Reeling In the Years

The history of the oldest graduate student union in the country teaches how to fuse bread-and-butter issues and social justice.
By Daniel Czitrom

At the end of a recent conversation comparing the arc of our work lives, my father, a retired steamfitter and lifelong radical, summarized the differences this way: “Everything I ever got on the job was won through collective action; everything you’ll ever get will be through individual achievement.” He expressed what sounded like a simple truth about class difference with a combination of wistfulness and pride, the mix of family emotions that accompanied my upward mobility. For years he has tried vicariously to unravel the mysteries of the academic job hunt, the long march to tenure, and the dialectics of promotion. Although I recall thinking it was a good line, his comment did not tell the whole story. But it made me think about my personal efforts to reconcile individual career and trade unionism and how these, in turn, connect with the fundamental political problem facing all teachers’ unions: how to resolve the contradictions that emerge amid competing claims for professionalism, material gain, and a more democratic and effective educational system.

From 1973 to 1976 I served as history department shop steward for the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin, the oldest such union in the country and the first to bargain collectively and obtain a contract. What follows is not a comprehensive account but a review of the TAA’s achievements with an eye toward which strategies and tactics might still prove fruitful for organizing today.

Looking Back on the TAA

When I arrived in Madison in 1971 to pursue a PhD in American history, the TAA already had a tumultuous history. Its political and economic successes had made it an important presence on the UW campus. It began in the spring of 1966 when several dozen TAs held a series of meetings to discuss campus antidraft protests. Many of these TAs were antiwar activists themselves, and they were especially concerned that, under the draft laws of the day, giving a failing grade to a male student was equivalent to sending him to Vietnam. In 1967, the TAA went on a four-day strike to protest police brutality against antiwar students who had sat-in to protest Dow Chemical recruitment on campus. In these years the TAA also joined with undergraduates in a variety of educational reform efforts and teaching innovations at UW, including participation in departmental curriculum committees.

The early political experience gained in the antiwar and student movements helped teaching assistants to organize into a labor union when, in early 1969, they found themselves under economic attack. The Wisconsin state legislature introduced a bill to rescind out-of-state tuition remission for all TAs. This would have cost most TAs about $450 more per semester, or one and a month’s salary for the highest paid TAs. Although still an ad hoc organization, the TAA took a strike vote and announced publicly that, in accordance with the vote, there would be a strike if the bill passed. The bill was withdrawn both because of the TAA threat and because the university administration worried that the bill might hurt recruitment of new graduate students.

The drive to create a labor union for TAs emerged during this battle. TAA leaders sent cards to all nineteen hundred TAs on the Madison campus, asking if they would agree to authorize the organization to serve as their exclusive bargaining agent. About eleven hundred TAs responded positively, motivated by a combination of three issues: the realization that, as university employees, TAs had to work collectively to improve their lot, help end the isolation and inequities between TAs of various departments, and create a new power bloc that could act as a force for democratizing the university as an institution. UW administrators at first rejected the demand for collective bargaining. But continued political agitation, the implied threat of a strike, and support from the state’s organized labor movement forced the administration to give in. It agreed to abide by the results of an election supervised by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, and in May 1969 the TAA won 77 percent of that vote. A majority of teaching assistants in fifty-two of eighty-one departments chose the TAA as their exclusive bargaining agent.

At the time, conditions under which TAs worked were quite arbitrary. Appointments were doled out one year or one semester at a time and renewals were often made for political reasons rather than on the basis of teaching ability. TAs were fired for political activity. Workloads and pay varied widely, and there was no grievance procedure or health plan.

To address these problems, the TAA defined eight basic demands in its bargaining with the administration. Six of these explicitly addressed economic and workplace issues:

  1. a grievance procedure that would include neutral arbitrators
  2. uniform workloads for TAs
  3. a guarantee of appointment for the duration of a TA’s graduate career, up to ten years
  4. fair procedures for discipline and discharge of TAs and a fair procedure for teaching evaluation
  5. an open file for all TA evaluations
  6. health insurance covering TAs and their families

Two other proposals grew from the TAA’s radical critique of the university, which connected the university’s internal hierarchical power relations to inequality in the larger society. Arguing that “much of the structure and content of University education reflects and perpetuates an inequitable society through forms of explicit and de facto discrimination,” the TAA proposed that the university and the union work to develop programs to end discrimination “through hiring, admission, and education policies.” Finally, the union put forth an “educational planning” proposal, calling for each department to bargain with its TAA affiliate to establish mechanisms by which undergraduates and their TAs could participate with faculty in planning and structuring courses in which TAs were involved.

