Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Endgame

After two years of talks, allegations of negotiating in bad faith and a disastrous and illegal two-day strike in April 2004, the Teaching Assistants Association and Wisconsin's Office of State Employment Relations are still no closer to an agreement for the 2003-05 contract period.

That's not a typo. The TAA and OSER still haven't agreed on a contract that would have ended June 30.

The battle over a contract for teaching assistants has played out over the past two years like a bad game of chess, with neither side acknowledging their gambit isn't paying off. The TAA has refused OSER's contract, and OSER has refused to alter its offer. In March, when the TAA and OSER last met, it remained a 4.6 percent pay raise with $11 per person health-care premiums.

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The TAA, whose members received health care with no premiums under the previous contract, maintains that teaching assistants shouldn't pay premiums due to an increased cost of living and low pay comparable to peer institutions. In addition, they are concerned about possible future increases. OSER, meanwhile, argues that the UW teaching assistants should play by the same rules as other state employees and contribute to health-care costs.

Both sides are afraid that conceding this point may weaken their stance on future negotiations.

Neither group has approached the table in good faith since negotiations over the 2003-05 biennium started in 2002, only weeks after the 2001-03 biennium dispute had been resolved. The TAA has consistently walked away from offers that would have given their members a higher effective salary, insisting that health care is non-negotiable. For their part, OSER has refused to budge on premiums or take steps to address the pay disparity between UW and other Big Ten schools.

Yet, somewhere between 2002's opening negotiations and last spring's self-righteous rhetoric, the TAA has lost sight of the big picture. While a teaching assistant position brings with it responsibility for undergraduates and an increased workload, it is not a career. It is a rite-of-passage. The position of teaching assistant is much more akin to a modern day apprenticeship than typical employment. They receive valuable experience, learn skills of the trade and hear feedback in an environment that allows them to experiment and grow before they enter their professional careers.

This is not unlike a medical residency, working as a lab assistant or a paid internship. It is on-the-job training. And while UW teaching assistants make less than other Big Ten schools, their take-home pay averages over $17 an hour, or more than $31 an hour for in-state students when factoring in benefits like tuition remission. Out-of-state graduate students can see an adjusted wage of nearly $50 an hour.

Thirty-one to 50 dollars an hour for a part-time employee who may not return to the classroom next semester — compare this to a medical residency, where first-year residents can expect 80 to 100-hour weeks, often in 30 to 36-hour blocks with little or no sleep, and all for an average salary of $32,000, or $6.15-$7.70 an hour. Yet residents persevere, acknowledge the learning experience and have faith that the temporary unpleasantness will be replaced by a lifetime in a career that makes them happy.

The TAA may have a legitimate beef with the state Legislature, who, in the face of budget deficits, has repeatedly cut spending for the UW System. But with the new biennium already begun without a contract and the previous contract far from ratified, it must learn to recognize the difference between a real fight and a cosmetic fight. It must to see which wars are worth waging.

OSER holds all the pieces in this particular match. The TAA's gambit didn't work. The chessboard is stacked against it, its pawns surrounded by a legion of queens. It is time the TAA protect its king and accept the OSER offer before even the board is lost.

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