Madison TA strike comes to uneasy end

After two days of striking, teaching assistants and program assistants are expected to head back into University of Wisconsin-Madison classrooms Thursday.

The assistants are part of the Teaching Assistant's Association union and were upset with the state over contract negotiations.

At UW-Madison, a public university, employees are technically state employees. The main issue of contention between the TAA and the state has been a new state requirement that all employees pay for health care coverage.

In the past, the approximately 3,000 TAA members did not have to pitch in for health care coverage. That all changed in the current contract offer, according to Jonathan Puthoff, a TA in the math, science and engineering department and publicity chair of the TAA.

"They're asking a majority of our members to take a pay cut," Puthoff said of the contract that would require payments for health care plans in the first year of the contract's duration, while pay increases would not go into effect until the second year.

Puthoff said the initial health care payments would be $9 for singles and $22.50 for families. During the second year of the contract, Puthoff said, heath care payments would increase 20 percent on average, while the pay raises would average 4.6 percent.

The state is implementing the new employee plan because it doesn't have any more money, said Karen Timberlake, director of the office of state employee relations.

"We don't have any flexibility on heath insurance," she said.

Timberlake said changes in the way the state buys health insurance led to the decision to require every state employee to pay something for heath insurance.

Further, she said, no state employees whose contracts were negotiated recently received wage increases in the first year of their contracts. She said that if TAA members "sit down and do the math" they would find most employees "come out ahead."

Paying for heath care, Puthoff said, may adversely affect the number of TAs willing to come to Madison.

Free "heath care is the only benefit beside tuition remission" the TAA had to offer, he said. The current contract process goes back months, he said. In March, the TAA met to discuss whether or not they would go on strike if the state did not back away from requiring the health care payment.

In April, when prospects of getting what they wanted looked grim, the TAA organized for 10 days, getting together ballots and passing them out to members, asking if the organization should strike.

Nearly three-fourths of the members — 71 percent — voted to go on strike, Puthoff said. The strike took place Tuesday and Wednesday and TAs and PAs did not attend class. Instead, they formed picket lines "strictly (around) buildings that have classrooms in them," Puthoff said.

Neither Puthoff nor university spokesman John Lucas knew the exact number of classes canceled because of the strike.

Third-year student Jeff Govier, a chemical engineering major, said one of his classes was cancelled.

"The professor didn't want students to have to cross the picket lines and was sympathetic to the TAs' cause," Govier said.

Jessica Johnson, a freshman biology major, said a TA cancelled her Spanish class. However, Johnson said the TA assigned work to make up the missed class.

According to the university's Web site, UW-Madison officials advocated assigning make-up work to professors and TAs planning to cancel classes.

The university has walked a thin line when it comes to supporting or condemning the strike.

"The university wants to see a fair economic package" for the TAA, but the university's responsibility to students "can't be compromised," Lucas said. The TAA also plans, as part of the strike, to withhold grades from professors and the university.

Wisconsin state statute bars state employees from striking, so the TAA could face potential legal problems.

"At this point, the most important thing is providing services to tuition paying students," Timberlake said. She said the Office of State Employee Relations will work with the university to determine the impact of the strike and base any further action off that.