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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Courtesy of Luke Eckenrod (WSB OC)

Graduate workers meet to organize for more pay, respect

UW-Madison graduate students held a Workers Strike Back meeting to debate and vote on demands, strategies and plans for moving forward with their campaign.

University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students and workers met Tuesday evening to lay out this year’s goals for graduate student labor organization Workers Strike Back amid its ongoing fight for a livable salary.

WSB describes itself as an “independent, rank-and-file campaign organizing against the bosses and their political servants.” WSB launched their Madison chapter in March 2023.

Graduate students “launched this campaign to capitalize on the very evident increase in the labor movement across the states,” WSB Organizing Committee (OC) member Calista Holt said. 

“We linked up with a bunch of us that were at that meeting [in March],” Holt said. “We realized that there’s this energy for struggle happening across campus, here with grad students, but also across the country.”  

OC member Robin Flowers-Morgenstern explained that WSB’s UW-Madison chapter is a caucus of the Teaching Assistant’s Association (TAA), the union for graduate students employed at the university. 

Flowers-Morgenstern outlined WSB’s commitment to pushing the TAA toward a serious campaign that will work with the National Labor Relations Board to create a positive impact on graduate students’ lives. 

Their demands include raising graduate assistants’ annual stipend to $50,000 from its current average of around $23,000. 

“We need to reframe the narrative,” Flowers-Morgenstern said. “It shouldn’t matter what the university thinks of our demands. What matters is that graduate students need to be making $50,000, and the school can afford to pay us.” 

While WSB encourages its members to become involved in the TAA, members also said they hope to increase the percentage of their dues that stay with the local TAA. The local union gets 20% of their dues money, while the remaining 80% goes to “parent unions” American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin and its national affiliate, according to Flowers-Morgenstern.

Under Act 10, a 2011 Wisconsin law that severely limited public employees’ ability to engage in organized labor, graduate workers are only able to be paid at a set rate. 

Neither TAA nor WSB have collectively bargained a contract regarding a stipend since Act 10 was passed, and the TAA has not been union certified since 2012. 

“The issue with Act 10 is that we as public employees can never make a raise. The amount that we can get paid can only increase with inflation,” said August Easton-Calabria, an OC member and graduate research assistant. “[It’s a law] specifically designed to impoverish public-sector workers [and break the power of the labor movement].” 

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To begin collective bargaining and to hold UW-Madison to a legal union contract, the TAA would need 51% of graduate students to vote to recertify the union. 

More than 5,000 graduate students need to be involved in order to reach the 51% needed to obtain a legal contract. Right now, only 5% of graduate students are members of the TAA and even less are active members, according to Flowers-Morgenstern. 

“This is what it will take to build a fighting union that can win our core demands,” Flowers-Morgenstern said. 

According to the event description on the WSB website, many graduate workers’ issues stem from the fact that universities like those in the UW System run similarly to a corporation, with business-oriented goals in mind.

“UW-Madison is sitting on billions, and instead of giving their workers a living wage, they invest into real estate, the stock market and new startups,” WSB states on their website. 

“To be subsisting on a [$33,000]-34,000 stipend, pre-tax, is virtually impossible,” said Holt, who lives on two salaries with her partner, but has witnessed friends having to resort to eating at food banks and struggling to make rent. 

Graduate students are currently fighting to finish their degrees. Easton-Calabria shared that they experienced moments where they felt like giving up because of a lack of funding. 

“There’s no alternative,” said Easton-Calabria. “We’re in a moment where grad student organizing is happening in really positive ways across the country, and it’s past time already.” 

Along with graduate students, some undergraduates attended the meeting, which the OC said is an important step toward victory. 

“Gaining support from undergrads and the general public will also be crucial to the success of our campaign,” said Flowers-Morgenstern. “When grad students are paid a living wage and respected as workers, we can provide a better education to undergrads.” 

Holt said it’s “obvious” that graduate students deserve to be paid more, something others in attendance agreed with.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about respect,” Chris Andolina, another WSB OC member, said as he concluded the meeting. “The money is what materially means a lot to us, as it should, but it’s the respect that we deserve from these institutions that we are really striving for.” 

If the campaign for a $50,000 stipend succeeds, WSB members shared that their dream for the future would be to change the game for public-sector workers in Wisconsin. They hope to bring recognition back to the public’s mind and revisit Act 10, stating that “students deserve better.” 

The WSB movement is still in its initial stages in Madison — but those who are involved have hope for the future. 

“This movement is a vehicle forward toward real material gains for grad students,” Easton-Calabria said. “Inflation has been skyrocketing in Madison, and it’s gotten a lot harder for me to pay rent.” 

“I’m really excited to see grad students stand up and fight back,” Easton-Calabria added. 

Editor's note: This article was changed at 2:50pm on 9/14 to correctly reflect that Luke Eckenrod is not a member of the TAA, as well as for consistency in pronoun usage. The sourcing of the event's description was also clarified.

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