reprinted from www.madison.com archives
They Urge Students To Skip Classes
By Aaron Nathans The Capital Times
Teaching assistants began their two-day strike this morning, bundling up as they formed picket lines in front of main buildings at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Teaching Assistants' Association voted by a wide margin Monday night to strike after receiving a contract offer from the state earlier in the day that they found unacceptable.
At 7:30 a.m. today, small groups began gathering on campus with signs bearing slogans like "TAA on fire with union solidarity," and "No love 4 scabs." The pickets encouraged students to stay away from classes to show support for their cause.
By 8 a.m., about 20 pickets were marching in front of Bascom Hall, with a few staked out in back of the building at a small parking lot for administrators.
And by 11 a.m., at least a dozen protesters marched in front of most major UW-Madison buildings, with members of a picket line on the Library Mall outside the entrance of the Humanities Building chanting, "What do we want? Health care! When do we want it? Now!" Few students crossed the picket line.
Meanwhile, a large banner at the base of Bascom Hill read, "No class today. Support the TAA."
Some professors held class outside this morning, and several students took pictures of the protests.
"We're putting our jobs on the line here," said Rebekah Ravenscoft-Scott, a sociology teaching assistant, noting that they are hired on a semester-by-semester basis.
Ravenscoft-Scott was one of 15 protesters who stood across the street in front of the Social Sciences Building, where a strike organizers' table was stationed in the shadow of the building's carillon tower.
Pickets also marched in front of Helen C. White Hall and stood on the bridge between Vilas Hall and the Humanities Building over University Avenue.
The teaching assistants are seeking to retain free health care, despite the state's efforts to require all employees to contribute toward their health care costs. The state's latest offer included a 4.6 percent pay increase, but the teaching assistants would be required to make a contribution toward their health care.
Teaching assistants insist it would cost less to give them free health care and lower raises. But Gov. Jim Doyle is being obstinate, they say.
"He said all state employees are going to pay a portion of their health insurance, and he's not going to back down, even though it costs less," said Kathy Rohde, a project assistant in learning support services who served as a strike captain this morning. "It's pretty chilly out here."
The two-day walkout is expected to be followed Thursday by a grade strike in which TAs would withhold their students' grades. The university, however, has assured students they will receive grades in a timely manner this semester.
This semester's teaching assistant strike is the first in 24 years. The TAA had to work without a contract in 1980 when the university refused to bargain, but in 1986, the union finally gained the power to bargain with the state through legislation, Ravenscroft-Scott said.
"The message is, we want a fair contract. There's been movement on the part of the state, but we're still looking for zero-cost health insurance. That's why we came here," Barbara Connolly, a teaching assistant in communication arts, said while standing in front of the Social Sciences Building.
It is illegal for public employees in Wisconsin to strike, but "I prefer to think of it as civil disobedience," Rohde said.
Provost Peter Spear said he arrived at work early this morning and could see the TAs marching outside his window at Bascom Hall.
"We're sorry that it came to that. I think we all were hopeful the union and the state could reach a negotiated agreement before this happened," Spear said.
Students should go to class, Spear said, although he added that many professors had moved their classes to remote locations so students would not have to cross the picket lines.
Some students, however, said they would not attend class at all.
"I think it's great. I think they really deserve the benefits they asked for," said Ruth Castel-Branco, a sophomore geography student. She said she would join the teaching assistants during a solidarity rally at noon in front of Bascom Hall.
Karen Timberlake, director of the Office of State Employment Relations, said of the strike this morning: "We would characterize this as an illegal job action, prohibited by their contract and by state law. We're disappointed they've chosen to take this step." She said it was unclear whether there would be consequences for the teaching assistants.
Although it is permissible to demonstrate, when TAs fail to show up in class "that is a work stoppage that is not permitted," Timberlake said.
"We did everything we could to meet all of their concerns. The reality of it is, this is a very difficult biennium. An organization like the TAA is going to find they aren't going to be able to get absolutely everything they want."
The state is willing to bargain again, although there is no more money left to offer the teaching assistants, Timberlake said. The two sides had mentioned next Tuesday as the next bargaining date, but that is unclear, she said.
"Once they get this out of their system, we hope there will be an opportunity to sit down and have more productive discussions," Timberlake said.
State Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, the chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee, called on Doyle to take "severe disciplinary actions" against teaching assistants who participate in the strike.
Nass added that the administration should fire any teaching assistants who withhold students' grades at the end of the semester.
"It is time for UW-Madison to join the real world," Nass said in a statement this morning. "If the teaching assistants withhold grades, then they must be fired."
Nass indicated that the state's financial situation requires that the teaching assistants - and all unions - now pay a portion of their health insurance costs.
"The refusal of teaching assistants to pay a small part of health insurance premiums is a direct slap in the face for every taxpayer in Wisconsin. The Legislature must approve all state contracts and there is little chance of their contract being approved without these employees paying something for health insurance," Nass said.
Strike at a Glance
At issue: The state is currently offering no pay raise for the first year of the contract and a 4.6 percent raise for the second year. But the real hot-button issue is the state's proposal that for the first time, teaching assistants would have to pay a monthly health insurance premium. That is something being asked of all other state employees as well.
The Teaching Assistants' Association is willing to take a lower raise in exchange for no health insurance premiums paid by their members.
The bargaining on the 2003-2005 contract began in June of 2003.
Walkout: The strike today and Wednesday means that many classes will be disrupted, but the TAA is not picketing all UW sites and has given faculty members a list of alternative sites for classes. The union says it will not block anyone who wants to go to class.
Grades: The TAA has threatened to withhold grades if the contract is not settled. Today's walkout does not mean that will happen. The union will make a separate decision on the grade action if the contract is still unsettled after the next few days. The university says it is making alternative arrangements to make sure all students get their grades on time.
Rallies: The TAA plans a rally at noon today on Bascom Hill, at 4:30 in front of Bascom Hall and then a late afternoon march to the Capitol on Wednesday as the two-day strike ends.
Web sites: UW -- www.news.wisc.edu/taa; TAA -- www.taa-madison.org.
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