1966: Inception

The Teaching Assistants’ Association was born in the spring of 1966 at an anti-draft sit-in, in response to the recognition that graduate students had no independent voice on campus. Drawing its membership and leadership largely from the antiwar and student movements of the day, from the outset the TAA was a progressive voice in the university community. The TAA itself was inspired by earlier efforts, in particular a short-lived labor union of student workers at the UW-Madison called the Wisconsin Student Employees Association formed in 1962 and an effort to form a graduate employee union out of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1965.

In 1967, the TAA participated in the famous campus demonstrations against Dow Chemical for their role in the production of weapons for the Vietnam War. The October 1967 demonstration is remembered as one of the most violent events of the anti-war movement, as university police hospitalized dozens of students under the orders of the university administration. Afterward, members of the TAA resolved to organize on the basis of their power as university employees and struggle to become the sole bargaining agent for graduate assistants. This marked a growing rejection of the professional ideology of the university that treated graduate students as “apprentices,” and toward the idea that graduate employees are a source of cheap instructional and research labor for the university. As providers of labor, graduate assistants could have power if they organized together in what was becoming an increasingly antagonistic relationship to the administration.

In 1969, a legislative proposal to deny out-of-state tuition remission to graduate assistants provided the spark that brought a majority of TAs into the TAA. Discovering the power of collective action, TAs voted to strike if the bill passed. Although the bill was quickly withdrawn, TAs had decided that a formally recognized union with bargaining rights was the best way to protect TAs’ working conditions and improve educational quality. TAs proposed a new kind of union based on the increasing importance of the university and mental labor to society.

Since Wisconsin had no laws addressing collective bargaining between the UW and its graduate employees, the TAA had to apply strong pressure on the UW to enter a Structure Agreement. This Structure Agreement provided the legal basis for the first collective bargaining unit of graduate employees in the United States. After the TAA won a representation election by an overwhelming margin, the TAA and the UW sat down to bargain what would become the first contract between a university and its graduate assistants.

Bargaining began in May 1969. Yet by March 1970, there was still no agreement because the UW had refused to move on issues critical to graduate assistants. As a result, the TAA went on strike. Four weeks later, TAs won most of their demands-with the substantial exception of gaining a voice in university educational reform. But for the first time, teaching assistants had won the security of 3- to 4-year support guarantees, an effective grievance procedure, workload limitations, fair discipline and discharge procedures, class-size limits, a democratic evaluation process, and health insurance for TAs, PAs, and RAs.

The TAA negotiated four more contracts with the UW. The union made additional gains, such as a minimum 33% appointment that guaranteed out-of-state tuition remission and insurance benefits, the HMO option for health insurance, and posting of hiring criteria. On the other hand, the UW was able to extract several concessions. (For a first-person narrative of this period of TAA history, see Daniel Czitrom’s essay in Will Teach for Food by Cary Nelson (Ed.), 1997).

To strengthen its position, the TAA affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO) in 1974. The TAA assumed a prominent role in the state’s progressive labor movement, with members serving as vice presidents of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers. In 1993, TAA member David Newby was elected president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO—a position he held until 2010.

1979-1985: The Administration Strikes Back

Well before the fifth contract between the TAA and the UW expired in August 1979, the University had grown increasingly impatient with the collective bargaining process, ignoring arbitrators’ awards in grievance cases and flouting court decisions ordering it to abide by the terms of the contract. When bargaining began for a new contract in 1979, the UW insisted on across-the-board concessions. It wanted some TAs to work without being paid on the pretext that they were not really working, but fulfilling degree requirements. The UW did not want to post hiring criteria for TAs. Administrators demanded the sole power to decide which grievances could be taken to binding arbitration. Once again, the TAA was faced with the difficult choice-to strike or to work without a contract.

For seven months, the union worked without a contract. Finally, in March 1980, TAs voted to strike. At issue was the union’s very existence and the right of graduate assistants to have a say in determining their working conditions. Union members and supporters struck for five weeks. Although the TAA accepted a mediator’s proposal to end the strike, the UW refused to compromise. In May, just before the end of classes, the TAA returned to work without a contract. Three months later, Chancellor Irving Shain announced that he was terminating the Structure Agreement, which had provided the legal framework for ten years of bargaining. The TAA sued, but the court ruled that the UW had the right to pull out of the agreement. Ten years of bargaining were over.

