My exchange with UW President Cauce to support Academic Student Employees’ struggle for a living wage, healthcare, and workplace protections

Home » My exchange with UW President Cauce to support Academic Student Employees’ struggle for a living wage, healthcare, and workplace protections

Below is a letter I sent to UW president Ana Mari Cauce on May 31 in support of UAW Local 4121 and the 4,500 academic student employees (ASE’s) at the University of Washington, fighting for a fair contract that provides a living wage and addresses concerns about fees, affordability, healthcare, and workplace protections. In the letter, I respond to an assertion that Cauce makes in an email to me and Seattle City Councilmembers, also below, that, “The University of Washington is 100% committed to paying a living wage for the ASE’s as well as for all UW employees.” My response notes the abundance of evidence showing the UW pays it’s ASE’s well below the “minimum subsistence wage” for workers living in King County, and a comprehensive survey found a staggering 82% of ASE’s are rent burdened. Working people, unions, social justice organizations, and city officials should fully support ASE’s and the UAW 4121 in this and future struggles. Read my letter and Cauce’s email in full below.



May 31, 2018

Dear President Cauce:

Thank you for your May 24 response to the City Council resolution that I introduced and that was adopted unanimously by Seattle City Council on May 21, calling on the University of Washington to reach a fair and just agreement with UAW 4121 members.

I appreciate your statement that “The University of Washington is 100% committed to paying a living wage for the ASE’s as well as for all UW employees.”

However, plain facts belie your words. Currently as you well know, 82% of academic student employees (ASE’s) are rent-burdened and the average ASE spends 44% of their income on housing costs, according to a comprehensive survey conducted by the ASE union, UAW 4121.

The minimum living wage in King County, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is $28,870/year for a single adult with no children, and $31,574/year per adult in a household with two adult wage earners and one child. The MIT study notes that this is a “minimum subsistence wage,” providing only for basic necessities, with no money for unexpected expenses, leisure time, or savings.

You currently pay ASE’s a base rate of $20,655/year, out of which you require $951 in fees, for a net pay of $19,704/year. Shockingly, that is more than $9,000 below MIT’s “minimum subsistence wage” for a single adult with no children in King County, and nearly $12,000 below the “subsistence wage” for an ASE with another working partner and one child.

It’s very clear to anyone who looks objectively at the data that UW is failing to meet your stated commitment to pay a living wage to the ASE’s.

You argue in your letter that “we define a ‘living’ wage in terms of the hourly wage rate they earn.” But the fatal problem with your logic is that most ASE’s, as you acknowledge, are receiving UW paychecks for just 9 months out of the year. And like the rest of us, ASE’s must pay rent, clothe, and feed themselves and their families for 12 months. The UW’s quarter system makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for ASE’s to secure short-term work that can pay their bills for the remaining weeks. Accordingly, you can’t determine whether you’re paying ASE’s a living wage by their hourly rate – you must use annual data.

Indeed, ASE’s are making year-round commitments to pursue work and education and UW, helping to make UW – as you’ve touted earlier this week – renowned as one of the top 20 universities in the entire world.

It’s only reasonable that UW should make at least a reciprocal commitment of year-round, basic economic security for all ASE’s.

You are entitled to your own opinions, but facts are a different matter. You cannot stretch reality to make a $19,704 annual paycheck into a living wage. I urge you to take advantage of this moment in the collective bargaining process to square your professed commitment to living wages with objective facts about UW employees’ low pay and the high cost of living in the Seattle area, and reach a just settlement with the members of UAW 4121.

Sincerely, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant



Email from Ana Mari Cauce to me and Seattle City Councilmembers

Professor of Psychology

301 Gerberding Hall Box 351230
Seattle, WA 98195-1230
206.543.5010  /  fax 206.616.1784  / @amcauce /

From: Ana M. Cauce <>
Sent: Thursday, May 24, 2018 11:08 AM
To: Sawant, Kshama <>
Subject: RE: Academic Student Employees

Dear Councilmember Sawant,

I have received your recent correspondence regarding ongoing negotiations with Academic Student Employees (ASE’s) at the University of Washington and have reviewed the Council’s recent resolution in support of the ASE’s bargaining positions. The University of Washington is 100% committed to paying a living wage for the ASE’s as well as for all UW employees. Indeed, after thoughtful discussions across various campus employers, UW moved more rapidly than required to make sure that all UW employees, including our student workers, were paid a minimum of $15 an hour when Council enacted that ordinance several years ago.

In the case of UW’s student employees, we define a “living” wage in terms of the hourly wage rate they earn, since quite a number of UW employees are not engaged in full-time work. This is especially the case for our ASE’s who work part-time while also pursuing advanced degrees, important work of a different nature that is not paid. Indeed, in the case of the majority of our ASE’s who are pursuing PhD’s, their work-for-pay is limited to 20 hours a week. Moreover, about two thirds of them are engaged in their work-for-pay for three quarters (approximately 36 weeks), not the full year. I should note than in addition to pay, ASE’s receive a full or partial tuition waiver.

The low end of the pay scale for our graduate ASE’s is more than $30 an hour. They receive close to $60 an hour if you look at total compensation, including the cost of waived tuition. Moreover, they receive high quality healthcare benefits with no premium cost-share, something no other UW or City of Seattle employee enjoys.

We understand that paying $951 per year in fees is more than ASE’s want to pay, but it is important to keep in mind that these are not fees they pay as workers. These are student fees, the same fees that are paid by every other UW student, including graduate and undergraduate students who are paying full tuition, often while they are also working one or two part-time jobs. Moreover, these are primarily fees that students voted to pay for services they use, including childcare, the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center and the Q Center. Because the State delegated students the right to impose fees upon themselves, the Administration does not have the authority to waive them. Our only option would be to pay those fees for them for other sources, including tuition dollars. This would mean that UW students not employed by UW would not only be paying their own fees, but carrying the fees of other students receiving tuition waivers. This is patently unfair and not something I will agree to do.

We continue to bargain in good faith and ask that you and your colleagues allow the collective bargaining process to resolve these difficult issues.

Ana Mari