Deja Vu: The University of Wisconsin TA Strike of 1980…

The current friction in Wisconsin between the unions and the governer has a similar precedent. In 1980 the TA’s went on strike  over collective bargaining among other issues, during the last three months of my senior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was an educational experience – in many unpleasant ways: it strained friendships, created animosity between some professors and students; personally, it jeopardized my graduation and left me trying to navigate the complexities of a situation I was marginally equiped to handle as an immature 21 year old.

My tuition was paid up. As a senior I had no TA’s as instructors but they were friends and peers. Woe to those in Professor X’s philosophy lecture. He announced that any absence during the strike would result in an automatic Fail for the course. I never returned to the Women’s Studies class because the professor supported the strike and cancelled the rest of the semester awarding all of us automatic “B’s. I spent that time period in Memorial Union watching “All My Children.” What a waste. 

 The rest of my professors advised students to let their conscience guide their actions. Sadly, my solution was to race across campus head down – hoping I wouldn’t pass any TA friends – (or that they wouldn’t recognize me), and  then cut as quickly as possible through the picket lines, and the rows of trucks and teamsters that blocked the entrance to Vilas Hall. It was a miserable end to a wonderful three years.

I didn’t have the stomach to attend graduation – told my parents not to waste their time. My college career…just….ended…. after my final exam. I packed up and left campus without saying goodbye to anyone. The diploma came in the mail when I returned home to Chicago.

My first night in my childhood bed, I felt disoriented, disappointed, confused and adrift. I remembered how four years earlier, in that same bed, the night before leaving home, I couldn’t sleep — so filled with anticipation and hope about the possibilities.

 And the result of the strike? The TA union was busted by the university. It took me quite a while to recover from the experience, too – more so than I realized at the time.

This entry was posted in Welcome to My World and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Deja Vu: The University of Wisconsin TA Strike of 1980…

  1. Darwin Smith says:

    I hope we have started something here! For more than thirty years, I have been carrying my story and my frustrations around with no one to discuss them with. Living so far away sharply reduces the chances that I will meet anyone out here to vent with. Believe me, I tried talking to both academics and non-academics after I returned home. I only needed to get that entire mess out of my system, but their responses told me that some did not understand and that others did not have the capacity to understand.

    You are the first to express what I’ve felt for all of these 31 years, and that is why I went on so long with my verbage. You said something that helped me a lot when you wrote that, “…ultimately the university let us down.” For all these years, I have carried an extremely negative view of the TAs, RAs and unions in my gut. Yes they were inconsiderate, self-centered,and irresponsible toward their fellow students, However, the university was the one part of the equation that had the wherewithal to accomodate those students who, and here I am thinking mostly of non-Wisconsin resident students, those who had uprooted themselves and paid so much money to attend UW-Madison. They could have done that, yes, the university could have done that.

  2. jacullman says:

    Your story brought me back to the turmoil and disappointment I felt. We, and a lot of other students were caught in the crosshairs of a terrible situation – and ultimately the university let us down. I feel exactly as you do – I wanted to be a photographer, and wanted to continue my studies at the university with a noted instructor. I was so discouraged I just went home. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Darwin says:

    I was in my second semester as a grad student in philosophy when the strike occurred. I won a fellowship, quit my job as an aerospace engineer on the shuttle program(probably making as much, if not more than my teachers, certainly more than the striking TAs and RAs). Never-the-less, I gave it all up to pursue my passion, studying philosophy at the graduate level. So, my son and I packed up everything we owned rented a U-Haul, in California, and set out for Madison WI.

    We were assigned an apartment in Eagle Heights 507 and an office in Helen C White. The first semester was my adjustment period, and I was determined to allow myself no more than one semester to adjust. I adjusted.

    I spent the Xmas break in California. On returning to Madison I was much more relaxed and ready to go. I realized that I had developed a very good relationship with almost all of my professors, one in particular. This guy, I was told, thought very little of grad students especially first year students, but I will say no more about that except to say that he and I had the same interests, existentialism and phenomenology, and I was fortunate to have studied with someone at the undergraduate level who had prepared me well.

    I was cruising along in my second semester, working unbelievably hard, learninng a lot and loving every minute of it. In April, I believe, the bottom dropped out of everything I was working toward. We had been hearing rumbles about an impending strike, but I never gave it much thought.

    I grew up in Detroit and was quite familiar with unions and occassional strikes. However, no strike had ever impacted my life as did the TA and RA strike at University of Wisconsin Madison in 1980. In a very short time every thing that I was doing, wanted to, dreamed of doing was threatened. I could only attend one of my classes, and for that one, we had to meet at my advisors house. Because I could not attend classes on campus both my fellowship and my stay in Eagle Heights were threatened. I had to monitor my savings to insure that I had enough to get back to California if the strike lasted too long. It lasted too long. The strike lasted long enough for me to understand that were I to remain in Madison much longer I would have to find a job, and the only jobs there were minimum wage jobs. In 1980 I was 42 years old had quit a $25.00/hr job, and traveled over 2000 miles to study philosophy at what I was told was the best school for my interests.

    I decided that I was not going to compete with the other students for the minimum wage jobs, so the best thing for me to do was to return to California. I returned to California and to my engineering position with a sizable raise/bonus on June 2, 1980. Financially and career wise, I felt safe, but that experience taught me that safe is fine, but it is not the most satisfying feeling that one can have. Safe rarely translates into accomplishment. The strike in Madison occurred 31 years ago and I still long for what would have been had it not happened.

  4. jacullman says:

    It was pretty depressing.

  5. Jim says:

    What a sad ending to your college career.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.