While in the short term it seemed that the TAA’s second strike had failed, in the end it galvanized TAA members to address the underlying weakness in their position: the lack of legal bargaining rights. A legislation committee was created to coordinate an intensive outreach, lobbying, and research effort designed to secure passage of a bargaining rights bill. With the support of unionists from across Wisconsin, the TAA accomplished what many had considered impossible: in October 1985, the bill passed, despite intense opposition from the university. Once again, TAs had the opportunity to bargain about their conditions of employment-but this time, the university had a legal obligation to sit at the table and bargain in good faith. And, for the first time, PAs had the right to choose union representation. The foundations of a new beginning were laid.

1985-1997: Starting Over, Making Historic Gains

To fulfill the promise of new bargaining rights, TAs and PAs had to again vote on union representation. The choice was simple: endorse the TAA as the bargaining agent or have no union at all. Despite the university’s unprecedented anti-union campaign, TAs and PAs demonstrated that the TAA was their union: nearly 1,000 “yes” votes were cast in the representation election in the spring of 1987.

The next big step to ensure long-term strength and viability of the TAA was a Maintenance of Membership (MoM) or “Fair Share” election. After an intensive organizing effort in 1990, TAs and PAs voted to institute MoM fees-thereafter, all new members of the bargaining unit were required to pay their “Fair Share” to cover bargaining, grievance, and other expenses that benefit all unit members.

In the early 1990s, health-care benefits for domestic partners began to be a key issue for the TAA. The struggle led to the inclusion of a negotiating note in the 1993-1995 contract endorsing the principle of extending health care benefits to domestic partners. But late in 1993, Republican lawmakers forced the TAA to withdraw the negotiating note as a condition of ratification. In exchange, the State/UW agreed to anti-discrimination language.

The TAA also continued to act on issues not directly addressed in the contract. During the summer of 1994, the TAA and the International Students Committee initiated a campaign against a new university policy requiring all international students to purchase insurance to cover medical evacuation and repatriation. The administration misrepresented the policy as being federally required of all international students. TAA researchers discovered the “coffin tax” was actually not mandated for students with F-1 visas-the majority of international students at the university. Due to TAA-led opposition, the administration revoked the policy in September 1994.

In 1997, after a multifaceted campaign that spanned several years, the TAA won a full tuition waiver. Representative Joe Wineke introduced a state budget amendment extending the waiver to grad students; it succeeded after hundreds of TAA members directly lobbied state legislators, shouted at large rallies, joined undergrads and others in a postcard campaign, and occupied Bascom Hall with a “work-in” during finals week. Thanks to the collective action taken by TAA members and regular attention from local media, the amendment survived the budget committee process, the floor vote, and a potential veto by the governor.

1998-2003: The Attack on Collective Bargaining Begins

In the late nineties, however, serious disturbances in the state’s collective bargaining process began to appear. As part of its overall plan to defund public higher education and the public sector itself in favor of private spending, the Wisconsin state legislature and governor’s office began to take a more assertive and indeed aggressive role at the bargaining table, complicating and sometimes even halting negotiations.

In 1999, after months at the table with little progress, the TAA entered into mediation with the State/UW, a first in over 10 years. Members launched a “Mediation Watch” to signal their vigilance. TAA members rallied to “close the gap!” between PA and TA pay, and fought against proposed pay cuts for some members and a raise that lagged behind inflation. After a full year of intensive member activism, impressive gains were achieved in the new contract, signed March 2000. The new agreement included paid teacher training, better overwork protection, movement toward TA/PA pay equity, and across-the-board raises.

While the gains of the 1999-2001 contract were indeed impressive, the struggles necessary to achieve them signaled the state’s growing hostility toward collective bargaining with its workers. Despite the fact that the State’s negotiating team approved a new contract in February 2002, the state legislature determined to hold the bargaining process hostage. The TAA contract, along with the contracts of thousands of other Wisconsin public employees, was locked up in an obscure committee of the State Legislature. In a move to gain political points with the public, Republican members of the committee refused to allow the contracts onto the floor for a vote, claiming that public employees were “responsible” for the State’s financial woes-despite the fact that money had already been budgeted to pay for the contracts. After months of lobbying and public protest by TAA members and other unionists across the state, the logjam was finally broken. This victory came with a warning from key Republicans in the legislature, however: public employees (including grad assistants), they said, would have to pay for health insurance in the next round.

