brave, cute, or self-destructive?

After all their hard work last year to call the world’s attention to how evil Scott Walker is, Madison’s teaching assistants have declined to support Scott Walker’s opponent in the recall election. They don’t like the person nominated to run against him. Awhile back, in the primary, they also declined to support the person the other unions were endorsing who lost to this guy they are now declining to support.

Example response from a soon-to-be-celebrating pro-Walker Wisconsin blogger that highlights sociology here.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

21 thoughts on “brave, cute, or self-destructive?”

  1. Yeah, it’s a mess. The two sociology grads who are the outgoing chairs of the TAA split on issue of the primary endorsement, and a lot of the sociology grads are working their tails off in the recall election despite the conflict over the present endorsement. So the only thing to note is that one sociology grad does not speak for all sociology grads, not to mention the whole TAA.


  2. A bit more comment. We sociologists pay more attention to sociologists, and the teaching assistants were at the core of the “indoor” capitol occupation, but the “outdoor” protests involving tens of thousands of people were not led by the teaching assistants. Most of the protesters are supporting the recall. I was at a non-campus meeting a few days before the primary, where everyone else said “I like Falk [the “union” candidate] but I’m voting for Barrett because I don’t think Falk can beat Walker.”

    I do think that teaching assistants and graduate students more generally are always in a different structural position because they will need to move on in a few years and thus have relatively short time horizons in their politics, while people who know they will be in a place for the next 20 or 30 years weight priorities differently.

    But realistically, pro-Walker people would spin a TAA endorsement of Barrett just as negatively as a non-endorsement. I really think that is a wash politically.


  3. Empirically, do the people most heavily involved in the TAA move on? A test: I only remember the names of a couple of the non-sociology people who were very high profile in the TAA when I was there. Let’s Google! Ben Manski, where is he now? Ah, still in Madison, is/was running for state office. Ok, how about Mike Quieto, where is he? Ah, still in Madison, running for state office.


    1. The votes to not endorse were not made by leaders but by the masses. The leaders were split. I think your perception is skewed. I personally know former shop stewards who are now in academic jobs, and the TAA leader I’m currently working most closely with is a pretty serious academic. There are certainly TAA activists whose main goal is political or a career in union organizing, but there are a lot of people who view it the way we view committee work, as something important that needs to be done by someone.


      1. I don’t want to come across as overly negative, or, for that matter, overly knowledgeable about the TAA, then or now. It did seem like absorbed an enormous amount of graduate student energy, especially from sociology.

        When I was there, there were strange perversions in the system, and I have no idea if they still exist. Like, an advanced graduate student could be hired to teach a class, have a less-advanced student as TA, and the TA would actually get paid more than the student teaching the course. (And, I think, the lecturer and TA could even possibly be from the same cohort, depending on whether they were ABD.) So it was never entirely clear to me whether the TAA was actually getting more money for students or was just shifting money from older to younger students.

        I presume the TAA has good records and it has existed long enough for there to be a long time-series of people who were in officer positions in it. Would be an interesting event-history-model project to see whether TAA involvement delays completion of graduate school.


    2. I’m with OW here. I was a steward for the sociology department! I ran a committee of the TAA. The head of our bargaining team now teaches at Michigan. Lots of us who were heavily involved in the union ended up in academic positions. But to intimate that because you stayed in Madison means that you are a failure (loser?) because you can’t move on is really unfair as well. Some people leave academia not because they’re not good, but because they don’t like it. Occasionally those people seem pretty darn wise to me.

      On the sociology side of this, a lot of us were really frustrated with the TAA when it voted to strike (in 2002 or 3, I think). In fact, a big chunk of the department was totally against the strike. We lost (math led the charge). In my experience there was a lot of involvement of sociology in the TAA (disproportionate), but it’s a democratic organization. And even though we were more involved, it didn’t mean we always got our way. The decision of the union and the position of the department’s grad students could be very different in this instance (as it was with the strike).