The landmark strike of March 1970 came after eleven months of fruitless bargaining, during which administration negotiators constantly invoked a “management right” to run the university as they saw fit. Over two-thirds of the TAA membership voted to walk out. The strike lasted twenty-four days and revealed some of the key fault lines in university life. Undergraduate activists called a boycott of classes to support the TAA demands, both economic and educational, and class attendance in the College of Letters and Science dropped to about 25 percent of enrollment. Significantly, Madison Teamsters Local 695 lined up behind the TAA. Campus bus service stopped, and truck drivers delivering everything from liquid nitrogen to office supplies refused to cross TAA picket lines.

Buoyed by the support from students and organized labor, the TAA also faced enormous pressures to settle. UW faculty called on the administration to resist the educational planning proposal, viewing it as a threat to their own professional identity and sense of autonomy. At a special meeting called during the last week of the strike, faculty overwhelmingly reaffirmed their view that all educational issues were solely their prerogative. Only a handful of faculty members argued in favor of the TAA educational planning demand. The university threatened mass firings, and it secured a state court injunction declaring the strike illegal. Although the union voted to ignore the injunction, the court order had a chilling effect on more moderate members. Undergraduate support also weakened with the approaching end of the spring 1970 semester.

The contract that the membership voted to accept on April 8 included breakthrough gains: establishment of an impartial grievance procedure, a guarantee of four-year appointments for TAs, health insurance coverage, limits on the size of class sections (an average of nineteen students per section figured on a course-by-course basis), and fair procedures for discipline and discharge. The 1970 strike demonstrated the effectiveness of united action with other student and labor groups. And it established the TAA as an economic and political formation that combined traditional collective bargaining on behalf of its members with serious efforts to challenge the power structure of the university—and society.

A Broader Critique

It was precisely this commitment to joining traditional trade unionism to a broader, radical critique of higher education and society that attracted many of us to the TAA orbit. The TAA was an exciting, and sometimes maddening, site for serious political activity. This became clear to me at the very first TAA meeting I attended, in fall 1973, as a newly minted TA and newly elected shop steward for the history department affiliate. My main memory of that first meeting is the long, contentious, and ultimately satisfying discussion of a new health plan just going into effect. After a timid-looking university or insurance company bureaucrat (I cannot recall which) offered the basic outlines of the new plan, the floor opened up for questions. Members pressed the speaker politely but forcefully for specifics on coverage for abortion and gynecological services, pregnancy, and parental leave. I soon learned that most of these questions came from a very active reproductive rights caucus, empowered by the recent Roe v. Wade decision.

Every Sunday night I attended weekly stewards’ council meetings, where we served as a kind of union steering committee responsible for the everyday functioning of the TAA. The affiliate structure had been crucial for organizing the TAA and for ensuring democracy in union affairs. Although the membership also elected an executive board of officers, the powers vested in the stewards’ council reflected a deep distrust of autocratic leadership and a (sometimes naive) faith in decentralized power. Affiliates were the most effective site for drawing in new members, addressing specific concerns unique to individual departments, and, crucially, reproducing leadership.

Due to the revolving-door nature of the membership, union activists had to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on educating our TA colleagues. These efforts provided a foundation for the TAA’s unique internal political culture in at least two ways. First, the union developed a conscious, thoughtfully articulated, sometimes contested collective memory that we all felt responsible for keeping alive and passing on. One rarely heard a speech, wrote a pamphlet, signed up a new member, or debated a policy without invoking the union’s own history, especially its concrete gains. Those of us engaged in organizing work learned an invaluable lesson: you have to give people reasons to join and victories they can see. Second, the TAA also operated as an incubator for political activists. For many UW graduate students, the TAA served as an introduction not just to unionism but also to politics in the broadest sense and to the radical critique of American education and society in particular. An awful lot of people who got their political feet wet in the TAA—probably thousands over the years—took their experiences and analyses to schools, trade unions, women’s groups, and grassroots political formations all over the country and around the world.

TAA involvement with the larger labor movement was a central goal during the 1970s. In early 1974, after sustained, sometimes tiresome, debate, we voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (part of the AFL-CIO), and the TAA became Local 3220 of the AFT. Like many, I was able to swallow the idea of paying part of Albert Shanker’s salary on behalf of a greater good: AFT affiliation offered new strength in unity with the labor movement, as well as the possibility of helping to democratize that labor movement. In the years since, a number of TAA members have become leading figures in the Madison Federation of Labor, the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Others have become activists and staffers in Teamsters locals and teachers’ unions around the country.

