U employment

by Kelly Hildebrandt

The teaching and research assistants’ employment rate decreased about 20 percent in the past five years, which union organizers say could be blunted by collective bargaining.
From 1993 to 1997, teaching assistant positions at the University have decreased 16 percent while the number of research assistants has decreased 27 percent. These statistics appeared in the Graduate Student Organizing Congress’ newsletter and were confirmed by Institutional Research and Reporting at the University.
Although other universities in the Big Ten have experienced a decrease, the University has experienced a much steeper decline.
Both the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan have collective bargaining units for their teaching assistants. Michigan rates declined less than 1 percent and Wisconsin experienced a 2 percent increase.
The decrease is not intentional, University officials said. Rather, it is a result of various factors, some of which are beyond their control.
“The University is not interested in decreasing the number of graduate students,” said George Green, associate dean of the Graduate School.
But GradSOC representatives believe a union could help deter decreasing rates. The state on Tuesday granted GradSOC permission to hold a union election, which will probably be held in April or May. To get collective bargaining, 50 percent plus one vote is needed.
“It is clear that unions do not cause jobs,” said Andrew Seligsohn, a GradSOC steering committee member. But a union could apply pressure to the University to try to increase employment rates, he said.
There are a number of reasons for the decrease. Green said the University’s tight budget, which the Graduate School has no control over, is one reason for the decrease.
The number of research assistants employed at the University is controlled partly by the number of external funds allocated to departments and partly by their success in competing for research funds, Green said.
Since graduate assistants are hired through departments, the number of graduate assistants is directly controlled by the departmental budgets, Green said.
However, the number of teaching assistants is determined by the undergraduate population.
Demand is related to employee level, Green said. If the number of discussion sections or lab sections — which graduate assistants often teach — increases, the number of graduate assistants will also increase.
Finally, the teaching and research assistant employment level is directly affected by the fringe rate, which was changed in 1994 when the Office of Management and Budget mandated that the University change its system. None of the other Big Ten schools changed their policies.
“We’ve been struggling to deal with the problems as they come along,” Green said.
The fringe rate is the amount taken out of departments to pay for graduate assistant benefits, including wages and tuition stipends. The fringe benefit rates now must be calculated against only the employment group receiving the benefits, rather than in a pool with all University employees, said Peter Zetterberg, director of Institutional Research and Reporting.
When the University changed its system, the fringe rate rose from about 3 percent to about 40 percent.
“That made the cost of hiring graduate students much higher than in the past,” Zetterberg said.
Lower graduate assistant rates also have a significant effect on the University, Seligsohn said. It keeps classes larger and decreases the integrity of undergraduate education.
GradSOC representatives say unions at other universities have kept graduate assistant employment level.
Kevin Wehr, co-president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants Association, said teaching positions are very much aligned with undergraduate expansion. A union helps to provide better wages and benefits for graduate assistants, which attracts higher quality graduate assistants to the university, Wehr said.
This in turn creates a stronger undergraduate education, which attracts more undergraduates to the university, ultimately increasing the number of teaching assistants needed to teach classes, Wehr said.
Michael Rothstein, Wisconsin’s contract administrator, said there is nothing in the union contract stipulating that a certain number of teaching assistants must be employed there.
The number of teaching assistants is affected by the budget and whether the department wants a faculty member or a teaching assistant to teach the class.
“A union can’t directly affect job employment,” Green said. “The structure of the University’s budget is not subject to negotiation.”