      1. I know sociology grads/TAA members who were on both/all sides of the political argument. There were actually three sides (roughly), which is what is producing the seeming-inconsistency Jeremy led with. The lefty radicals and some others from different stances didn’t want to endorse anybody. The strong unionists wanted to endorse Falk because of her pledge. The “getting rid of Walker is the most important thing” faction were worried about electability and concerned that Falk’s stance would lose the election; they would not endorse Falk but would endorse Barrett.


      2. See above for response. No judgment of people staying in Madison, but OW was arguing that grad students have shorter time horizons for Madison politics, and that view wouldn’t be consistent with a scenario where a fair number of union leaders actually end up staying in Madison.

        The TAA walkout was in 2004. In a burst of procrastinative nostalgia, I’m reading e-mails from it now. I taught Soc 750 from a church basement near the library.


  4. The threads are tangled, so let me do “perversions” here. The low pay for lecturers had nothing to do with the TAA. It was caused by the university’s unilateral decision to cut lecturer pay by cutting appointment levels. Lecturers were never part of the union. This unilateral decision also took health insurance away from lecturers. But we needed the classes taught and grad students benefit from having solo teaching experience on their c.v.s so we started rotating advanced grads back and forth between TA slots and lecturer slots because the union contract gave TAs insurance for a semester after they worked. In short, the egregious perversities were caused by university policies and administrator decisions to exploit lecturers, coupled with the department’s desire to try to push back against those policies and treat people decently, not by the union.


    1. Sure, point taken. I guess the broader thing that I could never figure out was the relationship between unionization and the actual livelihood of graduate students over their career. Comparisons either to the place I was before Madison or the place I went after Madison don’t really work because everything is conflated by Madison’s system at the time of decoupling admissions from funding.

      But, anyway, that’s all past history. Now is the issue where, wow, after all that time camped out in the Capitol, bringing all this attention to Wisconsin to support their cause, the organization didn’t actually endorse anyone against Walker in either the primary or the general election. Doesn’t screaming for a recall sort of obligate you to follow through and support the idea that the person in question should, ultimately, be recalled? For me, this is astounding and unsurprising at the same time.


  5. The left has a real problem where people think that electoral politics and protest are mutually exclusive. On the one hand, there are people so wrapped up in the elections they lose sight of the fact that protest and disruptive politics are necessary to spur politicians on to do the right thing (as well as persuade the public). On the other hand, there are these people wrapped up so much in protest and holier-than-thou politics that they prevent their actions from ever being translated into real policies.

    So long as leftists remain split in these camps, progressive change will be slow in coming.


    1. joshtk76: “So long as leftists remain split in these camps, progressive change will be slow in coming.”
      I would say that the radical flank literature generally suggests the opposite. In general, moderates benefit from having more radical contenders in the field. The Right is not unified but is in ascendancy anyway.

      I would however endorse your general view about the need to reflect on the interplay of electoral and protest politics.


  6. Not to split the baby, but I think that Jeremy and OW are correct (and Shamus, though I will follow up on Jeremy and Shamus’ debate about grad union activism absorbing academic energy in a subsequent post so I do not hijack this thread).

    Let me say as both background and to disclose any potential conflicts that I was actively involved in my union at Michigan, the Graduate Employees Organization local 3550 AFT/AFL-CIO, for four years, serving as president the final year and as a co-chair of the AFT graduate union association (which includes the TAA) the year after that.

    I think that OW’s position is spot-on regarding the time-horizon of political decisions. But, I think that there are more reasons than people just moving on from graduate school. One is that the leadership of grad locals changes frequently (relative to other locals) even if the particular leaders remain active in local politics. For comparison’s sake, I served a one-year term as president; the president of the Central Labor Council we belonged to had served for over 30 (and I think might have been longer, I can’t remember now). Thus, even though Mike Quieto might still be in Madison, and might advise the TAA, he is no longer leading it.

    Beyond short leadership terms, another factor that is easy to conflate with short time horizons is the age and demographic composition of grad local activists. Most, certainly not all, range in age from late 20s to late 30s. They tend to be idealistic and not have the long memories of other activists. In demographic terms, I would call this an age effect: younger people tend to be more radical in goals and methods.

