About AGWA-UAW, membership, and rights.

What is AGWA/UAW?

We are a group of graduate workers / Academic Student Employees (ASEs) from various departments across the University of Alaska campuses. As grad employees we do a substantial amount of the work that makes the University of Alaska a world-class institution, but we have no representation and find that the support we receive often doesn’t match the value of our contributions.  By forming a union we are seeking to negotiate as equals with the University of Alaska administration over wages, benefits, and conditions that affect equity and the quality of teaching and research.  

Why a union? 

A union allows us to use democratic determination to decide what issues (pay, healthcare, other working conditions) affect us and to negotiate with the university administration as equals about those issues. As a group, we have far more power than we do as individuals and would be better positioned to improve our working conditions and make the University of Alaska a more equitable institution. In other words, it is about having more power in the employee-employer relationship. That being said, unionization does not require the University of Alaska administration to reach an agreement with us, or guarantee that any specific demands will be met.

Tens of thousands of student employees nationwide have formed unions to create more powerful, democratic mechanisms for determining their working conditions.  The University of Alaska is currently the only public R1 or R2 University on the U.S. west coast that does not have a student employee union.  Here are some examples of how unionized student employees have improved their conditions.  Furthermore, the university has shown that, without being held accountable through collective bargaining, they will not proactively improve conditions for graduate student employees (as demonstrated by the fact that they have not increased our pay, improved rights or protections in over a decade).

Why did we join with UAW?

We have affiliated with UAW (International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) to help us successfully bargain as a union. UAW is one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America. Over 100,000 employees in higher education have already chosen to join UAW, including Academic Student Employees at the University of Washington, University of California, Columbia University, and more.

By affiliating with UAW, we are able to draw on their legal and institutional resources as we establish our union and bargain for our contracts.

Who makes the decisions and is in control?

We do!  All major decisions are made democratically by members, and a great benefit of having a union is that there are established structures and procedures for making decisions, communicating and resolving issues, and the legal and administrative structures to support and facilitate this that we can adapt to our context in Alaska.  

The Bargaining Committee elected for the current collective bargaining session includes a roughly representative proportion of members from each college/campus. When in negotiations, these committee members will make decisions about how to adjust proposals and when to accept a 'tentative Agreement' with the university, but the final contract will be put to a vote with all members! See the Bargaining Center page for Bargaining Committee membership!

Being a chapter of a union organization does come with some rules and guidelines (to keep everything legal and copacetic), but as long as local chapter decisions fall within those, the members of that chapter make decisions through a democratic process.

And: don’t forget, without a union, we had no say and no control over decisions that directly impact us.  That distinction belonged to the University administration.

What about dues? How much does this cost?

We will not pay union dues until after we’ve successfully bargained and democratically ratified our first contract.  At that point each individual student employee can decide whether or not to become a dues-paying member.  Dues will be an important source of power for us, and are independent resources that support our work (unlike, say, student fees which are controlled by the University of Alaska administration).  Union members democratically decide how union dues are spent, and create accountability: we all can and should decide whether the value of a collective bargaining agreement is worth union dues.

UAW membership dues are 1.44% of gross income.  At the University of Washington, wages for unionized student employees have increased by well over 30% in the past 10 years, whereas here at the University of Alaska wages have barely increased and other out of pocket expenses (for health care, student fees, etc.) have increased. ASEs with extra financial costs—parents, caregivers, international students—receive little if any support. Arguably, we have paid more as a result of not having the power that comes with a union. 

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

No. Federal law is clear: “It is unlawful to discourage (or encourage) union activities or sympathies "by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment." For example, employers may not discharge, lay off, or discipline employees, or refuse to hire job applicants, because they are pro-union.”

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 University administration is free to express its opposition to student employees unionizing. Other University administrations have opposed the formation of the unions representing Academic Student Employees, Medical Interns and Residents, Postdocs, and Faculty. It is important to be aware of the record of university administrations attempting to discourage unions. 

The AGWA/UAW organizing committee will support ASEs concerned about possible retaliation. Contact us if you have concerns and questions.

I'm an international student. What are my rights?

As a worker in the US, you have the right to vote in unionization elections, participate in union activities, and speak in favor (or against!) a union. Discrimination against employees because of their union activities/sympathies is against the law. In fact, tens of thousands of international student workers nationwide have actively and visibly participated in their unionization efforts and none have reported retaliation.

There are several international students on our Organizing Committee who have loudly and proudly expressed their support for a union and worked to create one for graduate workers at UA. If you have any concerns or problems, please contact us at organize(dot)agwa@gmail(dot)com.

Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) [AKA contract negotiation]

How does the CBA negotiation process work? 

