Don’t let UW drop our TAs

June 7, 2016

Steve Leigh reports on the University of Washington administration's plans to eliminate vital teaching assistant positions--and efforts by campus activists to stop them.

THE UNIVERSITY of Washington (UW) is facing another budget crisis. This time, the College of Arts and Sciences will have a $14 million shortfall starting next fall. The College has decided to deal with this shortfall by cutting Teaching Assistant (TA) positions–-especially in History, Philosophy, Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology. In some departments, as many as half the TAs would be cut.

But TAs and other graduate workers and students are resisting. On June 2, more than 100 people marched for several hours through campus and confronted university officials to demand full funding of TA positions. The rally was sponsored by Academic Workers for a Democratic University, United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 4121--the union for TAs and Research Assistants--and several student groups.

The UW budget crisis is another example of what Chicago teachers say about their public school system: it's "broke on purpose." The cuts are due to the university's adoption of "activity-based budgeting," which gives more funding to courses with higher enrollments.

Academic workers at UW rally along with their supporters
Academic workers at UW rally along with their supporters (UW Academic Workers for a Democratic University)

But TA's reporting on their own class loads should cast doubt on the administration's figures. TA Andre Stephens reported having a "section" of over 100 students even before the cuts took place. Stephens added that many graduate students had chosen UW on the promise of having TA or Research Assistant funding, "And now you tell us to just go home," he said.

When a similar crisis took place in 2009 during the Great Recession, the UW administration found the money to keep the TAs funded. Now, however, Dean of the College Robert Stacey claims those funds are exhausted.

The UW is a multibillion-dollar enterprise. It has an endowment of over $2 billion and pays over 1,700 officials $150,000 or more a year! Dean Stacey's salary of over $300,000 alone could pay the salaries of more than eight TAs.

Activity-based budgeting is another example of neoliberalism applied to higher education. It pushes funding towards disciplines in the hard sciences and technology favored by private industry and cuts from humanities and social sciences. All the while, tuition continues to skyrocket--by as much as 14 percent in one year.

THE EFFECT of the cuts in TAs would be devastating to both graduate and undergrad students. "We have families," said another TA at the rally. "We have to scramble for health insurance, loans and money to support our kids. We are not numbers. We are people."

"We provide the majority of the teaching hours," she added. "The UW doesn't work without us!"

An undergrad student talked about how TAs can expand student horizons. "I came here to study science," the student said. "After taking classes with good TAs, I'm now a Labor Studies major!"

The administration hasn't explained how it will provide the teaching now done by the soon-to-be-eliminated TAs. Several of the students speculated that it would cut sections, forcing students into larger and less effective lecture classes.

At the rally, faculty members stressed the importance of TAs for education and research. "A disproportionate percentage of our best teachers are TAs," said a Terry Matthews of Faculty Forward, which is organizing a faculty union at UW. "How can we be a 'world class' university if we can't support our future researchers? "

One reason many professors are looking to unionize is that they, too, are under attack. With fewer TAs, faculty would carry more of the workload as well--and one speaker noted that the College of Arts and Sciences was planning to cut 31 tenured positions.

Other university workers were also on hand to support the TAs. Paula Lukaszek, president of Local 1488 of the Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents campus janitors, groundskeepers, and food service and building trades workers, heartily supported the fight.

"The UW is supposed to be about giving you an education," she said, addressing students. "How can you get an education with no one to teach you? They promised you a quality education. Now we have to tell them, 'Deliver it!'"

She went on to make the analogy to other cuts the UW administration is making. "You can't do more with less," she said. "They have cut janitorial positions and tell us we just have to get by with dirtier and less safe buildings."

Andre echoed this sentiment, saying that "it's always the front line workers that face cuts---not the high paid administrators."

The rally was well-organized and energetic. After picketing and speaking out in an open area of the campus, students marched on the Dean's Office of the College of Arts and Sciences. The students let the Dean give his version of the situation but countered him point for point and then presented him with a petition with over 1,300 names supporting their demands.

Garrett Strain of Academic Workers for a Democratic University summarized the student position that defunding the TA s is not an economic necessity but a "political choice." After confronting the dean, they marched to the president's office and took it over for a while.

The UAW has issued a "demand to bargain" over the cuts. If the university doesn't reply, UW students and workers are vowing to continue the struggle. As one of the chants at the rally put it: "Come up with the money soon--or we'll be picketing until next June!"

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