by Jon Isaac
March 16, 1970: Teaching assistants and other graduate workers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison stood outside campus buildings chanting and holding signs, where just a week earlier they had been teaching classes. Some brought their dogs, others their children. Spirits were high. It was a graduate worker strike, the first of its kind anywhere.
Grad workers and their allies held the picket line over the course of the next four weeks. When the dust settled, grad workers at UW won historic rights: extended funding guarantees, a grievance procedure, workload and class-size limits, fair discipline and discharge provisions, a democratic evaluation process, and health insurance for Teaching Assistants (TAs), Project Assistants (PAs), and Research Assistants (RAs). But it took years of struggle amidst an ever-changing political terrain to strike and win.
The Teaching Assistants’ Association (presently chartered with AFT, though originally an independent labor union) is the oldest graduate workers’ union in the world, having hastily organized as a united front at the anti-Vietnam War draft sit-ins in May 1966 to demand that the university refuse cooperation with the Selective Service System. At the time, TAs were frustrated over their lack of control over curriculum and assessment, especially in a historical moment—the Vietnam War era—where a male student’s failing grade could mean the loss of student deferment status and result in forced draft into the army. With the backdrop of the Vietnam War and campus-based movements committed to ending imperialism abroad, graduate student workers took their first steps into the uncharted waters of organizing a labor union and demanding a contract.
Three years later, in April 1969, the TAA and the UW administration entered into a Structure Agreement, a binding document between the TAA and UW administration that gave the TAA the right to be the exclusive bargaining agent of TAs at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (at the time, Research Assistants were considered their own bargaining “unit” and did not fall under the purview of the TAA). Although the terms of the Agreement were concessionary on the part of the TAA, with bargaining limited to working conditions and excluding bargaining over wages and “fringe benefits” like healthcare, the TAA thus became the first independent labor organization of TAs in the US.
Being a graduate student can elicit emotions ranging from extreme self-doubt to profound gratitude (getting paid to read!). It can be alienating and isolating. It is where the myth of meritocracy is propelled onward, as tenured faculty (predominantly white and male) assert that they made it to the top of the academic pyramid by virtue of academic achievement, intellect, and merit alone.
And graduate school is where graduate students are told to go along to get along: Don’t speak up too much, lest you be unemployable on the academic job market; Don’t speak out against your abusive supervisor, lest you lose your funding; Don’t share your work or collaborate, lest someone else “steals” these ideas and publishes them.
When framed in this way, we might see graduate school as a training ground for capitalist culture: above all, what is prized is civility, obedience, and the individual. Marc Bousquet, in his book How the University Works, reminds us that “The uses to which the university has been put do benefit corporate shareholders. These include shouldering the cost of job training, generation of patentable intellectual property, provision of sports spectacle, vending goods and services to captive student markets, and conversion of student aid into a cheap or even free labor pool.”
A whole host of forces—mobilized resources, capital, ideas, struggles, and emotions, what Gramsci might term “hegemony”—collude to obscure the political implications of graduate school. From early on in our academic training, graduate students are ideologically trained, obscuring the political and economic realities of higher education. University administrators, in lockstep with mainstream media representations and inherited wisdom, ingrain into graduate workers that they are “apprentices,” or “primarily students,” or “academics-in-training.” Graduate employees are also routinely disciplined by the notion that graduate labor is privileged or only “temporarily exploited,” which locates the problem in individuals rather than institutions. Administrators never affirm graduate student employees’ claims to being “workers,” which might dispel the illusion about the relations of employment.
As such, to form a labor union under the collective label of graduate student workers—to assert that, as employees of the university, they are entitled to labor rights like collective bargaining and democratic control over their workplaces—is nothing less than a foundational challenge to the hegemonic ideas circulating about the true nature of graduate education.
Bargaining for the first graduate employee contract at UW began in May 1969. Graduate workers demanded a grievance procedure overseen by a Workers Grievance Council, employment appointments that lasted the duration of a student’s graduate program plus two years to account for the difficult academic job market process, a fair evaluations procedure, and a health care plan. More radically, the TAA also sought real decision-making power in what they called “educational planning”—course offerings and content, the selection of texts and teaching materials, and pedagogical techniques.
Negotiations proved to be tense and unproductive. After bargaining in the summer and fall of 1969 produced no headway, one Wisconsin American Federation of Teachers (AFT) observer came to the following conclusion: “Fellows, you guys are going to have to strike” (Van Ells). The TAA set a bargaining deadline of January 8, 1970 for UW administrators to reach an agreement. The deadline came and went, and the university remained unwilling to entertain the TAA’s demands. A war of words followed, and the union broke off negotiations.
