining unit, said Kelsey King, PhD candidate in biology at WSU Vancouver.

Many students alternate between working as TAs and RAs, so it would be frustrating for students to go in and out of the union, she said. WSU’s cooperation was important so that students would not turn down opportunities to be an RA because they would not be covered by the union and would be paid less.

Despite WSU-CASE’s progress in its organizing efforts, students are still facing issues with health insurance and low benefits this fall, Skinner said.

She has one of the lowest pay grades at WSU, earning $660 twice a month, she said. Considering that Skinner pays tuition up to $2,000 and can’t work another job due to visa restrictions as an international student, it’s hard to pay for emergencies.

This week, when someone accidentally spilled water on his laptop, Skinner had to pay for a used computer and the cost of repairs for his old one. When she pays for the new laptop, she will have about $140 left over from her paycheck, which is expected to last until October 10, she said.

“Well, if I pay for that, I can’t buy shoes that don’t have holes in them,” she said.

For “non-traditional” students, such as Matthew Mietchen, doctoral student working in individual interdisciplinary doctoral programs, health care costs are almost insurmountable. He faces disbursements reaching $14,000, including $75 in insulin and hundreds more for his continuous blood glucose monitor, which measures his blood sugar.

“​​This device, I keep fighting this insurance, the graduate student insurance, to convince them that this is something I need to live a normal life, a healthy life,” he said. “I think the point of view is that they don’t think I should be living a normal life.”

For Mietchen, WSU has facilitated a mentality that graduate students can’t have “baggage,” he said. Her diagnosis of type 1 diabetes and her family are now seen as limitations, limiting the number of diverse perspectives and experiences that WSU brings to the research.

For a year, Mietchen had to compete with teachers for a place at WSU’s children’s center, meanwhile paying $1,400 a month for part-time child care in the Pullman community. When he and his wife finally got a spot, they only had a $200 discount despite professors earning three times as much as ASEs, he said.

“Having a chronic illness and a child? The system for graduate students – it’s not for that. It’s not for me,” he said.

On the WSU campus in Vancouver, students are also experiencing health issues. After the closure this fall of their medical center, which provided a nurse practitioner three days a week, students will not have medical coverage and will have to pay out of pocket for care such as eye exams, King said.

King had an ear infection and had to pay for her doctor’s visit and her prescription, but she couldn’t afford the medication, which cost around $120.

“I ended up having to let the infection get worse for three days before I could get the medicine because I couldn’t afford it,” she said.

ESA stipends aren’t even enough to cover their cost of living, King said. Salaries are based on WSU Pullman standards, but rent in Vancouver is twice the Pullman price, coming in at $600-800 this fall.

Although King said she has no idea how long it will take WSU-CASE to get a seat at the bargaining table, she hopes her four years of advocating for higher wages and inclusion at WSU will pay off through unionization.

Mietchen said WSU-CASE is able to force the conversation with WSU and “stir it up,” encouraging them to treat employed students like real employees with lives.

“It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to continue to be a battle, but something has to change,” he said. “I hope that in my lifetime I will see graduate students treated as they should be. I hope to see all students treated as they should be.