2003-2006: Bargaining in Slow Motion

Because of the Legislature’s interference, the 2001-2003 contract was not ratified until May 2003, meaning it was right back to the bargaining table in Fall 2003. The TAA negotiated with the State/UW for the entire semester, offering significant concessions in order to preserve an affordable health insurance plan. But, under political pressure from the governor’s office and members of the Legislature, the State/UW team refused to budge on health insurance, insisting that TAs and PAs open the door to spiraling premium costs while simultaneously taking an effective pay cut.

Thus two primary issues began to emerge from negotiations. First, members felt that the State was violating a tacit agreement that had held for almost 20 years: state workers (including TAs and PAs) would take lower pay increases in exchange for good benefits (like $0 health insurance premiums). The second issue was the State’s simple unwillingness to bargain. Every time the TAA had put forth another compromise package, the State would simply say “no” and essentially (once even literally) offer its old package. Members recognized that this wasn’t bargaining in good faith: the State wasn’t compromising.

So at the beginning of the Spring 2004 semester, given the complete stalemate at the bargaining table, for the first time in almost 25 years TAA members began considering a strike. After substantial interim attempts to make bargaining work, in early April of 2004 over 71% of eligible members voted “yes” in favor of a strike if negotiations produced no results by April 27th. On the evening of April 26, with over 500 TAA members in attendance and no new progress at the table, a General Membership Meeting voted to enact the planned and authorized strike. On April 27 & 28, over 500 members walked the picket lines. A former TAA member, who participated in the TAA’s 1980 strike, came out to walk the picket lines and said that the Spring 2004 walk-out was bigger and louder than the 1980 strike. Members struck over 40 departments in 18 buildings, with high levels of respect for the picket lines on both days from TAA members, faculty, and undergraduate students.

Shortly thereafter, the State declared an “impasse” in bargaining and refused to schedule more bargaining sessions all throughout the summer and fall. Nearly ten months later, in March of 2005, the State finally agreed to a session. At this session, however, the State reached a new low in bargaining tactics: it actually withdrew $1 million from its previous offer. By the end of the Spring semester, with relatively few legal options left to compel the State to bargain, the TAA filed an Unfair Labor Practice charging the State with “regressive bargaining,” bargaining that moves away from reaching an agreement. Faced with this legal threat, the State finally agreed to discuss both the 2003-2005 and 2005-2007 contracts through mediation.

Once again, though, summer intervened, and mediation didn’t happen until November. Once underway, though, mediation produced results. Over the course of two sessions on November 1 and 15, the TAA finally compelled the State to offer a substantial wage increase in exchange for TAA members contributing to health care premia. When all was said and done-after perhaps the most contentious round of bargaining since 1980, and in the midst of a resolutely anti-union political environment-the State had got its foot in the door to expanding health care premium payments in the future, while TAA members got a host of other benefits, and an average raise of over 11% for 2003-2007.


One side-effect of state attacks on the public sector is the UW administration’s ill-conceived plan to solve its financial problems (related to graduate employee tuition remission) by making it much more expensive for departments to hire PAs and RAs: departments were required to pay $8000 per year for each PA or RA they hire, with guaranteed increases in the coming years as tuition rises. This move resulted in the loss of 16% of PA jobs (and an undetermined amount of RA-ships too) nearly immediately. It was bad not only for grad employees but for the UW’s research, and especially for departments that rely on PA-ships for graduate student support. TAA members, along with faculty and other interested organizations, joined together to fight that plan as part of the Coalition for Affordable Public Education (CAPE). CAPE lobbied administrators and the state legislature for ways to solve this problem.

Bargaining for the 2007-2009 contract was delayed for over a hundred days. The bargaining process was long and arduous, lasting from October 2007 through December 1, 2008, when the TAA and the State of Wisconsin reached its first tentative agreement without outside intervention since the 2001-2003 contract. The contract, currently waiting to be approved by the Wisconsin State Legislature, resulted in historic gains toward PA pay equity, and raises which bring first-time TA pay rates up to the wage-levels of “experienced” TAs in Fall 2009. Additionally, the TAA made important gains in sick leave days, guaranteed access to lactation rooms with certain standards, and clarified a catastrophic leave policy that guaranteed continuation of insurance, tuition remission, ad wages during the semester of the catastrophic injury.

