Postdocs and Researchers at the University of Washington are days away from our strike date, June 7. We love our research and we don’t want to go on strike, but if UW leaves us no choice, then we have to stand up for ourselves because, like every worker in the state of Washington, we deserve a living wage.
I’m a Postdoctoral Scholar in Mechanical Engineering, and I study how microplastic particles are mixed in the surface layer of the ocean. I love my work. But my wages aren’t keeping up with rent and costs of living. You might not have heard of a Postdoc before, but you're likely familiar with the struggle if you're one of the millions of employees statewide who also need help staying afloat while the costs of living increase.
And yet, for months during contract negotiations the UW Administration has tried every trick in the book to avoid “tethering” our pay to the state’s living wage standards—even bargaining in bad faith and trying to get the state Department of Labor & Industries to go along with their declaration that the law didn’t apply to us, which didn’t work. Making matters worse, the Administration recently told me and a group of my colleagues that they have a “philosophical difference” regarding the law that says we should be paid a living wage.
My colleagues and I are fighting this, and we are sounding the alarm because if UW—the largest public employer in the state—can get away with this, then it sets a dangerous precedent for all workers. Living wage laws only work if everyone plays by the rules.
We are proud to live in Washington, a state in which workers have fought for and won high wage standards that have changed the national landscape. We led the nation in the Fight for $15, and then again passed a statewide ballot measure that established a minimum wage for all workers.
Living wage standards also apply to salaried workers like me. We are proud that our Governor, many other lawmakers at all levels of government, our state labor movement, and major community leaders have been full-throated supporters of these laws. These efforts have started to block the historic erosion of minimum wage standards that rapidly declined over multiple decades. In the 1970s, for example, over 60% of full-time salaried workers earned above the overtime salary threshold. Now it’s only about 10%.
It’s therefore especially egregious that President Ana Mari Cauce told L&I that the state of Washington was an “outlier” state, and that UW should only be expected to pay us as much as other states but not more. We think our state history has shown that it’s good to be an outlier, and we applaud our state for working hard to ensure everyone is paid a living wage. It’s good for workers and it spurs economic growth. If anything, we should actively be urging the rest of the country to keep up, rather than looking for loopholes to keep wages down.
Now that UW knows they can’t get away with just evading the law, they are beginning to claim they have “philosophical differences” with it. Instead of bringing us up to the minimum wage salary threshold, UW wants to keep our pay low and force Postdocs to track hours for overtime pay.
But UW knows that hours-tracking is not compatible with our workforce and the nature of research work. Recently, 89 UW faculty members delivered a letter to UW administration making that point: requiring Postdocs to track their hours would be bad for science and bad for the UW.
We are willing to take action because we know that good policy needs enforcement, and sometimes when employers don’t behave well we need to walk out and withhold our labor to stop them. Amazon workers have done this, and tens of thousands of academic workers at the University of California, the University of Michigan, and Rutgers University have done the same in recent months.
UW has an opportunity to avert a strike by agreeing to pay us a living wage: it’s the right thing to do, and we won’t settle for less.
Luci Baker is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington.