Why we’re “grading in”

April 28, 2014

Michael Billeaux, Katie Zaman and Ty Carroll report from Madison on the "Pay Us Back" campaign by teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin.

ON MAY 1, International Workers' Day, the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) will host a "grade-in" at Bascom Hall, UW's administration building. The event is part of the TAA's ongoing "Pay Us Back" campaign for higher take-home pay for all graduate employees.

The TAA--Local 3220 of the American Federation of Teachers--lost the right to collectively bargain in 2011 with the passage of Gov. Scott Walker's anti-public-sector union law Act 10. Since then, the TAA has emerged as an example for how unions can fight under hostile labor law regimes.

In the fall of 2010, the newly Republican-dominated state legislature shot down the contract that the union had just bargained. This meant that when Act 10 came into effect in August 2011, the TAA was immediately impacted--no contract, no bargaining rights and no legal recognition as a bargaining agent. Overnight, the TAA lost every single member--any card that had been signed before August 2011 had become void, and our union had to start from square one. Our union was busted.

Members of the Teaching Assistants' Association in Madison
Members of the Teaching Assistants' Association in Madison (TAA)

Technically, Act 10 doesn't fully outlaw collective bargaining for public-sector unions--the way that labor law in Texas does, for instance. But in order to become certified, unions must run a certification election annually, and win by a majority of the entire bargaining unit--rather than a majority of votes cast--the typical requirement.

If the union successfully wins a certification election, it may collectively bargain with the state, but over a dramatically reduced range of issues--only wages, and then only for raises up to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Of course, bargaining over a single issue (and only partially) is not bargaining at all. Dues check-off was also prohibited for all public sector unions, certified or not.

We decided not to play their unfair game. At a meeting in the fall of 2011, the TAA's membership voted not to seek recertification. We initiated a vigorous campaign to sign up lapsed members and resolved to operate according to the principle that a union is an organization of workers fighting for their collective self-interest, within the law or in spite of it.

When most unions in the state lined up behind the Democratic Party challengers in the gubernatorial recall election--neither of whom made any commitment to reversing Act 10--the TAA made political waves by withholding endorsements from both Democratic candidates.

FOLLOWING THE reinvigoration of the local after this political fight, in the spring of 2013, the TAA made a strong turn toward reasserting itself in the workplace and putting forward bold demands, even without legal collective bargaining. To that end, our union initiated the "Pay Us Back" Campaign, envisioning the campaign as a way to send a message to the administration that we were still the legitimate body representing the interests of graduate workers.

We insisted on regular meetings with top administrators about our demands, waging a sort of "contract" campaign despite not being a certified bargaining agent. We spaced out escalating actions to take place before each subsequent meeting, demanding that the administration waive student fees or provide an equivalent wage increase.

For grads enrolled full-time, student fees amount to a $1,130 a year pay cut--up to an 11.5 percent annual reduction in earnings for the TAA's lowest-paid members. In order to account for next year's inflation, the TAA set the bar at a 13.5 percent raise.

The campaign also sought to undo the massive degradation of grad employee wages at the UW. Adjusting for inflation, graduate employees at UW were earning 15.2 percent more in the 2002-03 academic year compared to 2012-13. This puts pay for UW graduate students well below the median for pay in comparison to similar institutions (many of which do better in large part as a result of having well-organized graduate employee unions).

The Pay Us Back campaign has already achieved some success, both in terms of building member interest and participation in the union and also in terms of winning real gains. Last summer, the administration agreed to give TAs and PAs a 4.67 percent raise--this after an initial offer of under 2 percent, and during a time when Wisconsin's working class was still reeling from a defeat of historic proportions. It was the TAA's first raise since 2009, well before losing collective bargaining.

This year, the campaign continues. Recently, TAA members voted to include additional demands to the campaign, including annual cost-of-living adjustments, pegging wages to future fee increases and a formal negotiating structure that explicitly recognizes the TAA as the union representing graduate workers on campus.

The last demand is key. Across the industry, the status of graduate assistants as employees is strongly contested. The NLRB, in the 2004 NLRB v. Brown case, argues that graduates are not employees, and so does not allow graduate employees in its jurisdiction (i.e., graduate employees at private universities) to obtain legal recognition for their unions.

Since graduate employee unions began organizing in the 1960s, university administrators have argued that graduate employees are students, not workers, and that any stipend attached to assistantships ought to be considered an award (predictably, "student-athletes" are now hearing many of the same arguments.) Moreover, graduate students are told that they have no use for unions since their poverty is supposedly temporary--they'll soon go on to be professors themselves.

Both objections are specious. Teaching assistants' labor--leading discussion sections or whole courses, planning lessons, grading papers and assignments, mentoring undergraduate students, proctoring exams--is both central to the daily operation of the university and almost wholly unrelated to their own research. Other categories of graduate assistants are involved in important administrative work in departments, research centers and scholarship programs.

Research assistants (RAs) are sometimes considered a special case, and so are often singled out for legal exclusion from collective bargaining. Since they are paid for labor that contributes to their own research projects, their relationship to the university is considered "primarily academic."

This objection is nonsense: they are academic workers whose labor for the employer is research, and who bring funding and prestige to the university. Indeed, by the same logic, the independent research that non-RA graduate assistants are undertaking while they're not "at work" could reasonably be considered unpaid labor for the university.

GRADUATE EMPLOYEES are also facing the possibility, upon graduation, of joining a permanent academic underclass of contingent adjunct faculty. Adjuncts now make up 76 percent of all instructional staff in higher education, and there are far fewer openings for academic jobs than new graduates--last year, some 140,000 new PhDs entered a market with only 16,000 job openings.

Adjunct faculty, on average, make only about $20,000 annually, are on semester-long or year-long appointments, with weak benefits, and frequently have no opportunities for either raises or career advancement. In other words, the poverty of the graduate employee is, for many, a permanent condition.

On the other hand, a recent successful strike by graduate employees at the University of California, as well as strong contract campaigns at the University of Oregon, Rutgers University and the University of Illinois-Chicago show that when graduate employees and contingent faculty fight, we can win. It's either that or starve.

The TAA's upcoming grade-in, then, is more than a fun event to build support for and interest in the wage campaign. It's a way to make the administration see the labor that graduate employees perform for the university.

In the immediate term, the grade-in is a protest against abysmally low wages and a fight for a better standard of living now. But at a broader level, the work of the TAA--and of the growing graduate employee union movement nationwide--is contributing to a movement to oppose contingency in academic labor and the neoliberalization of higher education.

The TAA in particular has been able to show that, even without collective bargaining rights, non-tenured academic workers can fight for a system of higher education that prioritizes research and education--not bloated administration and profits. If you're in Madison on May Day, come join us!

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