Talks wouldn’t resume for two months, and the TAA continued to prepare for a strike, training its members in picketing and organizing picket captains. Union organizers circulated pamphlets, hung posters across campus, and utilized the student newspaper The Daily Cardinal to amplify their message. They held teach-ins and leaned on their department steward network to organize within buildings and departments.
When talks between the TAA and UW administrators finally resumed, the university made a number of concessions, including class sizes, student evaluations, length of appointments, and a health plan comparable to the one offered to faculty. One issue remained: control over educational planning. The TAA still insisted on redistributing the decision-making power over pedagogy and curriculum, while the University, with support of many faculty members, refused to concede any control. In the early hours of March 16, with no movement from the University on graduate worker control over curriculum, TAA members voted to strike.
TAA President Bob Muehlenkamp vowed to “shut the place down.” On the morning of March 16 from 3 AM on, grad workers formed picket lines at loading docks, construction sites, and classroom buildings. Teamsters in Madison honored picket lines by stopping campus bus services and deliveries. Undergraduate students established an Undergraduate Strike Center and joined the TAA on the picket lines. These infrastructural disruptions were instrumental in assisting the TAA’s work stoppages.
It would be incomplete to suggest that the TAA won over everyone to its militant tactics. AFSCME Local 171, the union representing campus maintenance and food service workers at UW, sided with the University, as did many undergraduate students, who cited the disruption of their classwork. Though the picket lines were strong, many TAs scabbed the strike.
“Many people,” writes Alyssa Battistoni of the difficulties in her graduate employee organizing campaign at Yale in 2016,
liked unions in the abstract, for other people, but had reservations about whether one made sense for us. We worked independently for the most part (getting paid to read!); we exercised control over our own work — or at least hoped to one day. Nearly all of us had grown up hearing about how bad teachers’ unions were for our own precious educations. Few of us came from union families; almost no one had belonged to a union before, and those who had sometimes cited bad experiences. Even among those who were nominally sympathetic, ‘I think unions are good, but . . .’ was a common refrain.
How could someone being “paid to read” claim injury as a worker at an institution of higher education? These ideas that academics lead a “life of the mind” and that labor organizing is antithetical to its mission serve the ends of university administration who use this as cover to shift instruction to low-wage contingent instructors and online instruction with few, if any, job benefits. John Coatesworth, a former TAA radical who has since become the establishment Provost at Columbia University, said in undermining Columbia’s graduate employee unionization efforts, “the relationship of graduate students to the faculty that instruct them must not be reduced to ordinary terms of employment.” These claims are pernicious and bankrupt, and they spell the continued decay of higher education as a place for actual intellect and learning, but they are also ubiquitous in campus organizing and must be combatted at every opportunity.
Support for the strike began to wane in the beginning of April of 1970. UW reduced TAs’ paychecks and undergraduates began to return to class. On April 9th, sensing the growing intolerance of the strike, TAA members voted 534 to 348 to end the strike and accept the latest university proposals.
The final proposal guaranteed three to four years of financial support, a health plan that covered dependents, a grievance procedure with binding arbitration, class size limits, and more. But they lost on educational planning; TAs had the opportunity to participate in planning courses, but faculty retained final control over curricular content. It was a victory, though a touch anti-climactic.
The origins of the TAA 50 years ago offers hope to academic workers in the age of the corporate university. It was through the hard work of organizing on the ground, of raising expectations, of believing in democratic rule that the TAA was able to change consciousness 50 years ago, and these issues remain true today. The number of administrators in the UW System increased between 2014 and 2017 while at the same time the number of faculty declined; shared governance has been hollowed out; and state funding has been catastrophically cut. These trends are going to continue, and we have to remember that no one will save us but ourselves.
Graduate labor organizing today faces an uphill battle, but it’s clear that the world around us is changing. Graduate labor unions have the opportunity to tap into the tide of support for striking public educators and other public and private sector workers as we advocate for our rights as workers in the academic labor system. Collective workplace actions have the potential to transform institutions much more than purely rhetorical actions. If the TAA is to stem the corporatization of the university, then we must do the hard work of organizing and compelling allies and supporters to act through publicity campaigns, one-on-one conversations, public demonstrations, and more. We must pair this work with a clear-eyed understanding of the tactics that universities will use against graduate workers, and see them as tactics that emerge from the neoliberal assault on public education.