By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Nov 05, 2011 at 5:34 AM

The Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association (MGAA) is a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and represents graduate student employees at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Graduate student employees work in many different areas across the university and their jobs fall into different classifications, teaching assistant, project assistant and research assistant.

Teaching assistants either work in conjunction with a faculty member, leading discussion groups for a larger lecture course for instance, or are what is known as the "instructor of record" of a course themselves, meaning they design and lead their own courses. Project assistants do just that, assist in projects, whether they be research-based, clerical or managerial.

Research assistants historically have not been classified within the "bargaining unit," in other words these employees have not been included in the union's membership and do not receive the same job protections as those who have been covered by MGAA contracts with the university.

Founded in 1969, the MGAA did not gain official recognition from the university until 1991, when graduate employees and the university began negotiating to meet these employees' demands.

Some of these demands included health insurance and tuition remission, which UWM graduate employees won in the late '90s after many years of negotiations with the state legislature and university administration. Other demands have been for phones and computers in offices, job descriptions that delimit the number of hours of work expected for the pay and domestic partner benefits.

"People don't seem to realize that graduate employees aren't paid very well. The time commitment to teaching is only partly recognized. When cuts are made and increased demands are placed on grad employees' time, teaching suffers," says Jacob Glicklich, a PhD candidate in the history department and one of two co-presidents of the MGAA.

The current round of "cuts and increased demands" are a result of Wisconsin's Act 10, which began as the "budget repair bill," and included the controversial provision stripping most labor unions of their collective bargaining rights.

"Walker and others talk about teachers as if they were scum, especially high school teachers, and this needs to be argued against, with a bullhorn sometimes. A lot of things have been clearly designed to undermine unions (in Act 10)," says Glicklich.

Among other items, Act 10 requires that state employees pay more for their health insurance.

"Because of how little we make, the mandated increase in health costs is effectively a 10 percent pay reduction," says Glicklich.

Glicklich started attending union meetings shortly after beginning his studies at UWM three years ago. "I attended a membership meeting early on and the person speaking made a convincing pitch about why being involved was important," he says.

Glicklich previously served on the steward's committee before being elected to vice president of membership.

Members of the MGAA and AFSCME, or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, helped begin the large protests this past spring in Madison, organizing bus trips from UWM that brought union members and Milwaukee community people to the capitol grounds and kept up the "situation room" shared with the TAA (UW-Madison's graduate employee union).

"Grad students are a pretty big voice in this area. We're not just researchers in cubicles," says Sagar Tolani, the other co-president of the MGAA. Tolani was first elected as the representative for graduate employees to AFT's state-wide board two years ago and then served as the MGAA's secretary before being elected co-president.

"Unions are something that runs in my blood. My grandpa was an organizer in India, my uncle was also involved. It's a bit different there, though. In India, you sit on the street until your demands are met," says Tolani.

Meghan McDonald is a Master's student in sociology and current treasurer of the MGAA.

"I approached the MGAA leadership at the first teaching assistant social event in fall 2010. I recognized that the benefits that drew me to choose UWM were both won with dedicated worker-volunteers and would also need volunteers to be sustained. I wanted to do my part now that I was in an employee union," says McDonald.

When asked about the current political situation and their workplace issues, Tolani, Glicklich and McDonald all believe that the challenges the MGAA faces now can only be met by making more connections with its membership base, which involves them doing a lot of membership drives.

"This work has become difficult and fragmented. We have to create gatherings just to draw people in to talk one-on-one," says Glicklich.

"But through one-on-one conversations, we're able to get at what really matters to graduate student employees and make sure they understand that as student-employees their concerns are unique and important. They deserve to be represented," says McDonald.

Lee Abbott was MGAA co-president from May 2009 to May 2011 and active on the union's executive committee since 2007 in other roles. Abbott believes the MGAA is seeing its highest levels of involvement since its drives in the 1990s for tuition remission, based on numbers of people attending rallies, appearing at weekly membership meetings and volunteering for committees.

Abbott agrees that the current challenges facing the union are re-signing members to "stay viable as an organization," in effect to stay organized even though Act 10 has taken away that right, but also to explain the current political situation in all its complexity.

"Connected to the challenge of making labor relevant beyond election cycles is returning to direct action as the way to empower workers," says Abbott, who played a role in organizing the Madison protests.

"We responded quickly to Walker's threats in December, mobilized people to educate other members, students and the rest of the community about Walker's agenda," says Abbott. "This also enabled us to create alliances with other community members over the issue of Walker's refusal to take the mass transit money."

Abbott says that the MGAA was in a grim situation in spring 2011. The MGAA was faced with the demobilization of its members at the end of the school year, both from the effects of Act 10 and because graduate workers often seek other employment to pay their bills during the summer. He says some MGAA members questioned the change of direction by the labor movement from protests and active mobilization to recall elections.

Abbott believes that a good step for the union would be to work with the Occupy movement.

"It's important to see how those events surrounding the Occupy movement are shaping conceptions of wealth among a broad spectrum of people in the country, and to connect the working conditions of graduate student employees and educators more broadly to these wider understandings of the nature of financialization," he says.

Tolani responds to the challenges facing the MGAA by focusing on UW-Milwaukee and UW system administration.

"We keep involved in the fight by making sure university administration knows we're still around, that they can't go around doing things without our involvement," says Tolani.

"Right now, our biggest challenge is the right to exist and perceived legitimacy. We have the right to exist, whether or not the state of Wisconsin makes it easy or difficult for us. For people who are new to unions or Wisconsin, it can be pretty confusing. In many ways, the university administration is still recognizing us as the voice of graduate employees. Maintaining that requires strong membership numbers and an active, diverse presence at meetings with the administration," says McDonald.

Glicklich sees the growing partnerships with community organizations, such as Milwaukee-based immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, as being a positive outcome of the response to Act 10 and other cuts more generally.

"At the bus drives, we saw a lot of people one wouldn't have expected to see out there – more and more people are joining protests and voicing opposition than have ever done so before," says Glicklich.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.