from the Madison INSURGENT, March 2002
Wanda the Whistleblower:
SLAC and LTE fight for worker justice
By Mike Gonzales
Protesters at Ag Hall speak out against Limited Term Employee abuse by UW-Madison.
photo by Mike Gonzales
On a blistering cold after noon in early February, over 25 UW students and workers showed up at the office of Dean Dick Barrows, to protest the abuse and firing of Wanda Ashman, a former DARS encoder and Limited Term Employee (LTE) with the UW College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. According to Wisconsin law LTEs are supposed to be hired to fill a temporary positions of no more than 1,043 hours, or six months of full-time work. Ashman worked as a computer code writer and LTE in Ag Hall for over nine years before being fired.
The Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC), which organized the rally, claims Wanda was fired for "blowing the whistle" on her employers' abuse of the LTE classification, and argues that Dean Barrows should be prosecuted under the Wisconsin whistleblower law. Ashman's former coworkers may share this sentiment. As the protesters carried a list of demands written on poster board into the office, several office workers were visibly beaming, and one even suggested that the protesters leave the placard on Barrows' chair, which they did. At the time, Barrows was absent. He has since been unavailable for comment.
"Many of the worker actually looked happy to see us," said Sarah Turner of SLAC. "Overall our action was positive and invigorating not only for our members, but for employees as well, particularly Wanda."
The LTE classification is only supposed to be used by state and university managers who need to complete a specific task or amount of work that would be finite in duration. The LTE classification is not supposed to be used for work that is indefinite, year round, and ever present. But for years, and in the face of increasingly painful budget cuts (a result of the decreasing state funding of the University), university departments have been classifying permanent work as limited term and hiring permanent workers to be classified as LTEs.
LTEs are generally paid less than their "permanent" coworkers, have little or no health coverage, and are not guaranteed the right to unionize or collectively bargain with their employees. The fact that more and more positions are being classified as limited term has eroded the ability of local campus unions to adequately represent the permanent workforce. Bargaining power has also been hurt because of lowered density of membership within the University workforce. Many within the labor movement have therefore characterized the increased use of LTEs as union-busting on the part of university management.
According to those at the February rally, Ashman was let go from her position an Ag Hall both for her union activity (including her participation with the Student Labor Action Coalition), and her outspokeness about the mistreatment of LTEs on campus. Many LTEs are re- hired every few months under different classifications. For Wanda, the process was different. "I was an "in-training" LTE for 9 years and never got a raise until a couple months before I was terminated" she said. It wasn't until she spoke to SLAC member Sarah Turner, and was featured in an Isthmus article (June 22, 2001) exposing LTE abuse, that the administration at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided to do something about her situation. Despite the fact that she had performed and perfected her job for nine years, writing DARS code and designing programs to track student requirements, Wanda was worried than she would be fired for speaking up and getting involved in the SLAC campaign to end LTE abuse.
Soon after the Isthmus article was published, and after news of the inclusion of 50 new permanent positions in the state budget (due in large part to a successful lobbying campaign by SLAC), UW Administrators finally turned her job into a permanent position. But instead of being immediately hired to fill the new "permanent position," which would consist of the same work, Wanda was forced to undergo an extensive set of tests and interviews, most of which she claims had little or nothing to do with the actual work she did. At the end of the whole ordeal, she was passed Over for the position and a different person was hired.
"I'm worried that this sets or entrenches a precedent," Ashman says. "Dick Barrows got away with violating she whistleblower law, which is even posted on the UW-Madison web page as if it is something the UW upholds. He didn't even get a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, I lost my job for speaking up. And I'm 52, still don't have a permanent job, still don't have retirement and other benefits."
Ashman has since been hired by the general Dean of Letters & Sciences as an LTE DARS encoder for one year. "I was hired as a DARS expert, to help streamline the L&S DARS code, "says Ashman, "and who knows what happens after that."
SLAC is hopeful that their campaign around Wanda's case will spur on greater confidence for campus workers and LTEs. "We hope that others will unite with us to challenge workplace abuse and retaliation by employers," said Turner. "Our unity is our strength, and we must go public to uphold basic social rights for all workers, We demonstrated that we are ready to unite with workers wherever it is needed and to demonstrate that our unity can promote actions around the rights of workers."