The Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin at Madison dates to 1966. In 1970, following a four-week strike, the graduate students at Madison became the first T.A. union to win a contract.  Over the years, the union -- affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers -- has been a leader in the drive to promote collective bargaining for graduate student workers.
Last week, after hours of debate, the union’s members voted not to seek state certification to continue to act as a collective bargaining agent. Union leaders said that the vote was a close one (they declined to reveal the totals), and taken with very mixed feelings by both those seeking to continue state certification and those arguing against. Those who carried the day argued that the new state law designed to limit the power of public employee unions made it impossible to operate effectively, and that the organization will be able to do more for T.A.s by not seeking to be certified as an official union.
Under the new state law, pushed by Governor Scott Walker, public employee unions like the one that represents Wisconsin T.A.s must be “certified” with a vote of members each year. Typically, once unions win a vote to represent a bargaining unit, they do not need to return for elections year after year -- if ever. Further, under the new law, the unions can negotiate only for limited wage increases; they can’t negotiate over benefits, working conditions or other issues.
Union leaders said that they couldn’t function well if they had to effectively be in a perpetual organizing drive for the annual union votes, and also if they had to pay annual fees to be certified. "Our membership was keenly aware of the sort of resources and energy it would take in order to hold on," said Adrienne Pagac, co-president of the union and a doctoral student in sociology at Madison. She said that the leaders of the union did not make any recommendation to the members on how to vote, and that the AFT did not seek to influence the vote, opting to let the rank and file make the call.
Seeking certification year after year, she said, "would have meant diverting resources and neglecting all of the other things we do for members – representing them at the work site, being advocates for them, engaging our community." Pagac added that "being a union member is not just about sitting across the table from management and hammering out a contract. It's about democracy in the workplace.”
To many graduate student unions, of course, part of being a union is sitting across that table when a contract is negotiated. Currently graduate student teaching assistants at private universities are engaged in a legal fight to obtain that right. (Unionization at private colleges and universities is governed by federal labor law, and the National Labor Relations Board is currently considering the issue of collective bargaining of T.A.s. The union rights of public university T.A.s are determined at the state level.)
Officials at Madison have pledged to honor the spirit of the past contract with the union, even if the university is no longer legally obliged to do so. And Pagac said that the union (which will still call itself a union) plans to hold the university to that pledge. She noted that there is nothing to prevent the graduate students from seeking certification again at some point in the future. And she noted that at one point in the 1980s, the union lost and regained collective bargaining rights.
The union faces challenges as it adjusts to the limits imposed by the state law. Under the old contract, union dues were automatically deducted from the paychecks of the 2,700-2,800 graduate teaching assistants at Madison. Now the Teaching Assistants’ Association must seek dues from members by itself.
The new Wisconsin law on unions, Pagac said, was an attempt to undercut unions. Last week’s decision was not one anyone wanted to make, but reflected the limited choices available, she said. “No one else should decide who makes us a union,” said Pagac. “We decide. It’s our decision, not Governor Walker’s decision.”
Even without collective bargaining, she said, “I think we are still a collectivity of graduate student workers who have decided to come together to represent our interests. We are stronger together than when we are apart.”