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Wisconsin Academics Get Expansive Bargaining Bill

After 40 long years of advocacy and a roller coaster ride of hopes raised, then dashed, academic employees in the University of Wisconsin system finally have the right to decide whether they will be represented by a union. On June 29, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed the 2009-2011 biennial budget, which includes a provision extending collective bargaining rights to more than 20,000 UW faculty, academic staff and research assistants.

The new right applies to 6,600 full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty and 13,100 academic staff-defined to include part-time and full-time lecturers, adjuncts, advisors, IT technicians and others. Another provision gives 3,200 research assistants the right to determine whether they want bargaining representation through the state's first card-check process. That option would allow research assistants at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee to be represented by the UW Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA) or the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association (MGAA) when 50 percent plus one of the research assistants in the unit have signed cards.

The UW academics are the only nonmanagement class of public employees who have lacked bargaining rights in the state. It has been a sore point on every campus, says state Rep. Cory Mason, who was co-sponsor of a motion supporting collective bargaining rights for UW faculty and staff that passed the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. "This is all about fairness," he says.

All of the system's faculty senates except UW-Madison's passed resolutions in support of faculty's right to decide on unionization. All of the system's academic staff senates passed supportive resolutions.

AFT-Wisconsin and its higher education affiliates have been building their political muscle over the years to achieve this outcome, says Bryan Kennedy, president of AFT-Wisconsin and a member of The Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals, one of the AFT's oldest nonbargaining locals representing faculty and academic staff at 13 UW campuses. The United Faculty and Academic Staff, the nonbargaining local at UW-Madison and UW-Extension's Madison campus, also has been active. "We've had the same legislation introduced in the three previous legislative cycles. Each time, we've had a chance to educate people and bring them around," Kennedy says.

Peter Rickman, co-president of the TAA, credits the political organizing legwork of his union's and MGAA's members.

"This is just tremendous," says Rickman. "It doubles the potential size of AFT-Wisconsin. It gives us the chance to make a quantum leap forward in terms of the strategic roles we play in organizing workers and in affecting things in the state."

June 30, 2009