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Teaching Assistants, Student Fear University Of Wisconsin-Madison's Decline

Paresh Dave |
February 18, 2011 | 3:05 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

Working closely alongside his teaching assistant in a lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sophomore Raymond Chou is now comfortable calling his “TA” one of his best friends.

So it was easy for Chou to know what to do when his TA became one of hundreds of members of the Teaching Assistants Association to agree to hold a “teach-out” for the rest of the week and instead join a protest of legislation in Wisconsin that would strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

“We know T.A.'s and professors aren't the most well-paid already,” Chou said. “The inability to peacefully negotiate is going be a huge black mark in Wisconsin.”

Somewhere at the low end of public sector employees, TAs normally get a break on tuition, a handful of benefits and a small stipend. Universities or college systems in 16 states have collective bargaining agreements with their graduate teaching assistants, according to the national umbrella organization for TA unions. Depending on its political tilt, the National Labor Relations Board has gone back and forth on whether it considers TA's eligible to bargain under federal labor laws. Mostly, it's been up to states to set the standards.

As part of bill to balance the state's budget, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republican legislators have included a provision limiting the collective bargaining rights of state employees, expect those who protect public safety.

Wisconsin's TAA—the oldest independent union of its kind—has been caught in the middle. The budget cuts whack them twice because under Walker's plan tuition would also see a minor increase.

“We realize financial concessions will need to be made in these tough economic times,” said a statement released Friday by TAA on behalf of the 3,000 graduate students it represents. “However, getting rid of our right to bargain over anything other than wages is not a budgetary measure. It is a measure that would strip us of our rights. A bid for modest increases to health care and pension contributions would not bring out tens of thousands of protestors and close schools across the state.”

Gov. Scott Walker won by just five percent points, or about a 100,000 votes. His opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett, captured 55 percent of the under 30 vote, according to exit polls. Barack Obama held a rally at the UW-Madison back in September in hopes of drawing more young voters to the polls.

The numbers still aren't in for how many people under 30 actually voted, but Chou knows he didn't vote.

“The silver-lining, maybe, in this whole situation is a lot of people who didn't vote around campus are kicking themselves,” he said. “They've made education an easy target.”

Wisconsin typically has one of the highest voter turnouts in the country for any election. In November's midterm elections, 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Wisconsin’s 20-to-29-year-old age group (which voted overwhelmingly for Barrett) has more people than the 30-to-39-year-old age group that threw their support behind Walker.

If the youth vote managed to match at least the 40 percent turnout it mustered in 2006's midterm elections, they might have had a significant effect in keeping Walker out of office. College and young adults, it seems, could have staved off the calamity that now sits in front of them.

A few dozen high school students even staged protests this week. But it's still to be seen if the late yet incredibly loud entry into the political process by at least 6,000 young adults will put enough pressure on Walker to stand down.

Tuition could go up 10 percent to $4,500 for in-state students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The median household income in Wisconsin is about $50,000. Back in California where tuition for state residents exceeds $11,000, the median household income is $60,000. By that comparison, students in Wisconsin would absorb half the financial impact of tuition hikes as students in California will next year.

For Raymond and many other students, though, it's seeing their TAs and professors up in arms that's more tremendous than any worries about tuition increases.

Ranked as one of the top 50 universities in the world at the moment by several publications, the UW-Madison could see a quick decline if the loss of bargaining rights drives professors and graduate students to take openings elsewhere in the country. Chou hopes an amendment to the legislation can keep in place the power of unions. If not, he's eyeing the next election.

“The worst-case scenario is the next couple years might not be so great,” he said, “but there will be some sort of lash-back in the next election.”


Reach executive producer Paresh Dave here. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.




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