Why not just call TAs “interns” and make them work for free?

14 03 2011

The Los Angeles Times, of all places, does a nice story on my old union, the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. There’s some nice grad union history in it, but I’m primarily interested in stories like this one:

Samantha Vortherms, 25, a political science doctoral student and research assistant, is covered by the association contract but hadn’t joined the union. She thought unions were useful but also in need of restructuring.

During the recent political turmoil, she became increasingly anxious. She makes about $11,000 for her work during the school year and holds a second job as an insurance biller to help make ends meet for herself and her husband, who is unemployed.

“I just started crying,” she said. “Just because of the stress of it all as far as paying rent and paying for health insurance.”

$11,000/school year would be enough to break the minimum wage laws if such things applied here. To be fair, Wisconsin teaching assistants also get an out of state tuition waiver (which was an absolute lifesaver for me), but that’s not exactly going to break the bank either. Ending collective bargaining for teaching assistants is something you do because you can, not because it’s necessary or because it will save Wisconsin one thin dime. There are too many opportunity costs for those attending graduate school already to make their meager rewards even more meager.

If people don’t have a path to survive graduate school economically, they won’t go. Yes, there are some advantages to that (although I prefer that people elect to forego graduate school voluntarily), but there are huge disadvantages for departments. Shrink your program, and the size of your TA pool shrinks too. Shrink your TA pool too much and you won’t be able to put on those cost efficient lectures with 400 students in them. When people figure out that they don’t learn anything in giant lecture classes, then they won’t come to your college.

Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that Wisconsin’s college dropout governor, Scott Walker, couldn’t care less.


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