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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jan 28, 2010, 1:05 pm

Teaching Assistants’ Union Resists University’s ‘Neo-Liberal’ Turn

BY Roger Bybee

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Ban on foreign students joining union part of corporatist trend, labor leader says

Thanks to a University of Wisconsin-Madison budget provision permitting research assistants to unionize and bargain for the first time, the door has been opened for a major expansion of graduate worker unions at the school. The provision takes effect June 1.

But UW officials are intent on slamming that door shut as rapidly as possible, in line with increasingly anti-union positions taken in the public sector. The university is insisting that the budget provision prohibits international students from joining the union. The international students are also are carved out from the research assistants' bargaining unit, as they are explicitly excluded from protection under state law on public-sector bargaining rights.

UW officials have claimed that their motive is to merely to protect (foreign-born students in the U.S. on a F1 or J1 visa) the visa status of the students by keeping them out of a union. One expert on labor-management relations in higher education has labeled the university's stance as "astonishing"  and "absolute malarkey," as unionized international students at Oregon and California have encountered no visa problems.

The university is also standing firm on keeping the research assistants in a separate bargaining unit, even though their work is often indistinguishable from project assistants.


"The basis is union-busting, not any legitimate principle" says Peter Rickman, president of the 2,900-member Teaching Assistants Association, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. "It's part of a coherent strategy to break the union. They are hell-bent on this."

Equally "hell-bent" on resisting the university's position is the TAA, which plans to keep on signing up both international students and research assistants. "The union stands for inclusion and keeping people together," declares Rickman. "The UW did this to divide people and prevent people from coming together."

The TAA has long included both international students and research assistants, Rickman notes. 

The university's prohibition on international students joining a union rests on a last-minute amendment re-inserted in the new law on union organizing, after a more favorable compromise had already been reached. About 700 of the campus's 2,500 research assistants are international students.

Rather than heading back to the Wisconsin capitol to fix the obscure provision in the legislation, the union has chosen a strategy based on direct organizing of the international students as well as other research and project assistants.

"Our focus is organizing," Rickman stresses. While the union also plans to legislatively revise the legislation, it believes that its power comes from its membership's willingness to stand up to the university.


In much the same way that the early Congress of Industrial Organization unions gained power through direct action on the shop floor to win worker demands, the TAA has always emphasized organizing so that graduate workers can exert their power. Rickman outlines the union's guiding strategy:

The union doesn't begin and end with a contract. We need to be organized and build a stronger union in order to act legislatively. This is a union of academic people, including labor scholars, who have learned that we need to focus on members rather than insider deals." 

Rickman cites as a current inspiration the National Union of Health Workers in California led by Sal Rosselli, who parted ways with Andrew Sterns' Service Employees International Union over the SEIU's penchant for cutting deals with management rather than actively involving workers democratically  to determine their demands.

The TAA's focus on membership mobilization and action reflects both what members have learned from studying labor history and from its past successes, says Rickman. "Our approach is rooted in the lore about union history, but it' also because we 're deeply committed to grassroots union, democratic unionism, progressive unionism as a result of our history.

The TAA views its role as not only fighting for improved pay and benefits for its members, but demanding that "the whole neo-liberal assault on our university has to end."

The neo-liberal agenda for the university, Rickman explains, includes the crushing of unions, an increasing reliance on higher tuition that excludes an increasing number of poor and working class students, a heavier emphasis on gaining substantial funds from research projects for corporations and the government, and the increasing reliance on "contingent" labor like "adjunct" professors and other part-time or temporary labor.

Rickman points out that Wisconsin has continually expanded tax breaks for corporations so that less general purpose revenue is available to support the university. While the UW has aimed at drawing one-third of its revenues from direct state support, the actual percentage now is just 19%.


Meanwhile, corporate tax reductions have meant that 62% of Wisconsin corporations with revenues of $100 million or more paid no corporate income taxes in 2002, according to a study by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future.

Some of the most outrageous loopholes have been closed—like the one allowing Wisconsin corporations and banks to be chartered in Nevada, which has no corporate income tax—but the state continues to lose hundreds of millions in revenue due to corporate breaks enacted in the name of maintaining Wisconsin's manufacturing base.

Although the corporate exodus of family-supporting jobs from Wisconsin continues, the tax breaks have remained firmly in place and public knowledge of their massive scope is blocked by limited disclosure.

"Tuition is high and pushing out students because corporations aren't willing to pay their fair share and make investments for the common good of our state," Rickman declares, adding:

The introduction of neo-liberalism to the university is the same force devastating factory towns and people internationally. Our struggles have to be linked together. For us in the TAA, it's about connecting struggles like skyrocketing tuition  and the loss of manufacturing jobs. It's all coming from the same source--corporate domination. It's driving the adverse change in the university and attack on unions. We can only be successful when we're organized together.


Rickman said that the TAA's perspective reflects its history. "We've been at the forefront of progressive unionism," he says. "The TAA grew out of the anti-war and civil rights movements on campus," with activists bringing their understanding of capitalism and their experiences in organizing to their work as graduate students.

Despite UW-Madison's long reputation as a bastion of liberalism that has resisted efforts by right-wing politicians to curb free speech and scholarly inquiry on campus, UW administration has been historically hostile to the notion of unions on campus. "We had a big strike in 1980-81," notes Rickman.

"I think it's instructive to compare that period, with Reagan coming in with his anti-union policies, with the now, when working people are again under assault."

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

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