Support, Elevate, and Protect Each Other: Forming a Union for Research Scientists at UW

I have been pursuing a career in science for 13 years, first as a graduate student, then as a Postdoctoral Scholar and now as staff Research Scientist. I’ve dedicated myself to academic research because I want to spend my working hours solving problems and making peoples’ lives better. But as I’ve progressed through my positions I’ve found that people of color like me are increasingly scarce. White supremacy has many causes and consequences, but one important cause of under-representation is that academic researchers lack power and a collective voice through every step of our career paths. For this reason my colleagues and I are organizing a union so that together we can make change from the bottom up, rather than relying on our employers to diversify us from the top down.

University of Washington data shows that Research Scientist/Engineers (RSE), Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are underrepresented, with Black scientists severely underrepresented, when compared to the racial demographic of Seattle, Washington state, and the US.

This disparity of representation becomes even more stark at the highest RSE pay scales at UW, where White researchers account for over 85% of positions held. Looking specifically at the Black researchers, there are zero research scientists at the three highest pay scales. Black researchers are not advancing their scientific careers at UW.

UW Administration is not unaware of this problem. In a recent report “Affirmative Action Program for Minorities and Women,” UW cites Senior and Principal Research Scientists as some of the least diverse job categories relative to the available qualified employee pool. They go on to list the policies they have in place to fix this problem, including on-the-job training; performance evaluations; encouragement of women and minorities to take advantage of career and professional development opportunities; a state tuition exemption program; and the like.

These are good policies. But there’s something very important missing: a clear and unequivocal commitment to workers empowerment. And this might be the most important way to support, elevate and protect workers to create a more representative workforce.

This gap between policies and power is evident when you talk to Research Scientists of color who came to UW to pursue their dream of having a career in science but chose to leave after finding an inhospitable and unwelcoming environment. Consider this testimonial written by a Research Scientist colleague, a woman of color who left UW because her supervisor forced her to choose between staying safe at the beginning of the pandemic and advancing her career. Or this one, also written by a person of color, about working for ten years at his dream employer — UW — without ever receiving the support he needed to get promoted. He can’t afford to stay in the same position and live in Seattle, so he is actively looking for employment elsewhere.

Without the power to speak up, knowing that a community of researchers have your back, real remedies will remain available mostly to those privileged by White supremacy. And unfortunately, UW’s history of resisting empowerment through delay and denial of unionization runs counter to their otherwise laudable stated goals.

Real progress and the real solutions to the racial disparities at UW can only be won if we fight for them together, as a union. And we’re ready to tell our stories, to collectivize our demands, and to fight for a better institution.

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