Monday, February 21, 2011


I was a student (and Teaching Assistant at the UW-Madison) in WI for two semesters in 2005. Soon after arriving in Madison, I met my friend, Susan, who asked if I would like to co-steward the Music Department for the Teaching Assistants' Association, which is the oldest graduate student teacher's union in the US. In all honesty, at that time, I really had no idea what unions were about. I had never been a part of one. I knew my parents were in the Musician's Union, who negotiated their very meager salaries. I knew that my grandfather had been a union steward, but he was an accountant and I'm not sure what union he was in... I didn't know anything about Robert's Rules or collective bargaining. But, Susan's enthusiasm was infectious, I could tell we had similar ideas about politics, and the more she talked about what the TAA was all about, the more I wanted to be involved. I joined and I am so glad I did. The experience was truly rewarding. I feel very honored to have been part of the TAA. I swear to you, I have never met a more intelligent, compassionate, politically savvy, and civil group of skilled debaters interested in fairness and democracy in my life. I was truly inspired not only by the people I met there, but by the process that they took so seriously, with such reverent respect. It sounds cheesy to say it, but I would be lying if I didn't say that my fellow TAA stewards inspired me to want to be a better person. They inspired me to get off my butt and try to make a difference.

While a student at UW-Madison, I became very aware of the political situation on small and large scales and how that affected the money trading hands. I learned that public universities were becoming less and less public and more and more influenced by private interests. I learned that the state of Wisconsin has a great divide in ideologies between the more liberal cities downstate and the more Republican bent of the rest of the state. I saw how certain departments in the university (like economics) refused to be part of the union, whereas other departments (like sociology, english, and math) had a lot of representation. I saw how some TAs were way overworked grading papers and tutoring students for professors who only gave the class lectures, whereas other TAs were the primary teacher for a group of students who never saw a major professor in that area of study. (And, started thinking about how integral these TAs are to the wellbeing of the university.) I saw how some departments had so much money that their TAs could afford to sit around and play cards for several hours a day and had stipends to pay them to not work over the summer, whereas other departments had so little funding that they had to pass it around from one student to another, so that some students had to drop out of the program altogether because they couldn't afford tuition, or had to work several extra jobs even with their assistantship just to make ends meet. I think the politics of why some departments had more money than others and how that influenced their representation in the TAA had to do with where the money was coming from (national foundations? or corporate interests?) and also the politics of the major professors in each area (whose politics may have been influenced by money in a similar way). And, those are just a few thoughts from someone who has been away for a very long time about a very complex issue...

Here is a link to Susan's blog, where she has six great posts in a row about the situation, including lots of photos and good links.


Suze said...

Thanks, Pam!
It's pretty tense here. We need all the support we can get. From listening to the opposition, you'd think unions were greedy leaches who want nothing else but to bankrupt the state so people like TEACHERS and NURSES who are clearly so out of touch with the real world can hold onto their cushy jobs...really. But of course that's not true. What's good for public workers is good for everyone. I just wish more people would understand that!

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