Anyone who has ever worked under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement understands that contracts are only as effective as their enforcement. Internally, the TAA in the early and mid-1970s focused on consolidating our gains by aggressively running grievances, continual organizing among new TAs, and what seemed like endless bargaining sessions with university administrators for new contracts. With no paid staffers, TAA stewards and officers performed the bulk of this often technical and always time-consuming work on a volunteer basis. The university’s shrewd manipulation of our ambiguous legal status made the job that much more difficult. The 1969 “Structure Agreement” recognized the TAA as the legal bargaining agent for all TAs and established the framework for negotiating. When the university resisted union efforts to bargain for wages and bring unfair labor practice charges (legal rights for all other state employees), the TAA appealed to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. But the WERC refused to support the TAA on the grounds that TAs were “unclassified” state employees and not within their jurisdiction. This lack of a clear legal status always loomed over TAA bargaining strategy in the 1970s and early 1980s. Not until 1985 did the Wisconsin legislature pass a law guaranteeing TAs the same bargaining rights enjoyed by other state employees.

The defensive nature of our struggle, as well as the problematic gap between leadership and membership, became much clearer to me in 1975–76, when I served as a member of the TAA bargaining committee for the union’s fourth contract. Working with the more experienced TAA negotiators and going head to head with UW administrators gave me a valuable political education in the inner workings of the modern American university. We focused on four major issues that year: limits on class size, meaningful educational planning by TAs and students, a cost-of-living wage escalator, the right to arbitrate all grievances, and public access to university budget and instructional reports. But in each case we were responding to administration “take backs” or failures to abide by contract provisions. That fall the administration had unilaterally raised the class-size average from nineteen to twenty-one students per section, to be averaged departmentally rather than by course. Consequently, some courses were overloaded to twenty-five or more students per section. To resist the drift toward larger classes, we also proposed that undergraduates in a lecture course presently taught without small group discussion sections have the right to evaluate and determine whether discussion sections ought to be integrated into it. On wages, we looked to recover the nearly 20 percent drop in our real wages over the previous three years. But as always, the administration insisted it had no authority to bargain over salary. We reiterated our belief that any matter bearing on TAA-university relationships, whether explicitly covered in the contract or not, should be subject to the grievance procedure, including final arbitration by a neutral third party. Finally, since accurate economic and enrollment data were crucial to formulating our positions, we demanded access to university budget computer tapes at cost.

Our strategy that year reflected strains between union activists and large parts of the rank and file. We sometimes felt we were fighting a war on two fronts: with the administration and with our own members. A strike vote held in October 1975, designed to give the bargaining committee more leverage, failed. As negotiations dragged into the spring semester, the TAA adopted a new strategy—a plan for a two-day work stoppage in early April 1976, followed by a week of negotiations and a full-scale strike if UW remained intransigent. We conducted a quiet but extensive organizing campaign, and the combination work stoppage-strike vote passed. We began to make extensive preparations for the work stoppage: planning picketing sites, setting up picket squads, and designating captains; doing liaison work with other unions on and off campus; and getting our message out to the media. Undergraduates formed their own support group, Students for Quality Education, which attracted hundreds to our cause.

The afternoon before the work stoppage was to begin, the administration agreed to restore the old class-size limits—but only if no work stoppage occurred. This last-minute tactic created a big problem for the union: TAA leaders could now expect criticism no matter what decision we made. We decided to hold a rush general membership meeting to let the rank and file decide, and after hundreds of telephone calls, an overflow crowd of TAs met that night and voted by well over two-thirds to go ahead with the work stoppage. This was partly a protest against UW bargaining tactics and partly a reminder that wages, a strong grievance procedure, and educational quality remained important concerns to most TAs.

The two-day work stoppage itself went off very smoothly, and it helped politicize TAs and undergraduate students. Our picket lines kept many thousands of students (but few faculty members) out of classes. TAA leaflets, media coverage, and two large midday rallies in front of Memorial Library made our specific issues, as well as our larger critique of how the university operated, more public than ever. As one of several speakers who addressed these spirited demonstrations, I tried to emphasize how TAA contract demands were part of larger efforts being waged on behalf of improved education, a fairer shake for all UW employees, and a more open university. At first, the university responded to the work stoppage by refusing to bargain. TAs received various threats—some in writing from supervising professors, department chairs, and deans. The night before the scheduled strike, university negotiators made some concessions. Their last offer on class size was nineteen per section, but averaged by department rather than by course. This was a significant retreat from the 1970 contract because most departments had upper-level courses with small enrollments. At an intense, sometimes raucous, Sunday night membership meeting, TAs vigorously debated whether or not to proceed with the strike or to accept the final offer. Finally, at 1:30 a.m., the TAA accepted the university’s contract offer by a vote of 212 to 162.

