NEW: Video from the Teach-In panel discussion:
The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), the labor union representing the graduate student workers of the University of Wisconsin, recently hosted a teach-in to discuss the changes to graduate assistant pay set to be implemented in July 2017. The teach-in featured a panel, consisting of Cynthia Burnson, academic staff, UFAS member and former TAA co-president; Chad Alan Goldberg, UW-Madison faculty and president of UFAS; and Alexi Brooks, current TAA member and graduate student. The graduate school was invited to send a representative, but did not participate.
The panelists discussed their frustrations with the pay restructuring process, and their concerns about the long-term implications of this proposal: namely, that the plan as currently stated will decentralize graduate student-worker pay, and increase wage inequality among graduate students—particularly those in the humanities and female-dominated departments. The real long-term implication, according to Brooks, is depressed pay in the majority of departments on campus. Overall, the new plan represents a shift away from the historic mission of the University of Wisconsin.
“There are a whole series of institutional changes that serve to remake the university’s mission from sifting and winnowing to a new set of values,” said Chad Goldberg, a sociology professor. He noted the pay restructuring is one of a series of recent changes—including weakened tenure protections and shared governance, collective bargaining, and proposals to link funding to unspecified performance metrics—that shift the university’s emphasis away from the liberal arts and toward workforce training.
“The restructuring of graduate employee pay must be seen as another element in this makeover, which privileges some fields and disciplines over others,” Goldberg said.
“Decentralizing pay makes it really hard for anyone who is trying to negotiate a pay raise to get anything done,” Alexi Brooks commented. “By decoupling the pay graduate students in different departments make, it removes the historical pressure for raising everyone’s pay,” Brooks said. “In the past, raising pay has been related to the hard sciences—when people in chemistry and physics call for a pay raise to be competitive, other departments benefit. That is how the pay goes up. By decoupling that, that pressure is gone.”
Discussions about change to graduate worker pay—for RAs, PAs, and TAs—started in October 2014. They began based on the acknowledgment that graduate workers do not make enough money (UW-Madison graduate student pay rates rank among the lowest among peer institutions) and were intended to allow certain departments on campus to raise the pay of graduate workers in order to offer more competitive funding packages. The plan would set a minimum pay level for all workers on campus, with departments able to increase their pay based on “market forces.”
From the start, the process was rife with confusion and complications, according to Cynthia Burnson, who sat as a TAA representative on the majority of the six meetings to discussion the new plan.
“I brought up, over and over, the real problem is that we don’t get paid enough,” Burnson said. “ The administration is trying to solve this problem very badly, in a very convoluted way, with no consideration for effects.”
Brooks took over as the TAA representative on the proposal’s implementation committee in 2016, and was surprised to find that these discussions abruptly ended after he attended his first meeting. The event gave graduate students a public forum to voice their concerns, and was designed to inform graduate students about the proposal’s background and plans for its implementation—or at least what the TAA knows to date—and solicit feedback on questions and concerns that could be delivered to university administration.
“This is a problem about priorities,” Burnson concluded. “Make this the administration’s priority. To me, it’s a moral issue. It would be a lot easier to swallow [this proposal] if the lowest paid of us weren’t on food stamps.”
“The struggle that you are involved in to oppose this, or to at least slow this down and try to mitigate the damage, is part of that larger struggle, the stakes of which are the university’s mission and the kind of university that we will see in the next 15 or 25 years,” Goldberg told attendees.
The TAA plans to get more information, with the possibility of hosting another event with participation from the Graduate School this semester. It intends to bring the questions and concerns generated from teach-in attendees to Graduate School Administrators.
The TAA is also two months into an an effort to conduct one-on-one conversations with hundreds of graduate students, regardless of union membership, to collect data about what issues are most important to the student body in preparation for upcoming contract-to-handbook negotiations.