TAA activists in the Fall of 2008 also turned their eyes again toward attaining Domestic Partner Benefits for TAA members and UW employees. The TAA pushed on the issue, joining the LGBT Campus Center to table on Library Mall during their Coming Out Week, and creating a memorable Bascom Hill display. The TAA then networked into the University’s Domestic Partner Benefit Task Force, and arranged meetings with Governor Doyle’s Office and UW Chancellor Biddy Martin, while activists also spoke with nearly a thousand TAA members about the importance of winning Domestic Partner Benefits. The State Legislature, which in years past had meticulously denied state employees Domestic Partner Benefits, was poised for a sea change in the November elections. The TAA’s Political Education Committee launched an AFT COPE award-winning program, through a vibrant and ambitious series of phone banks and Labor Walks throughout south-central Wisconsin. Though Domestic Partner Benefits were not ultimately won in the 2007-2009 contract, the TAA was responsible in ensuring that the issue would be considered in the 2009-2011 budget.

In early 2010, in response to an effort by UW RecSports to substantially increase segregated fees for the construction of a new natatorium – called the NatUp! Campaign – the TAA responded by launching the No New Seg Fees campaign. The proposal threatened to raise the already onerous seg fees another 10 percent, further reducing grads’ take-home pay. The NatUp plan was to win the student referendum by only raising fees on students after the completion of construction – in other words, current undergraduates would vote on the question of future undergraduates’ fees. But graduate students last a little longer, and we knew that we would have to see our own fees increase, and we also thought it immoral and in violation of basic principles of solidarity to condemn future grads to a heavier burden. By waging an energetic, bottom-up campaign against an attempt to raise “backdoor” tuition rather than invest in students, the TAA successfully exposed the unethical tactics of the NatUp! Campaign (including using student fees for campaign purposes) and convinced the students to vote down the fee increases in the referendum.

Then, at the end of 2010, Republican Scott Walker won the election for governor of Wisconsin and both houses of the Wisconsin legislature flipped to Republican majorities. In a GMM at the end of the fall semester, the TAA discussed several possible scenarios. The worst case scenario, we decided, was that the new Republican administration would attempt to outlaw collective bargaining for public sector unions like the TAA, and make drastic cuts to public support for the university as well as other public services. We knew we would have to prepare beforehand in order to respond effectively to such an attempt. We resolved to put together a plan early the following year to defend public sector unions and public services in the state of Wisconsin.


Early in 2011, we planned a rally for Monday, February 14 — Valentine’s Day — in which TAA members and undergrad supporters would march to the State Capitol to deliver “I <3 UW” valentines to the governor’s office demanding that he maintain the university’s funding. The Friday before, on February 11, Governor Walker confirmed all of our worst fears — he introduced the so-called Budget Repair Bill, which would vastly restrict bargaining rights for public sector unions, introduce massive barriers to public sector union certification, and reduce benefits for public sector workers. The bill, indeed, all but outlawed public sector collective bargaining.

On February 14, having already planned an action, the TAA was the first to lead a march to the Capitol in response to Walker’s budget bill — now with a 1000-strong crowd of outraged students and community members. Labor unions throughout the state mobilized for massive rallies and to come testify to the Legislative Committee on Joint Finance against the bill. The TAA played a central role in signing up thousands of people to testify in opposition to the bill in committee, effectively stalling the bill from moving forward. After 17 continuous hours of hearings, the committee undemocratically ended citizen participation in order to push the bill to the Wisconsin Senate, and TAA members and other community members sat-in to block the entrances to the Senate chamber to prevent senators from entering. This pressure pushed the 14 Democratic senators to prevent voting on the bill by blocking quorum, and they left the state. For the next two and a half weeks, the Capitol building was continuously occupied in one of the most dramatic and inspiring labor actions in a generation.

The protests inside and outside the Capitol escalated, numbering up to 100,000 at their peak in the week after the initiation of the protests. Various job actions and work stoppages were taken — TAs held section and office hours at the Capitol, for example, but the largest and most remarkable action was probably the temporary closure of schools throughout the state as teachers called in sick en masse in what were called “sick-outs.”