The Last Page

The Last Page

Madison, Wisconsin, 1969: Late that spring, after the largest antiwar marches and the student strike that brought out the national guard, the graduate teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin made labor history. They voted in favor of union representation, creating the nation’s first teaching assistants union recognized by a university. The union—called the Teaching Assistants Association or TAA–signed its first contract in 1970.

In the Hollywood (or West European) version of this story Madison 1969 would have launched a heady period of unionization for teaching assistants (TAs) around the country. Instead came thirty years of dragged-out battles with relatively few victories. Of almost four hundred doctoral degree-granting institutions in the United States, fewer than twenty-five have recognized TA unions. Until last November, all were at public institutions.

Administrators in halls of ivy operate like all anti-union bosses in the market. They use the same threat tactics (“You’ll lose your fellowship”), dire predictions (“Unions will devastate the unique student-professor relationship and wreck American higher education”), and delaying maneuvers. They hire the same law firms expert in obstructing unionization. Meanwhile, they exploit low-paid TAs and part-time instructors to teach an ever larger proportion of the total course load.

The crusade to block TA unions started soon after the Wisconsin success. Rulings by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in favor of Adelphi University in 1972 and Stanford in 1974 squelched TA unions at private universities for a quarter-century. These rulings set the precedent: teaching assistants are students, not employees who can unionize.

Even the union at Wisconsin had serious trouble. The agreement between the TAA and the university had no legal standing. In 1980, after several strikes, the university simply tore up the agreement, and the teaching assistants were back at square one. It took six years to reestablish a union. This time, they affiliated with the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers and bargained as state employees under the State Employment Labor Relations Act. The University of California (where Berkeley TAs fought sixteen years for a union contract) and other state schools have set up similar systems.

Private universities have used the difference between state labor laws (which govern state schools) and the National Labor Relations Act (which governs the private sector) to prove that TA unions won’t work for them. Unlike state laws, they argue, the NLRA does not specify what are legitimate issues for collective bargaining. Therefore, TA unions could make demands that would undermine education quality. They could, for example, insist on multiple-choice exams, which take less time to grade. Yet the TAs claim they would agree to limit negotiations to standard workplace issues such as pay and insuranc...