The Background of the Teaching Assistants Union
On a particularly warm day in spring 2005, a small group of graduates from Western Michigan University gathered in the tenth floor of Sprau Tower. They had gathered for one purpose: to listen to the arguments for unionization. Many spoke about the conditions that graduate assistants had to endure at Western; they heard the rumors that the Graduate College would be disbanded under the Bailey administration, and they resolved to pursue their goal for the betterment of their fellow graduate employees. Perhaps if those people had known how much work would be needed to realize their dream they might have abandoned the idea. But idealists rarely think of such things.
However, it was idealism that sustained the movement over that summer since very few people remained in Kalamazoo or even active in the nascent union effort. Dan Kueh, a Biological Sciences graduate employee, recalls that summer as “Three of us trying to keep hope alive.” He is referring to himself and two other founding members of TAU, Al Barrese and Keith Russo. However, their tenacity started to reverberate with their colleagues the following autumn, when, backed by the American Federation of Teachers, they began to hold small meetings that grew and grew. Week after week, this small but dedicated group surveyed their coworkers and they found that many more people than they had previously thought had the same concerns about pay, health care, and working conditions. As word spread, the movement grew into a critical mass.
The really hard work came in January 2006 when the group decided that there was enough support among the graduate assistants to warrant a membership drive and a recognition vote for April. In the four weeks following, the “organization committee,” as they had dubbed themselves, went door to door to collect over four hundred membership cards, a feat that AFT-MI organizer Jon Curtiss called “absolutely amazing; I’m so proud of that group for all the work they put in.” On February 14th, the Teaching Assistants Union filed for recognition, a move one former committee member called “a Valentine’s Day present” for then-president Bailey. The organization committee campaigned for the next two months to turn out the vote, and ballots were cast on April 19th and 20th 2006 overwhelmingly in favor of recognition, the final tally being 194 to 14 pro-union. When the vote tally came in, the members of TAU partied half the night, singing pro-union anthems in their brand-new office in the Campus Pointe Plaza.
The elation of winning slowly turned to the sobering realization that a recognition vote was merely the beginning. Over the summer, TAU began drafting a constitution, a bargaining platform, and a plan to get their first contract. The constitution was ratified by a unanimous ballot at the general membership meeting on October 6th. The new Haenicke administration has since agreed to enter bargaining discussions beginning in November. When asked if he thought on that warm spring day a year-and-half ago that their goal would be achieved so soon, Keith Russo, an English graduate assistant who served as acting president of the union for over a year said, “We could only hope, but it was hope that sustained us.”
In November 2006 the union’s membership approved its first constitution, which called for the creation of the Steward’s Council and the election of official union leadership. In these elections David Zwart, a TA in the History Department, took the presidency along with Jason Trowbridge from Mathematics as Vice President, Jessica Lynam of Spanish as Treasurer, and Jamie McCandless, an associate member of the union from the Medieval Institute, as Information Officer. These individuals helped lead the union through the difficulties of fighting for a fair contract. Jason Trowbridge acting as Lead Negotiator led the Bargaining Team to a victory in reaching a contract which was approved by the membership in an official ballot vote. The contract, which was signed on May 15, 2007,has protected and extended the benefits of the union over the past years.