Working in for graduate educators at UW

May 15, 2018

Jon Isaac, Tina Treviño-Murphy and Gretchen Sager report on organizing efforts of the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants' Association against university fees.

HUNDREDS OF graduate students, undergraduates and supporters filled the hallways of Bascom Hall at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW) on April 26 for a "work-in" to draw attention to the invisible labor performed by graduate workers.

The event, organized by the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA), the graduate employees' union, was the most recent step in a year of escalating pressure to protest the continued inaction of the UW administration regarding graduate workers' mandatory fees.

The TAA is demanding that UW find alternative means of funding the student services that graduate worker fees currently support, and that the cost not be shifted onto undergraduates.

Last fall, graduate workers across the country helped to defeat a provision in Trump's tax cut plan that would have taxed graduate workers' tuition waivers as income and increased their tax burden by more than $2,500.

At UW-Madison, the TAA hosted a series of actions to call legislators and even won support from the administration. After that provision was cut from the Republican's tax bill, graduate worker organizing at UW increased with a renewed sense of power.

Graduate workers rally against mandatory fees at the University of Wisconsin
Graduate workers rally against mandatory fees at the University of Wisconsin (TAA - Graduate Worker Union of UW-Madison | Facebook)

The April 26 work-in was a chance not just to show administrators the work that graduate assistants perform, but also for graduate students across a sprawling campus to see the work their peers do.

As Sociology graduate student Katie said, "We are making our labor visible to the administration to remind them it is our work that makes the university run. You can see people grading papers, researching for their own papers, writing exams and holding office hours."

The walls of the administration building were covered with signs, handwritten with graduate workers' personal stories of how mandatory fees shape their lives, next to signs with the TAA slogan: "The university works because we do."

DOMESTIC GRADUATE assistants at UW-Madison pay a minimum of $1,260 in segregated student fees annually in order to be allowed to work as graduate assistants––in return for poverty-level wages. Segregated fees go toward the University Health Services, student government and other student organizations, subsidizing student bus passes and other student services.

All international graduate students pay an additional $100 per semester, which goes towards International Student Services.

What the administration doesn't publicize is that the "services" these new $100 fees fund include federally mandated surveillance that spans the entire time that international students are enrolled and for two years following matriculation.

Any students who don't pay their fees on time have a "hold" placed on their account, barring them from enrolling in classes. For graduate students, this puts their student status at risk and threatens to disqualify them from employment as a graduate assistant.

Stuck at the intersection of being both students and workers, said Katie, "we clearly deserve to be treated as employees and shouldn't have to pay to work here."

In the beginning of the spring semester, the UW bursar informed graduate students that it would be moving the payment due date for the fees to the beginning of each semester.

While the due date change might seem innocuous, for graduate assistants, who rely on their income from UW, this meant that fall fees are due when most graduate employees have gone the summer months without receiving a single paycheck. It's a financial burden that graduate assistants refuse to bear.

In response, to the payment due date change, the TAA circulated a petition that, over the course of just two weeks, was signed by over 1,000 graduate assistants, a third of the total work unit. They also organized a rally on March 22. Over 100 graduate workers and allies turned out to protest the policy.

At the rally, graduate workers shared their personal, heartbreaking stories of struggling to put food on the table, not being able to travel home to see their families, begging abusive family members to help pay their fees, and racking up tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt--on top of six figures of student loan debt.

David, a graduate assistant, said, "Every year, it's a burden to get these fees paid. Seg fees or groceries? Seg fees or rent?"

The overarching message was clear: These fees are inhumane, and they force graduate workers to forego the necessities of a healthy and sustainable life.

THE TAA has a long history of building working-class resistance on the UW campus.

It is considered the oldest graduate worker union in the world, forming in 1966 and bargaining for its first contract in 1969. It struck in 1970, 1980 and 2004, and was also a driving force of student and worker organizing during the 2011 "Wisconsin uprising" protesting Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 bill, which gutted collective-bargaining rights for all public-sector unions in the state.

During the Wisconsin uprising, TAA members helped maintain the occupation of the state Capitol for 17 days and nights, in part by having "teach-ins," where TAs taught classes and held office hours in the Capitol.

In 2014, during the TAA's "Pay Us Back" campaign for wage increases, TAA also held a "grade-in."

This new iteration of a "work-in" reflects the TAA's approach to labor organizing which includes all types of graduate workers––including research assistants, fellows, and hourly workers––as opposed to the narrow definition of the work unit before Act 10, which included only teaching assistants and project assistants.

The TAA now represents all UW graduate workers (not just TAs) in advocacy campaigns and labor negotiations.

The union's ability to seize what might be the only positive opportunity coming out of Walker's attack on labor has built a union with unprecedented diversity across academic disciplines, with leadership composed of graduate assistants from science, technology, engineering and math fields side by side with workers in the humanities and social sciences.

The TAA has no choice but to build solidarity across longstanding barriers constructed to divide their labor, and the administration didn't realize just how unifying the mandatory fees and due date changes could be.

These mandatory student fees represent more than a significant financial strain on graduate workers, many of whom already live below the poverty line. They represent a substantial transfer of the financial burden of essential services from the state to individuals--the precise pattern that has overtaken the neoliberal university over the past 40 years.

The TAA is fighting for a university that doesn't try to leech more and more money from its students and employees, while paying them less and less, a fight that so clearly resonates with K-12 educators nationwide, who are currently striking.

Educators are fed up with the continued attacks on the work they do--from kindergarten to college--and they're not taking it lying down.

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