By STEVE LEIGH
Teachers and librarians at Seattle Colleges in AFT local 1789 are fighting for a “Thriving Wage,” open negotiations, and a democratic and transparent union. They are beginning contract negotiations with the college administration on Feb. 8. Seattle Colleges include North, South and Central College, which are all part of the former community college system. “Community” was dropped from their name when they started offering four-year degrees.
On Feb. 7, at Seattle Central College, they rallied to raise their demands. Dozens of members came out and many more joined on Zoom. The rally was organized by a grassroots group of union members. One key demand is open negotiations. This would allow all members to watch and listen to the contract bargaining and to put maximum pressure on the administration.
Beyond this, the workers are demanding a 40% wage increase. As one member put it, “We have faced a total pay cut. Our wages have not kept up with the cost of living.” This demand seems radical to many, but union members said that especially since 2008-9 they have lost that much in real wages. They need this increase just to get back to where they were decades ago. This is an issue nationally. An English teacher noted that in 2019, 25% of part-time college teachers across the country had to rely on public assistance just to get by! After COVID, the situation is likely worse. The cost of living is very high in the Seattle area, which aggravates this problem. One teacher noted, “We can’t afford to live on Capitol Hill!” (where Seattle Central College is located).
The erosion of wages has gone along with a cutback in the teaching force. Years ago, 80% of the teachers in the Seattle College system were full-time. Today, only 25% are. At North Seattle College, the number of teaching positions has been cut nearly in half since 2019. The teachers want a return to more full-time tenure track jobs.
The austerity imposed during the 2008-9 Great Recession has never been reversed. Part of the reason for this is Washington State’s tax structure. As one teacher noted, “Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the U.S. The poorest 20% pay 17.8% of their income in taxes. The richest only pay 3%.” Another educator decried this situation by saying, “We are home to some of the richest people in the god-damned world! It is pure wealth hoarding at the expense of everyone else.”
This also affects students. One study showed that 62% of North Seattle College students surveyed faced insecurity in meeting basic needs. And 18% faced homelessness sometime during the previous year.
One cause of low teaching salaries is high management salaries. A teacher pointed out that the chancellor makes five times the salary of a teacher. She said, “We won’t let you cut faculty positions and overpay administrators.” One chant was, “Chop at the top!”
Besides their own demands, the union members are concerned about their students. They want free tuition and more financial aid to be sure students don’t live in poverty. Students reciprocated this feeling. One said, “I am indebted to the teachers. When I hear that they are mistreated, I don’t like that. You all change lives! You saved my life!”
The solidarity extended to and from other groups of workers as well. One member said, “We need to show up for all who are suffering. Show up for nurses and other health-care workers!” A representative of the classified staff at the colleges from Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) promised their support. He said that they would reject the administration’s attempt to play teachers off against other staff. In return, the educators promised to support WFSE in its negotiations next summer. Many speakers ended their remarks with a rousing chant of “Solidarity!”
Union members are planning to Zoom in to negotiations. They do not know if management will let them open up the process. Either way, they will continue to demand open negotiations and the 40% increase to create a Thriving Wage!
Steve Leigh is a member of Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.