I’m striking May 15 because of low pay, high rent, and university fees #UWstrike

I will be going on strike on May 15 as a member of UAW Local 4121. Why you might ask? I am withholding my labor because the University of Washington administration fails to value my labor and appropriately compensate me for it.

To be clear, I love the University of Washington. We have faculty and students doing innovative, impactful research across many programs and departments at the university. I left Washington, D.C. to continue my career here at the UW, and I didn’t apply anywhere else, because I could not do the work I wanted to do anywhere else. UW attracts top talent among faculty as well as grad students, however as academic student employees (ASEs), we are not fairly compensated for the value we bring to the university. I am simply stating the facts of my personal experience of the conditions that many academic student employees face. I have chosen to remain anonymous to avoid any negative consequences to my funding situation and career opportunities because of the gross power imbalance between student employees and university administration. This is yet one example of the many challenges ASEs face in navigating our precarious financial, career, and academic situations.

I believe my experience in many ways is a best case scenario. I love teaching as a TA for a class in my exact area of expertise for a mentor I greatly admire. I also work as a research assistant conducting cutting edge research with an amazing group of dedicated and supportive colleagues, which is what I came to UW to do. As a TA and an RA, I earn a part-time salary, benefits and a tuition waiver. However, I can barely make ends meet. I live in university housing in the least expensive unit in the complex which is over 50% of my income, with utilities, it comes to 56% of my income. If you pay more than 30% of your income on rent, you are considered rent burdened. I pay nearly double that, and rent is rising 2.8% this year.

To illustrate the extent that university administration is out of touch with the realities of the cost of living in Seattle, and the financial hardship that ASEs face, I calculated my expenses for the month of April 2018 compared to my take home income of $2380. Rent is $1210, plus utilities which are $115.

I don’t go to restaurants and only purchase an occasional lunch or coffee on campus, which cost me $28.76 in April. I cook all of my own food, which I enjoy doing, but only with food that I can buy on sale. For example, a few weeks ago, there was no fresh fruit on sale, so I went without fresh fruit, an easy healthy snack I like to take to campus to avoid purchasing overpriced food at university dining facilities. Last month, I spent $238.54 on food at the grocery store, which calculates to $7.93 a day. I also paid the quarterly fee of $317 which UW charges me just for the right to continue as an academic student employee.

After gas for my car, the quarterly fee, cat food, books and school supplies — basic living costs — I was left with $23.57 at the end of the month. Seriously? Please note that this calculation does not include any extracurricular activities, no eating out, and no travel to visit family. It doesn’t include car insurance and registration which I pay as lumps sums in other months. I keep savings for unexpected costs such as vet bills or minor car repairs, and the $75 hall health copay every quarter.

I need to write my dissertation next year and currently do not have a functioning computer, and I cannot afford to buy one. I borrow one from the Student Technology Loan Program, which I am grateful for, but I can only check them out for 1–2 weeks at a time and have to reload all of the necessary software each time. This is inefficient and time consuming.

This is the daily reality that I face, and I am a relatively simple case. I am single, I have no children or dependents, I have no major health care needs, I and am in the most inexpensive unit in the UW housing complex where I live. I put money into savings and shop for food on sale at the grocery store. But that is still only barely getting me by. I am hoping to get an academic job once I graduate, but I have not nearly enough savings to move even if I do get lucky and am offered a dream job. My energy and focus should be on producing cutting edge scholarship, not double checking my grocery receipt to make sure I was charged for the cans of beans with the sale price of $0.60 and not full price of $0.99. Is this how much the University of Washington values academic student employees? So little that we are not paid a basic living wage?

My April 2018 Budget as an Academic Student Employee (ASE) at the University of Washington