by Kristine Mattis •

On Friday February 11, newly anointed Governor Scott Walker attempted to surreptitiously introduce a “Budget Repair Bill” to the Wisconsin legislature which would all but do away with collective bargaining rights for state employee unions. The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) immediately went on high alert and readied a response to the attack on our own rights and the rights of workers across the state. When we led a pre-planned march to the state capitol on that Valentine’s Day Monday to preemptively protest cuts to education, no one would have imagined what was to ensue over the next few months. By Tuesday morning, February 15, members of the TAA waited at the front of a long line of citizens prepared to testify at a public hearing against the new governor’s bill. From there, we and other concerned Wisconsinites ended up taking residence inside the capitol as public testimony against the draconian legislation continued day and night. For nearly a month TAA members occupied a room on the third floor of the capitol building, appeared at the forefront of the many subsequent protests and rallies, and prepared to participate in acts non-violent civil disobedience to prevent the removal of citizens from our state house. While momentous at the time, these events now seem to pale in comparison to what has transpired across the nation since.  

The undoubtedly tireless and courageous work of TAA members during the Wisconsin uprising in the spring of 2011 has not gone without notice. In addition to several other honors, on October 12th at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., the TAA received the domestic Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award on behalf of the entire Wisconsin protest movement. This recognition came in the midst of a new national uprising that seeks to not just protect the rights of working people, but to forge a new societal system based upon equality and justice for all. In this new context, I feel it is incumbent upon TAA members to not only live up to our past accomplishments in the workers’ struggle in Wisconsin, but to actively support and participate in the continued battle for human rights throughout the nation and the world.

We, as graduate student employees, do certainly represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. We range in age from early twenties to well into middle age and beyond. Some of us came to graduate school from fairly privileged upbringings, some from tremendous adversity and hardship, many from scenarios in between. But what we now have in common are the advantages and opportunities of a higher education that will serve us better than most, even in these highly precarious times. Indeed, these same benefits of our somewhat esteemed positions enabled us to play such a significant role in the Wisconsin uprising last winter. Moreover, the work we regularly conduct at our institution directly and indirectly affects people here in Wisconsin and throughout the world. In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, our work at the university should be in service to our state and its people. As a public trust, our institution and its scholars used to serve the need of the public at large. Increasingly over the years, university research and learning has grown to instead serve the greed of corporate grantors and the misdeeds of our government.

As human rights abuses are being felt by more and more of the citizenry, they are also being more universally recognized by the public at large. With that in mind, I would hope that the TAA maintains the standards of excellence it has demonstrated throughout four decades in engaging in fights for justice. As a concerned and proactive organization, the TAA must stand up to the challenge of providing for not only our personal welfare, but the welfare of all those we live with, work with, and serve.

In light of the recent police brutality against peaceful student resisters at the University of California (UC) Berkeley and UC Davis as well as against freedom-fighters in the Occupy movement all over America and around the world, I look with great humility at the award bestowed upon us here at UW Madison. In addition to the brave students and civilians facing authorities far less sympathetic to their cause than those we faced here in Madison, there are untold numbers of anonymous fighters who have confronted power and battled injustices, who have fought against prejudice and inequity in the face of poverty and discrimination, and who have done so with nary an acknowledgement or word of praise. They did so and do so simply because their moral integrity demanded it. I hope ours does as well.

So as I reflect on the great tribute conferred upon the TAA, I hope that we may continue to recognize our fortunate positions as graduate students, or responsibilities as scholars, and our moral obligations as human beings. I hope that as we move forward in our studies, so too do we move forward with our ethical and civic duties as principled members of society. While the nation has finally awakened from its narcissistic, materialist, prodigal slumber and appears to be embracing the once forsaken notions of egalitarianism, social justice, environmental stewardship, and peace, I hope that members of the TAA will surpass the human rights award that we received by not only contributing to, but helping to lead the larger movement that seeks a better world for newly empowered 99% of its inhabitants.

[Kristine Mattis is currently a PhD student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. She is also a graduate teaching assistant and a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA). Beforereturning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a schoolteacher.]