Our Bargaining Committee  (BC) (formed with roughly representative proportion of members from each college/campus) develops 'proposals' about each issue, using proposed and/or approved portions of CBAs from other academic and graduate student unions as references and to develop the 'legalese' for the proposal. The BC then meets with the Universities' BC and both teams share their proposals on the issues. Each team then 'caucuses' separately to discuss the others' proposal and make adjustments to their own proposal or language that they find reasonable or acceptable. Then repeat! After a few rounds of this, hopefully both BCs agree on the proposal and put it into the "Tentative Agreement" or "TA" category. Once TA has been reached for all issues, the proposed CBA is sent out to all AGWA-UAW members for approval by majority vote!

Who can vote on union issues/a CBA?

Anyone who is a graduate research assistant, teaching assistant, service/engagement assistant, student assistant, or fellow, regardless of citizenship. People performing similar duties but holding different job titles are also included.

How long will reaching a CBA take?

It is hard to say. In Alaska, collective bargaining agreements for public sector unions (like ours) need to be approved by the legislature. For a contract we negotiate to take effect with the 2024/25 school year we would therefore need to get a collective bargaining agreement to the legislature by mid-March 2024. This is a very fast turn around as we are beginning bargaining in January, but we are planning to work very hard to try to bargain a good contract in that time.  However, if negotiations take longer than that, as they often do with a first contract, we would continue bargaining into the summer and, potentially, fall. In doing so, our negotiations might overlap with the next round of faculty union negotiations, which potentially could be to our advantage. 

In either case,  the larger the majority of us who support and actively participate in the negotiation actions, the more leverage we have to negotiate good contract provisions and do so in a timely manner!

What issues can collective bargaining with the union address? 

So many! We have detailed pages covering some of the most commonly cited issues and details about how unionization can make a difference, including comparisons between the University of Alaska and other 'peer institutions' that are unionized. We encourage you to look at those pages for specifics:

A whole host of other issues have been discussed (such as teaching loads and training, issues with supervisors to contract issues, childcare subsidies, water access, etc.). Joining a union gives you the ability to have a say in what issues we bargain for.

How can the union advocate for everyone when every position/department/campus is different?

The university already sets policies (including pay and other minimums) for graduate student employment that all departments must adhere to (see here for UAF and here for UAA). Many departments choose to supplement pay or other benefits but cannot violate established University policy.  If we can bargain with the University administration as equals, we would review these current policies and decide collectively what we think could be improved or what should stay the same.  We could also maintain the flexibility departments have to, for example, pay grad workers more. This is how most Academic Student Employee contracts are structured, because most Academic Student Employees wouldn’t vote for a contract that results in losses to their current situations.  

This can make a big difference in our compensation, as many unionized campuses' minimums are far above what even the highest paid graduate worker at UA makes. For example, at the University of Washington (where graduate workers have been unionized for over 30 years), the minimum pay rate for a Premaster student is $2664/month and for a PhD candidate is $3076/month (for the academic year at 50% FTE)–more than even the highest paid departments at UA. But departments have the flexibility to pay more than the established minimums, and many do (see this chart). We’re stronger together! 

Will the CBA cause my department to reduce benefits, or pay, or the number of appointees they can hire?

Once a union is formed, the University of Alaska Admin 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.  This means we would have to democratically approve a contract that reduces our benefits or pay for such a thing to happen.  Moreover, the number of ASEs at unionized campuses has increased or remained stable over time, not decreased.

Will the CBA limit the hours I can work?

We 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.

But isn’t the University of Alaska in the middle of a budget crisis? 

Yes, the University of Alaska is struggling. But this is why it’s so important to be at the table when the administration is making decisions that affect us.  With a union we are legally entitled to complete, transparent information about the University’s budget so that we can be sure that we have a real say in priorities.  It also enables us to make responsible choices about our contract.  Moreover, there are a number of policies that are not directly tied to the budget (for example the dispute resolution procedure and protections against discrimination and harassment) that we can improve only when we have the ability to bargain as equals.  

Will we have to strike? 

Hopefully not! The decision to strike (like all others within the union) is democratically made, and requires a ⅔ majority to be authorized.  But any individual does not have to join the strike and we would engage in a process to determine a strategy that would permit maximum participation.

Does the union make everything better for everyone? 

Not instantly. These things take time! But by forming a union we have immediately gained more power to make change and establish a predictable, democratic and transparent mechanism for raising, evaluating, and addressing concerns that members have.  We also build on standards set by other unionized campuses, and in turn set standards that help elsewhere.  The whole point of the union is to provide a democratic process to collect and prioritize member concerns, and more weight and transparency to influence decisions that affect us.

I want to help organize! 

Awesome! Send us your name and email at organize(dot)agwa@gmail(dot)com and we'll be in touch.