    But, it also led to cohort effect of generational tensions: I was continually lectured about the greatness of 1960s activism (with the always implied if not always stated subtext, “what has YOUR generation done”) while I got frustrated pointing out how their generations pawned many problems on us. Both of these are reasons that graduate student activists exist “in a different structural position” (OW’s original point), they arise from different structures than just the “need to move on.”

    In my experience, all of these things led to an aversion among members and activists to get involved in electoral politics. I advocated for my local to do more and we did; largely, however, this was due to the fact that members felt adamant about fighting conservative-led ballot initiatives (banning gay marriage and eliminating affirmative action) not for candidates.

    To answer Jeremy’s original question, is this brave, cute, or self-destructive, I feel comfortable eliminating “cute” (at least based on my experiences of these conversations, I do not know any of the TAA members making this decision). More often than not, the arguments against getting involved in electoral politics were genuine and impassioned. While the perfect is the enemy of the good, often compromise is its twin accomplice. After all, if what TAA members felt they were fighting for on the floor of the Capitol was an alternative to of union-bashing decline from one political party and impotence or complacence on the other, then I take their criticism of the Democratic candidate seriously even if it leads to Walker finishing his term.


    1. Mike: Given your experience, I would love to see a post from you on the individual/collective benefits versus time costs of graduate student unions. When I started at Madison, I was enthusiastic to get a faculty job somewhere where students were unionized, but left feeling much more ambivalent about it. Most of that shift followed from seeing the apparent costs to students in terms of time and distraction much more clearly than the benefits. But I don’t want to overstate my sentiments in this direction or, worse, the amount of thought I’ve given to it.

      Incidentally, judging by the TAA facebook page, the organization has actually mobilized to recall Walker — — so I’m not sure what the issue with refusing to endorse his opponent is. Perhaps many folks are planning on abstaining or writing in Ralph Nader.

      Madison is the favorite place I’ve lived, so even from my comfy private-school perch, watching what he has done (and will continue to do) to UW has been infuriating.


      1. This (refusing to endorse) is not all that illogical–many folks can much more energetically work to get rid of Walker than to enthusiastically endorse the only viable replacement. I think that sums up the election. And for that matter, why 2010 went south. My neighborhood has a lot more “recall Walker” signs than “vote Barrett/ Mitchell” signs, even though the only way to do the former is to do the latter. And I’m in a part of town where there are also some “stand with Walker” signs.


  7. @jeremy: I’m reminiscing too. Many of us who spoke passionately and angrily against that strike prepared, with resignation, to work the picket lines (passionately and angrily, but in a different way), at 7AM the morning of the strike. I recall it was cold. I also recall looking around and finding that most of those around me had also voted against the strike. When the vocal supporters of the strike rolled in at 11AM, they were not met jubilantly by those of us who had been outside for four hours already. It’s funny, the memory still fills me with rage.

    While we’re on memory lane, remember the first time you taught that methods class in 2001? I was there! And I remember the class on September 11th (it was in the afternoon). We all showed up, in a bit of a stunned stupor. We didn’t know what we should do, and I think class seemed normal. You looked around the room, basically gave us a look like, “I guess we’re doing this thing…” and went into your lecture. It was on causality. The Cholera study, if I’m not mistaken. It was a while ago. After, I went to the Essen Haus and drank too much but never managed to get very drunk. On the way there my parents called me and encouraged me to change my last name to O’Malley (my mom’s Maiden name).

    Also in that class methods: there was some dude who brought a pillow! It was the craziest, rudest thing I ever saw in a class. He normally sat on it. But one day he put it on the desk and put his head down. It was your second semester teaching, I think. And I’ll never forget that guy.



    1. I feel I should amend for fear that I sullied Mr. Freese’s good name as a teacher. That guy was sui generis. I loved that methods class. Heck, I even have a methods book coming out as a result of it and some of my earlier methods training (provided by none other than OW!!!).


    2. Ha! Remarkably, I had all but forgotten about the person with the pillow.

      Not surprised about vocal supporters in a vote not being the people who show up when work needs to be done. I’ve observed the same thing with faculty matters; you probably have as well.


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