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Wisconsin university teaching assistants at forefront of Capitol protest

A pioneering union draws on its Vietnam War-era roots to fight a law limiting collective bargaining for public employees.

March 12, 2011|By Cynthia Dizikes and Abby Sewell, Tribune Newspapers
  • Protesters in Wisconsin demonstrate outside the Capitol Saturday in Madison.
Protesters in Wisconsin demonstrate outside the Capitol Saturday in Madison. (Scott Olson / Getty Images )

Reporting from Madison, Wis. — The protests that rocked Madison over the last month drew union members and students — but some key figures in the mobilizations were both.

Members of the Teaching Assistants' Assn. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison spearheaded the two-week occupation of the Capitol that began Feb. 15 — two days before Democratic senators fled the state to stall legislation limiting public employees' union rights. The students helped organize food and other supplies for the makeshift overnight campground in the rotunda.

"While a lot of unions brought people in volume, I don't know if anyone else brought them in as continually and consistently," Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan said.

The efforts were in keeping with the association's roots. The group was born of Vietnam War-era student activism. Some of its members are seasoned organizers. For others, the recent efforts have been a transformative experience.

Loren Eadie, 28, a teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in Italian literature, started going to the Capitol protests daily, skipping meals and workouts at the local pool. Grading papers and even her dissertation on Italian Renaissance philology fell by the wayside.

"Since this happened, my life has been out of control, basically," Eadie said. "Even on days when I said, 'I'm not going to the Capitol,' I end up there."

With its initial contract in 1970, the association became the nation's first graduate employee union. It was one of many firsts in Wisconsin's storied labor history.

Now, the teaching assistant union will also be one of the first to feel the effects of legislation, signed into law Friday by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, that rolls back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions, except police and firefighters. The union, with about 1,700 members, represents 3,000 university employees.

At the union's small and cluttered office at the University of Wisconsin, not far from the Capitol, a phone bank has rallied supporters for hearings and marches, or helped to circulate recall petitions against Senate Republicans. Even with the bill now law, the organizing continues.

"We are putting our disapproval into action," said Peter Rickman, 28, a law student.

He too spent days at the Capitol, surviving on pizza and coffee, once sleeping underneath a conference table, his Timbuk2 bag serving as a pillow. His supervisors at the university were sympathetic, but he dropped one class because of time spent on protest efforts. "We are going to fight back in a bigger and broader way," he said.

Not all students have been sympathetic to the TAs, as they are known.

Freshman Lauren Hoffman, 18, said she was annoyed when an assistant in her design course skipped class to protest. "When it comes down to it, teaching is their job and that's where they are supposed to be," said Hoffman.

The teaching assistants are among thousands of state employees whose contracts end Sunday. After that, the new law will restrict them to limited bargaining over wages. Members will no longer be required to pay dues.

The association is no longer unique. These days, it's fairly common for graduate employees at public universities to be unionized, at least in states where laws allow it, said Craig Smith, deputy director of the American Federation of Teachers' higher education division, with which the group is affiliated.

The Wisconsin group was initially viewed with some suspicion. In the late 1960s, when teaching assistants began organizing at the Madison campus — the "Berkeley of the Midwest" — "radicals" and "hard hats" often sat at different ends of the political spectrum, and public employees in general were regarded with some suspicion by unions in the private sector.

When an association member, David Newby, was elected president of the Madison Labor Council in 1982, some building trade locals threatened to pull out of the council rather than be represented by a member of such an "uppity" union, he said. Newby went on to become president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

Even now, association members sometimes come in for criticism as lefty romantics "playing union."

But the union gained credibility over the years as its members went on to become leaders in the mainstream labor movement. Founding President Bob Muehlenkamp later served as vice president of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees and director of organizing for the Teamsters.

Whether the recent protests will create future labor leaders remains to be seen, but they've clearly inspired some young people.

Samantha Vortherms, 25, a political science doctoral student and research assistant, is covered by the association contract but hadn't joined the union. She thought unions were useful but also in need of restructuring.

During the recent political turmoil, she became increasingly anxious. She makes about $11,000 for her work during the school year and holds a second job as an insurance biller to help make ends meet for herself and her husband, who is unemployed.

"I just started crying," she said. "Just because of the stress of it all as far as paying rent and paying for health insurance."

Vortherms found herself spending time at the Capitol, participating in a march and regularly checking her friends' Facebook pages for updates. She said she plans to join the union now.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

cdizikes@tribune.com

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