Teaching assistants prepare to walk; some faculty say they'll honor strike

Barring a last-minute compromise in labor negotiations, hundreds of graduate teaching assistants, tutors and graders at the University of Washington will go on strike today, the last day of classes before finals week.

The walkout could mean no final exams in some classes for thousands of undergraduate students and a slowdown in grade submissions.

University officials yesterday said they have prepared all quarter for this eventuality and hoped to complete the quarter with a minimum of disruption. But at least two language divisions will cancel tomorrow's final exams in the event of a strike. And some faculty have indicated they would honor the picket line by not administering exams.

As talks headed into the evening yesterday, the university and the Graduate Student Employee Action Coalition/United Auto Workers, which represents the majority of the school's 1,600 teaching assistants, remained far apart on three key issues:

** Wages. The union wants a 7 percent increase. The university's final offer yesterday was 3 percent or the percentage increase for faculty and staff members in the pending legislative budget - whichever is higher.

** Exclusive bargaining. The union wants to be the sole bargaining agent for all UW teaching assistants, whether they signed union cards or not. The university maintains it can't grant such rights without legislation allowing it to do so.

** Arbitration. In a memo to students and staff members yesterday, UW President Richard McCormick said the university has conceded to 85 percent of the union's wishes in allowing arbitration in standard labor matters.

But union spokeswoman Kristen Intemann said the sides remain far apart on several arbitration issues, including nonacademic disciplinary actions. She also said the sides remained in disagreement over workload and family and sick leave.

Another area of disagreement was arbitration in performance evaluations, reappointment and work assignments. McCormick argues these are faculty and administrative prerogatives and cannot be left to an arbitrator.

Intemann said the union has yet to make a proposal on those issues.

The first pickets were expected to hit the line at 5:30 a.m. A noon rally is scheduled near the campus' 15th Avenue Northeast entrance.

About two dozen undergraduates representing various student organizations picketed outside McCormick's Madison Park home yesterday in support of the union.

Among the UW departments that would be the most affected by a strike are beginning language and freshmen composition courses, which are taught almost exclusively by teaching assistants.

English-department Chairman Stephen Wong said the approximately 1,800 freshman composition students will turn in their final essays - their version of final exams - today as scheduled.

"The only question is when they will be graded," Wong said. "There's no way we can physically grade those exams until the teaching assistants come back."

Apart from slow grades, however, Wong expected the impact in his department to be minimal.

French and Italian final exams scheduled for tomorrow will be canceled if the strike is still going by 5 p.m. today, affecting approximately 700 undergraduates said Suzanne Juergensen, the romance and languages chairman's assistant.

David Hodge, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the university has been preparing alternatives for final exams throughout the quarter.

However, he could not assess how many exams might be canceled. Arts and Sciences has 42 departments, 21,000 undergraduates and two-thirds of all the teaching assistants.

Norm Arkans, associate vice president for university relations, said the university might not know the full extent of canceled exams or delayed grades for days.

UW officials, however, said they have made contingencies for students who need timely grade reports for graduate school or financial-aid applications. The university has set up a page on its Web site (www.washington.edu) to keep students, staff members and parents updated.

This is the second strike threat by the union this academic year. In December, a strike was averted by a midnight compromise extending negotiations into spring quarter.

Ray Rivera can be reached at 206-464-2926 or rayrivera@seattletimes.com.