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Sunday, March 1, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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UW-Madison TAs return to class more financially stressed
Walker budget cuts will affect undergrads, too
McDonald: 'The little finances I receive are already stretched to the maximum.'
McDonald: 'The little finances I receive are already stretched to the maximum.'
Credit:Carolyn Fath

Classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are going to be different this fall, courtesy of Gov. Scott Walker. Graduate teaching assistants and program assistants are also public employees, and they're feeling the effects of legislation he championed that blunts the power of unions and imposes steep increases for health insurance coverage. Undergraduates will bear part of the burden.

"It's false to presume that we can continue with business as usual when we've experienced some pretty significant changes to how we're able to lead our lives," says Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA). "I would have a hard time believing that won't bleed into the classroom, despite all of our best attempts to make sure the students get the best possible care they can."

Pagac stresses that's not a threat, but just the way things are now for all UW employees, whether faculty or staff. TAs may feel the pain more, though, since they've always lived lean; the average graduate employee earns $11,270 a year. The last raise, of 2%, was in June 2009.

"When our working conditions are made more difficult, that makes a student's learning conditions more difficult as well," says Pagac, who's pursuing a doctorate in sociology. "When a teacher is paid less, you can imagine then that that teacher might have to get a second job, and maybe that means they're not around as much to offer the extra office hours needed, the tutoring needed, the extra attention needed by a student."

One teaching assistant in the psychology department who's already feeling the pinch is appropriately named T A McDonald. That's what her parents named her, and that's what appears on her birth certificate.

"I already do not drive but bike into town 10 miles to save gas," says McDonald, a single parent of a teenager. "In the winter, I will bike and bus." She says she does not know where she'll find the money for insurance.

William Tracy, interim dean and director of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, fears that the entire university may suffer as a result of the new hardships facing graduate students.

"Graduate student employees are a vital part of a university dedicated to teaching and research," he says. "They bring new energy and creative ideas into classrooms and laboratories, and spark learning and innovation in education and research. Not only do graduate students work with and teach undergraduates, they are vital in the creation of an intellectual and physical infrastructure that immerses all students in projects that address the most significant problems of our times."

Teaching assistants do a lot to put a human face on big research institutions such as the UW, where lectures may have as many as 500 students. TAs attend lectures and then lead multiple discussion sections, with as many as 25 students in each.

Ideally, the TA mentors students and helps them engage more directly with the course material discussed in lectures. They grade papers and exams and often write the exams, too. They hold office hours for undergraduates and meet with their employers, the lecturing professors. They're also full-time students themselves.

Walker and Republican lawmakers have argued since February that state workers needed to contribute more to their insurance and retirement plans in order to plug a multibillion-dollar state budget hole. And they said curtailing public employee unions' collective bargaining powers would help struggling localities and schools boards balance their own budgets. This month, TAs, like other public workers, are feeling the full effect of these actions.

The monthly premium for an individual TA's state health insurance will increase from $15.50 to $42, an increase of 171%. For a family plan, the monthly premium jumps from $104 to $186. For the first time ever, TAs will also have a deductible. Individuals must pay 10% of office visits, tests and procedures, until total costs exceed $500 annually. For families, the threshold is $1,000.

While TAs don't have to pay tuition, they have to pay segregated fees, and those are going up, too. Pagac estimates that, combined with health care, 9.25% of the average TA's salary will be lost.

"This becomes an added stress, as I need to make the best decisions for my family," says McDonald. "It really becomes a choice of: Do I drop health care or lower our food quality or quantity, or what? All of these choices affect our health. The little finances I receive are already stretched to the maximum."

The TAA represents around 3,000 teaching and program assistants. While they're not technically represented by the TAA, the union also benefits university fellows and research assistants. Organized in 1966, the TAA was the first graduate assistants union in the United States, and the first to successfully bargain a contract with its employer. It was first certified by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission in 1969.

Early negotiations with the university were slow and rancorous. The TAA called a strike in 1970 over job security, participation in educational planning, grievance mechanisms and health care. The strike ended after a new contract was signed 25 days later, during which time undergraduate attendance dropped by 20% campus-wide, and by 60% at the College of Letters and Science.

In 1976 came a two-day work stoppage, and in 1980 another strike, this one lasting 38 days. In 1980 Chancellor Irving Shain terminated the bargaining relationship between the TAA and the UW. It was eventually restored and a new contract was ratified in 1988.

The organization's hard-won battles have ultimately greatly benefited the university, says Tracy.

"For over 40 years, the TAA has worked hard to help make UW-Madison a top place for graduate student education and research," he says. "The loss of the TAA's ability to bargain for these kinds of improvements to graduate employment threatens the ability of UW-Madison to compete for the best and brightest graduate students, which ultimately will damage our ability to compete for the best and brightest faculty."

Walker's budget prohibits collective bargaining for most public unions, including the TAA. Because of this, the union voted recently not to seek recertification. The budget also prohibits the payroll deduction of union dues, so the TAA, like other public unions, is staging membership drives and working on collecting dues in other ways.

Despite these setbacks, the organization will continue, say its leaders. In fact, it may be more energized than ever, and more politicized, thanks to the events of last spring.

In a lengthy article published by Academe, the website of the American Association of University Professors, Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, emeritus historians at Brown University, recount how the TAA was an early leader in protests of Walker at the Capitol. (Mari Jo received her doctorate at UW-Madison.)

"Through the course of events, the Wisconsin Idea that perhaps shone the brightest was the activism of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants' Association," they wrote. "Extremely well-organized TAA members took some of the first steps to foster the wider protest movement."

As a result of this activism, says Pagac, "We've seen renewed participation in the union, and in [UW] departments that we had never had real participation ever before."

As the TAA continues its membership drive this fall, it will also keep up its fight to restore collective bargaining and other union rights.

"Faculty are continuing to check in with the TAA, and some of the shared governance bodies on campus are interested in ways in which we can work together in the upcoming year," says Pagac. "We all share certain things in common. The university works because we do."

McDonald, however, says she is feeling fearful, and not just about her own future.

"I am a first-generation college student working hard to prove to my 16-year-old son that hard work and sacrifice pay off," she says. "The fear is [in] being proven wrong."

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