Things are looking up for organized labor after decades of attrition under the Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations. With Barack Obama, we finally have a president who understands the fundamental role that the labor movement should play in a strong American economy. As he said in his announcement of a Task Force on the Middle Class, “I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem. To me, it’s part of the solution. You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement.” Gov. Jim Doyle, in moving to offer collective bargaining rights to UW System faculty, understands this, too, for which I applaud him.
This is why I was disheartened to read Tuesday’s Badger Herald’s editorial on the subject, “Collective Disagreement,” in which the editorial board dismissed collective bargaining as a means to better wages and working conditions for UW System faculty. As much of this argument was based on a distorted depiction of my own labor union, the Teaching Assistants’ Association, I would first like to address two erroneous statements about the TAA. Firstly, there is no “mandatory participation” in the TAA for TAs and PAs, as the board claimed; only those who choose to sign membership cards become members. The board is perhaps referring to what are known as “fair share” fees. By Wisconsin law, the contract that the TAA bargains applies to all TAs and PAs, and the TAA protects all TAs and PAs — regardless of their membership status — in the event of a breach of contract. In 1989, 30 percent of all TAs and PAs signed a petition to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission to request an election on whether all those covered by the contract and represented by the TAA should pay their “fair share” portion of the expenses for bargaining and representation. A clear majority of voters in that election voted to institute “fair share” fees. This is a policy that all TAs and PAs, whether TAA members or not, voted to institute, and it does not in any sense compel mandatory participation. And secondly, the TAA does not, as the board claimed, limit class or discussion section sizes. Our contract has no control over class sizes, and we have lobbied for no such policy outside of our contract.
As these were the two points used by the board to explain why the TAA was a “particularly obnoxious example” of the dangers of collective bargaining, it would be wise to look at what graduate employees have been able to achieve since unionizing. Since the TAA’s formation, our members have fought for and won affordable health care, a tuition waiver, crucial workplace protections and regular salary increases. TAs and PAs certainly aren’t living like kings and queens, but by bargaining collectively with the university and the state, we’ve accomplished far more together than we could ever have alone. As a union, we have a voice in determining our working conditions; without our union, we’d just have to take whatever we were given.
This is why I wholeheartedly support giving UW System faculty the opportunity to decide whether to organize and bargain collectively with the state. In the last eight years, we’ve seen the effects of a politics that does everything it can to strengthen management at the expense of employees; the current fragility of our economy is a testament to the need for a strong — and organized — middle class. Particularly in times of economic crisis, employees must have the ability to negotiate working conditions with their employers, rather than being forced to accept what the employer decides it can afford. Our faculty deserves no less than this right.
Teaching Assistants’ Association Executive Board Member
AFT Local 3220, AFL-CIO