Our teaching assistants don't get as much as they deserve for their efforts. In some departments, the structure of lower-division classes is based entirely on these graduate students' work. For good or ill, we are dependent on them, and we should consider, whenever possible, reasonable demands for additional benefits on their behalf.
Last Thursday, Provost George Davis approved of a plan that will take the TA's tuition payment out of their paychecks, over the semester. Previously, the graduate students were required to pay for their tuition up front, at the beginning of the semester. This was a major sore spot, and a great financial difficulty, as they were supposed to pay a substantial fee before they had received any pay themselves.
In the past, we have declined to support increases in benefits for TAs. Some of the things that they have asked for in the past were unreasonable, considering the benefits provided to graduate students at other universities, as well as those that could be reasonably expected in the private sector. It is unreasonable for them to expect full benefits for their dependents, at least in light of the Tucson job market. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to have their tuition deducted over time.
All students have a large financial burden at the beginning of the semester. As Provost Davis explained, we have to put down deposits on apartments and the other costs associated with beginning a new year. For graduate students, however, this is a special burden. While the rest of us pay for these with money jobs we have, the TAs don't begin to get paid until two weeks after the start of the semester, at best.
Such action on behalf of the university is heartening. In negotiations between university administration and Students Against Sweatshops, finding common ground seems impossible. Thus, no one gets anything out of it but bitter feelings and recriminations. In this case, both sides seem to have recognized the legitimacy of the other's position, and been able to work towards an understanding. Certainly, no one has renounced their original positions, but as they have need to work together, they've made steps in good faith.
Of course, this proposal is little more than a first step. There is a great deal more to be done before everyone is happy with the state of teaching assistant benefits. While comprehensive health benefits for dependents are probably off of the table, subsidized insurance programs for these valuable university employees should be addressed. Some graduate student groups may not be content with anything less than full unionization of TAs, a proposal anathema to the other side of the table. But with any luck, we will continue down the path begun last week and come to a resolution that everyone can live with.