Special Update: Despite its seeming intention and language to the contrary, the post below has been classified as an "anti-union musing" by a member of the UW TAA union. Read at your own risk!
The graduate student union here has moved closer to holding a strike. Awhile back, they had the vote on whether they would vote to have a vote on the strike. This passed, so then maybe ten days ago they had the vote on whether to vote to strike. This also passed, and so now they are gathering petitions from students on their committment to strike if the strike vote passes, and then once they get enough signatures, they will have the actual vote to strike.
According to one student active in the union, if they strike, my graduate student class can/will still meet, just so long as I arrange for some location off campus. Fine with me; sounds like it might even be fun.
But anyway, one of the things that the union is doing to raise awareness of their case is to hand around these tables that compare the compensation given to teaching assistants here with the compensation provided by some other universities. Included are some examples where the Wisconsin TAs are not well compensated relative to TAs at universities where the cost of living is comparable and where the graduate students are not unionized. While the table does make plain the credibility of the union's current actions, it also raises a puzzle. At first I raised it facetiously, but now I'm really wondering about it.
Basically: The Wisconsin TAs have been unionized for quite a long time; the idea of unions is that they help to secure better job arrangements for employees; and yet, according to this table, the unionized TAs at Wisconsin presently receive less compensation relative to some seemingly comparable places without unionized TAs. How can the union have been improving the lot of graduate students all these years if the graduate students here have a relatively bad situation relative to non-unionized peer institutions?
Seriously, what's up? I can think of only 5 possibilities (in no particular order, and excluding combinations thereof):
1. The table, in one way or another, provides somehow a misleadingly low picture of the compensation provided to Wisconsin TAs relative to compensation at other universities. There could be benefits that should be included in the total amount of compensation that aren't, etc..
2. The union really has been, to date, almost completely ineffective--and perhaps even harmful--to advancing the economic interests of the students it represents.
3. The orientation toward TAs by the state of Wisconsin is, for whatever reason, so nasty that even though the current situation for the unionized TAs looks bad compared to other institutions, graduate students would be even further behind other schools if not for the union.
3b. Basically #3, but adding also that the orientation toward TAs by the state of Wisconsin has been so historically bad that this helps explain the early unionization of the TAs here to begin with. So, in other words, very bad past compensation of TAs caused unionization and is also associated with the still bad (but not as bad as it would be) compensation of TAs in the present.
4. The union has been effective in improving compensation and conditions for TAs here at Wisconsin, but the union has been even more effective in improving compensation and conditions for TAs at universities that wish to keep their graduate students from unionizing. See this anti-unionization webpage at Penn. Note also: at Indiana (where I got my Ph.D.), grad students who got excited about unionization were always reminded that sociology graduate students had it better than graduate students in other departments (which was true), and so unionization would only harm the sociology students. I never found that argument very credible, although it did seem to prevent any real momentum toward unionization within the sociology department. One year, when the threat of unionization did seem to be gaining ground on campus, over the issue of the truly awful health care plan we were given, the university did soon come up with a better plan, lending more credency to Possibility #4.
Is there some other possibility that I'm not thinking of? If not, which of these seems the most plausible?