Workers at Whatcom’s third-largest employer vote on forming a union. This is what they want

Peter Pihos/Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Student workers at Western Washington University voted overwhelmingly to unionize, after a “supermajority” of teaching assistants, researchers, and tutors signed union cards and filed their intentions with the state Public Employment Relations Commission.

Western Academic Workers United-UAW would represent 700 academic student employees across all colleges and departments of the university if their efforts are successful, according to an emailed statement Dec. 2.

Union organizers didn’t have an exact number of workers who had signed cards, said Lexy Aydelotte, a graduate teaching assistant in the History Department and one of the union organizers.

Their next step is a PERC check of the cards and a union vote if it’s required.

“We’re confident we’ll succeed at that too,” Aydelotte told The Bellingham Herald.

Union members are seeking sick leave, family medical leave, job descriptions, earlier notice of their required working hours, and more consistent scheduling — in addition to higher pay, Aydelotte said in an interview.

“Many of us are working at minimum wage. It’s not a living wage in Bellingham. We can’t afford to eat or make our rent,” she said.

Undergraduate teaching assistants and researchers successfully unionized recently at Washington State University, according to the UAW.

Those workers have already organized at the University of Washington, where United Auto Workers also represents academic student employees, including research and teaching assistants, readers, graders, tutors and others, according to the UW website.

According to its website, the Public Employment Relations Commission has jurisdiction over public sector labor relations and collective bargaining and assists in resolving labor-management disputes.

Alternatively, WWU could choose to recognize the union voluntarily.

A university spokesman told The Herald that the administration would not comment on the issue “for now.”

WWU was Whatcom County’s third-largest employer in 2020, with 2,060 workers in 2020, according to the school’s Center for Economic and Business Research.