The Daily Cardinal - News
Issue: 4/29/04

Strike ends, questions begin

By Alex Balistreri

Media Credit: Matthew Kutz/The Daily Cardinal
Teaching assistants and students march up State Street to the state Capitol Wednesday evening.

Media Credit: Mun-Weng Cheong/The Daily Cardinal
UW police officers monitor teaching assistant strikers on the bridge between Bascom Hill and Humanities.

Approximately 700 booming voices and drums thundered through the state Capitol's sunlit halls Wednesday evening, signaling the end of a two-day strike by the Teaching Assistants' Association that virtually shut down much of campus. To the mixture of undergraduates, teaching assistants, project assistants and unionists assembled, there was little doubt the strike had been a robust success.

But doubts about the resolution of the TAA's demand for pay raises and free health-care premiums festered in the minds of contract negotiators on both sides.

Karen Timberlake, director of the Office of State and Employee Relations, which is negotiating the contract for the state, said the strike did nothing to change the state's position that TAs and PAs should pay for health care.

"We are at our bottom line on that issue," she said, though she suggested other elements of the contract, including proposed pay increases, would still be negotiable.

"If there are other ways that we can work together to reshape the package that's on the table to meet some of the TAA's needs more directly, then we'd be happy to look at trying to do that," Timberlake said.

For many TAs, however, the offer of paying for monthly health-care premiums would keep them striking as long as necessary. TA Ellen Hickman, for example, who picketed Humanities from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. both days, said she would never tire of the TAA's struggle.

The state's current proposal would not raise TA or PA pay until 2006, when both would receive a 4.6 percent increase. The TAA's major offer would keep health-care premiums free but lower the pay increase to 2.4 percent for TAs and 3.4 percent for PAs.

Renewed bargaining sessions have been set tentatively for next Tuesday, but time is quickly running out for the TAA and the OSER to reach a contract agreement. The last opportunity for the state Legislature to approve a contract is the second week of May, according to Timberlake. After that, the Legislature adjourns until January 2005.

Contracts between the state and the TAA last two years, and the TAA is currently operating under the 2001-'03 version. If no settlement is reached, both parties will continue to extend this contract, Timberlake said.

Some legislators, however, have expressed anger at the TAA for breaching its contract by striking, which is illegal for state employees.

"At a minimum, [the state] needs to enact some type of discipline on the people that have broken the law," said state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee. "If the teaching assistants, in particular, follow with their threat to withhold grades, [they] should be fired."

PA Erin Meyer-Blasing said TAs would only withhold grades if a settlement were not reached.

Timberlake also maintained these legislators' opinions had no bearing on contract negotiations, and said striking TAs would not be prosecuted under law.

Behind the negotiations stands Gov. Jim Doyle, who is widely criticized by TAs for pressuring the OSER into maintaining its no-budge position on the health care.

"Gov. Doyle has a big part to be played in this. He has directed the state bargaining committee not to move. He's holding a philosophical value rather than a practical idea," Meyer-Blasing said.

But Timberlake retorted that the OSER's position stems from a restructuring in how the state pays for health care. All state employees are required under the present budget to pay premiums.

Beyond contract negotiations, the state's most pressing concern is that TAs and PAs return to work as usual, considering the observation by many that campus became nearly devoid of students Tuesday and Wednesday.

"I think [the strike] is definitely successful," Hickman said. "Campus is empty-we've seen a lot less students here."

UW Police reported no incidents caused by TAs either day, but a group of 65 undergraduates not affiliated with the TAA caused a "disturbance" by marching inside the Peterson Office Building Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., according to the group's organizer and UW-Madison sophomore Ruth Castel-Branco.

The group, called "Concerned Students and Educators," left the building after police threatened arrest, Castel-Branco said. The group then attempted to form a picket line at Medical Sciences to prevent a UPS delivery truck from entering, she said.

"The police acted on behalf of the UPS management and allowed that they go through," Castel-Branco said. "You went from seeing 10 police officers to 20 with handcuffs, but nobody was arrested."

UW Police did not confirm the incidents.

Many TAs felt the strike was successful because of extensive support received from undergraduates.

"[Students] wished they didn't have to cross picket lines," said graduate student Steph Larsen, who led Wednesday's Capitol rally. "We touched a lot of people, and we're really, really happy."

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