At the time, many of us felt that the week’s delay before the strike gave the administration the opportunity to intimidate TAs effectively. But in retrospect, the close vote reflected real divisions within the union. Most of the officers, shop stewards, and other TAA activists felt the membership had sold out the leadership. Yet when most TAs faced the choice of risking their professional futures with what promised to be a long and nasty strike, they pulled back. Despite some demoralization and bitterness over the failure to strike for the old class-size language, the year’s activities revitalized the TAA. The next fall, several TAA affiliates sponsored union seminars to discuss effective teaching methods. The TAA strongly supported strikes by employees in the Memorial Union and workers responsible for vending machines on campus. The TAA’s Feminist Caucus organized a forum on problems facing women at UW. The union also won the majority of grievances filed under the contract, including several cases taken to arbitration.

In a yellowing copy of the April 13, 1976, Daily Cardinal, the UW student newspaper, I find myself quoted. “The TAA is now split down the middle in terms of what a union is and should do. Half of the members have a primary goal of improving quality education, but half are committed to becoming professionals and fitting into the system as it is now.” Thirty years later I recognize that I was describing a split within myself. I was lucky enough to survive the academic job crisis that has been more or less permanent since the 1970s. I left Madison in 1976 and, after several years of scuffling, I completed my doctorate in history in 1979. There followed a stint driving a taxi in New York City, a brief (though not brief enough) time at a Wall Street investment banking house, and a research job in public television. I landed on my feet in a tenure-track position at Mount Holyoke College, where I have taught American history since 1981.

In the late 1980s, I was among a group of Mount Holyoke faculty who revived a long-dormant chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Like many other AAUP chapters, ours does not engage in collective bargaining, nor is it ever likely to. And, to be sure, the structural differences between large state universities and small, private liberal arts colleges are enormous. Yet our success in revitalizing the AAUP owed a great deal to our balancing bread-and-butter faculty needs with the goals of high-quality education and making our college more socially responsible. We were able to get well over half the faculty to join the AAUP by insisting that improving our lot did not mean abandoning students or staff.

One of the dirty little secrets of the modern American university is no longer much of a secret: it cannot function without the exploitation of graduate student and other contingent labor. Recent AAUP data suggests that nearly two-thirds of all the classes at American colleges and universities are now taught by adjuncts, part-timers, and others with little or no chance to get on the tenure track. Over the last thirty years, graduate students, especially those in the humanities and the social sciences, have endured a steady erosion of the traditional apprenticeship model, making the prospects for a decent professional career with tenure more remote than ever. We can expect that model, rooted in a precapitalist and preindustrial world, to continue to come under attack from those forces determined to compel universities and colleges to live by the brute rules of market capitalism.

Unions alone, of course, cannot reverse these larger trends. But they do offer one important avenue for graduate students—and faculty—to improve their material situations and working conditions, to fight for a more democratic university, to pursue educational innovation, and to combat the isolation and alienation that can paralyze us. Now more than ever, teachers’ unions of all kinds have a special obligation to combine traditional bread-and-butter concerns with attention to the political and moral crises facing higher education and the larger society. That special obligation was the source of the TAA’s success, and it remains its most enduring legacy.


Another version of this essay was published in Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, ed. Cary Nelson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 216–28.

Special thanks to my old comrade and former TAA president Dexter Arnold for talking through TAA history with me and for making available a number of old TAA pamphlets and documents from his files. I have cobbled together parts of the TAA’s history from several published articles and TAA pamphlets. The most important of these are Andrew Hamilton, “Wisconsin: Teaching Assistants’ Strike Ends in Contract Signing,” Science, April 17, 1970, 345–49; Mark D. Van Ells, “More Than a Union: The Teaching Assistants Association and Its 1970 Strike against the University of Wisconsin,” Michigan Historical Review 25 (Spring 1999): 103–24; Steven Zorn, “Unions on Campus,” in Academic Supermarkets, ed. Philip Altbach et al. (San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 1971), 288–302; Handbook (Madison, WI: TAA, 1974); Shut It Down (Madison, WI: TAA, 1975); Strike and Work Stoppage (Madison, WI: TAA, 1976); and Early History of the TAA (Madison, WI: TAA, n.d.).

Daniel Czitrom is professor of history at Mount Holyoke College. His most recent book, co-authored with Bonnie Yochelson, is Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York. His e-mail address is [email protected].