Forward.

This weekend I returned from two weeks of dissertation research in Mississippi. It’s wonderful to be home, but I can’t help wishing I didn’t have so much expensive air travel already scheduled this spring, as the place I really wanted to be flying on Saturday was not Bradley International, but Dane County Regional Airport. History of Science Department grad student emails, TAA updates, and text messages from Abby have been welcome additions to my daily intake of the Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Isthmus, and Wisconsin Public Radio, but I know that, simply by being elsewhere, I am missing in a fundamental way something that will mark our UW experience indelibly.
Notes from afar…
Though I am not in Madison right now, the events unfolding there are deeply important to me as a member of the UW-Madison community. As I cannot speak directly to conditions apart from those I know personally, I will restrict my comments to why people at the UW—graduate students in particular—are very concerned about what is going on in our state. Governor Walker’s proposal to curtail collective bargaining among public employees means that, in the future, people like me will not attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. Let me explain: the budget bill currently under consideration in the Wisconsin Legislature would restrict state employees’ ability to negotiate as a body for anything other than salary increases, which would themselves be limited to the Consumer Price Index. But if it were salaries and contributions to pensions and health care that were really at issue here, do you think that people would be turning out to protest this bill in the tens of thousands? No: the uproar in Wisconsin is about Walker’s attempts to make it impossible for public employees to continue to have the good benefits that they currently have and deserve. Like decent health care and dental coverage. And, for UW graduate assistants like myself and my colleagues, tuition remission: which is to say that, when you are serving as a Teaching Assistant or Project Assistant, you get something approaching a living wage— and what makes it “living” is that you don’t have to pay your tuition out of that small salary. Tuition remission means that, as long as you are working for the university as a TA or PA, you can make ends meet and not dig yourself deeply into debt.
The bill before the Legislature right now would put these benefits at risk, not because it takes them away right now, but because it takes away the table at which to continue to bargain for them. And make no mistake, all of those benefits I mentioned above—health care, dental coverage, tuition remission—are benefits we have because they were won for us by our union, the TAA, through the process of collective bargaining. And, what is more, the bill would do away not only with the bargaining table (turning it instead into a bank-teller window we might occasionally have the temerity to hold up), it would threaten the existence of the entities that might sit down at that table in the first place. Okay, maybe you buy the idea that unions should be continually voted on, year after year, to even exist—but if we say that, I’d put forth the notion that perhaps corporations, or, hey, state government should poll their members each year to remain in existence.
When I came to graduate school, I didn’t feel one way or the other about my union. I never resented paying dues, but I wasn’t particularly involved either. But I can tell you now that I have never been so glad to know that there is an organization backing me and my fellow students, advocating for us, and taking a lead in the charge to stymie this bill.
Lest you buy into the idea that graduate students—quite prominent in the culture today—are a bunch of freeloaders living off of trust funds and wasting their time to avoid entering the real world, let me disabuse you of this notion. At Wisconsin, my colleagues work jobs to make ends meet. In Madison, we can live well on not too terribly much money, which helps. But we work, and we do our work, and we teach—sometimes all at the same time—and, as anyone who has taught 80 students a semester for around a thousand dollars a month knows, this is hard work. I know it is a fashion right now to blame teachers for all the problems in society (and more about that, perhaps, later), but if the wider public had a sense of how extremely hard I and my fellow graduate students work to fulfill not only our academic obligations as students in our own right, but our obligations as teachers of undergraduates, which often take up the bulk of our time, I think there would be less of this negative sentiment toward the academy in general.
The bottom line: If it were not for the benefits available to me as a graduate employee—and which were won for me by my union, the TAA— I would not be getting a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. I would have had to quit graduate school years ago, because I would not have been able to afford to feed, clothe, and house myself without racking up debt. As someone who already has student loans to pay off from my college years, I decided before coming to graduate school that I would leave my program before I would take on additional debt. Because of the salary and benefits that have been available to me as a graduate assistant at the UW, I have been able to stay in school and work toward my Ph.D. And I am not as dependent upon TA salaries as most graduate students at the University. My case is unusual, in that I have been able to secure for myself generous outside funding via a National Science Foundation fellowship. But this has not by any means made me immune to the funding rollercoaster that is graduate student life— it has only insulated me from it somewhat. I still would have been forced to leave the UW a long time ago if it weren’t for the benefits I have received as an employee of the great state of Wisconsin.
At stake here are the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of intelligent, hardworking, dedicated people who keep the University functioning, who teach Wisconsin’s young people, who contribute to the economy of Madison and the state, who are from Wisconsin and from elsewhere, and who are a vital part of what makes the Badger State a great place to live and work and settle and raise a family. I am not from Wisconsin, but I love Wisconsin just the same. I never thought I would live here, but I came for graduate school and, if I had my druthers, I might never leave. I would gladly buy a house in Wisconsin, spend my life there. If the uncertain economy did not make it almost impossible for me to do so, that is. Which brings up the issue of jobs, which this bill is most assuredly not about. (I won’t even get into the important connection between the UW system and the state’s economy, which is also clearly at risk here.)
…up close.
The best way to get a sense of what is actually happening in Madison right now, and what has been going on in the Legislature in particular, is by watching some of the video at Wisconsin Eye, which broadcasts unedited footage of proceedings at the State Capitol. Friday’s Assembly Session is particularly amazing. (Be sure to make note of the timestamp.) Knowing that we still live in a time where our elected representatives are willing to be openly emotional, to be publicly moved, about their shared responsibilities and about the democratic process, should give heart to anyone, regardless of how they feel over the particular issue of Walker’s bill.
The importance of being organized.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank all of the members of the TAA, especially its leaders, who have really led the charge with this, for the amazing work they have been doing around the clock for more than a week now. I would like to thank my colleagues—faculty and grad students—in the History of Science Department and elsewhere in the University, who have, via email, fostered an atmosphere of open discussion, frankness, dialogue, and democratic engagement that has made all points of view welcome and that has maintained a high concern for the welfare of and our responsibilities to our undergraduate students. I am always proud to be a part of the great community that exists in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Wisconsin, but I have been even prouder in the past week and change, as individuals and groups have stepped up to the plate to maintain channels of communication, to advocate and be passionate without shutting down discussion, and to have open conversations about our roles and responsibilities in a democratic society and in an educational community. It has been breathtaking to behold from a distance, and I can only imagine what it is like to be there in person.
Thank you, thank you. I am moved beyond words. Keep on being amazing.
Looking back, looking forward.
And just in case we have forgotten why organized labor is important in this country, next month will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which killed nearly 150 people in under 20 minutes. As I noted with pleasure this morning, the name of one of the Yiddish-language newspapers in New York that was critical in one researcher’s efforts to identify the last six unknown dead from that tragedy, translates in English to “Forward”—a great Progressive-Era mantra and the motto of the state of Wisconsin. It is good to remember where we have been, and where we are going.
Doors opening out, people moving forward. Let’s keep it that way.

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One thought on “Forward.

  1. Hear, hear! I sincerely hope Wisconsin represents a wake up call to all benefit-cutting, social-contract-breaking, tax-breaks-for-millionaires Repulicans in state and federal govt

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