Wisconsin Union's Surprising Choice

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has targeted employee unions. But UW-Madison’s graduate student association chose not to endorse his opponent.

June 4, 2012

When Wisconsin citizens who were disturbed by Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to curtail the power of public-sector unions started a campaign to recall him last year, members of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Teaching Assistants’ Association were very visible in that effort -- campaigning in public squares and the streets, trying to persuade residents to sign the recall petitions.

Having been part of an uprising that forced Walker into a recall election, one would think that the association would automatically endorse Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s election.

But that’s not what happened.

In a vote at a meeting last month, members of the graduate student union decided not to endorse Barrett. The results were close, but many following the build-up to the election were surprised at the decision. One described it as an "own goal," a soccer-related term for scoring against your own team.

The university’s Teaching Assistants’ Association is no longer a certified union, because of the new rules that Walker’s administration put in place making it harder for unions to recertify. And yet, some members balked at supporting Barrett, even though they want Walker out.

The recall campaign was about collective bargaining, they said, but Barrett’s campaign is not. And, according to them, the Democratic candidate, as mayor of Milwaukee, took advantage of some of the new rules that Walker put in place to reduce benefits to workers.

“Tom Barrett not being Scott Walker is just not good enough,” said Dan Suárez, an association member and a Ph.D. student in sociology at the university, who voted against endorsing Barrett. “I am not speaking for the union, but we have to have a larger view of this. I think Barrett is a severely underwhelming candidate.”

Suárez felt that Democrats tend to take unions for granted. “They seem to think that 'Let us not think about labor; they are going to vote for us no matter what. Let’s go after the fence-sitters in the middle,' ” he said.

That’s one reason, Suárez said, that the Democrats have moved away from the collective bargaining plank in the recall election. (An update to the “strategy plan” by the Democratic party of the state mentions key message points, but there is no mention of collective bargaining.)

Bryan Kennedy, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, the umbrella organization to which the teaching assistants’ union belongs, said that many members of the association were actively engaged in the Barrett campaign, and that the decision not to endorse him might have been a result of only a handful of members among several hundred showing up for the mid-May vote.

“I do not believe that not endorsing Tom Barrett is indicative of whether the majority there is working to elect him,” Kennedy said. He said that its members have been a constant presence at a union hall where Barrett campaigners work.

Kennedy, whose organization has endorsed Barrett, said the Democratic party in Wisconsin was “rock solid” on the issue of collective bargaining. “The first bomb that Walker dropped was on collective bargaining, but he has also assaulted other areas such as education and redistricting proposals," Kennedy said.

Matt Reiter, a co-president of the TAA and a doctoral student of the history of the United States, said he was focused on building the union. “No matter what happens, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg -- we are at the start of a decades-long larger movement," he said.

Alex Hanna, a former co-president of the union, said the decision not to endorse Barrett highlighted the diversity of voices within the association. “My own view is that the best way to mobilize people at this time would have been through an endorsement,” he said. “I don’t think our decision will reverberate too much. We are a pretty small group of people.”

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct an editing error in the e-mail teaser.)


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