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Univ. Wisconsin Graduate Assistants Walk Off Job

Univ. Wisconsin Graduate Assistants Walk Off Job

Strike Plan Calls For Withholding Grades

Nahal Toosi,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinal

Madison, Wisoconsin — For the first time in almost 25 years,
unionized graduate assistants at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison walked off their jobs Tuesday to
protest contract offers from the state.

The two-day walkout by the assistants — about 1,200
were asked to participate — is the first part of the
Teaching Assistants' Association's strike plan. The
assistants also plan to withhold students' grades when
the semester ends.The walkout — called illegal by state officials — had
an immediate impact on undergraduates who saw dozens of
classes canceled or moved beyond classroom buildings by
professors who didn't want to cross picket lines. UW-
Madison officials said they did not know exactly how
many sections were affected.

The TAA and the state are at a stalemate over health
insurance. They have bargained over the 2003-'05
biennial contract since September. The graduate
assistants do not want to contribute to their health
care premiums, but Gov. Jim Doyle's administration has
made it clear all state employees must help pay for
those benefits.

The state's latest offer includes no salary increase
for first year of the contract and an average 4.6%
increase the second year, according to Karen
Timberlake, director of the Office of State Employment

The offer also requires the assistants to contribute
about 3.5% toward their premiums in the first year. For
most of the assistants, that's $9 a month if they are
unmarried and $22.50 a month for those with families,
though in some cases, it could go up to $50 and $125 a
month, respectively, Timberlake said. She said it was
likely the figures would increase the second year.

According to Timberlake, graduate assistants on average
earn about $12,000 a year, though the TAA has said it's
typically less than $11,000. Graduate assistants, whose
wide range of responsibilities includes teaching
courses to supervising computer labs, also receive
tuition waivers to pursue their degrees.

Those picketing Tuesday fear that if they budge on
health care, they'll slip down a steep slope. "They
cannot promise us they won't cap it," said Cassie
Cleverly, 37, a TA.

More than 20 UW-Madison departments have announced
support for the assistants. The university's
administration, mainly a bystander in the process, has
expressed sympathy toward both sides.

Administrators are in some ways more worried about
grades being withheld than the walkout. Darrell
Bazzell, the UW-Madison vice chancellor for
administration, said it's unclear how many students
would be affected.

Some professors have full access to grades already and
could issue them on their own. But if the teaching
assistant in a class has the tests and other materials
needed to tabulate grades, things could get more
complicated. There's talk of issuing temporary grades,
though it's unclear what that would mean, he said.

TAA official Mike Quieto said the union would leave it
to individuals to issue grades in severe situations ±
such as if a student needed the grades to graduate.

Several undergraduate students said they sympathized
with the assistants, but some question what the strike
will accomplish. Final exams end on May 15, and
graduation is set for May 14-16.

"I have mixed feelings," said Tom Barnett, 21, a junior
from Thiensville. "I saw one of my old English TAs, and
I know he has a wife and a family. The other part is
that I almost feel like it's politics for politics'

State Rep. Steve Nass (R-Palmyra) condemned the TAA's
actions, even suggesting the governor fire graduate
assistants who withhold grades. State Sen. Tom Reynolds
(R-West Allis) expressed "great outrage" at the TAA and
said he might pursue legislation to limit or eliminate
the TAA's bargaining power.

Several state legislators have written Doyle in support
of the TAA, though, and U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin has
expressed support for the TAA keeping zero-premium
health insurance.

Wisconsin law forbids state employees from striking,
and Timberlake said she'd sent the TAA a letter Tuesday
warning them, but she declined to say whether the
assistants would face any legal consequences.

The picketing began at 7:30 a.m. and was concentrated
around Bascom Hall, the university's administrative
center, and buildings that house courses in the arts,
humanities and social sciences, where the bulk of the
striking graduate assistants work. The TAA bargains on
behalf of about 3,000 graduate assistants and has 1,900
official members. About 500 joined picket lines

The graduate assistants last went on strike in 1980,
and it was a far more acrimonious affair that lasted
several weeks.

The TAA is scheduled to meet again with state
negotiators on Tuesday. The assistants plan to march on
the state Capitol today.

[Jeff Nelson of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed
to this report.]