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Graduate students fill Bascom Hall, demand flexible seg-fee payment plan

The Teaching Assistants Association called upon university administration to raise graduate student wages.

Image By: Grace Wallner

Clusters of colored papers plaster the walls of the Bascom Hall rotunda. The papers display emotional stories from UW Madison graduate students whose lives they say are negatively impacted as they struggle to pay university-mandated segregated fees.

Thursday afternoon a group of UW-Madison graduate student workers protested a proposed change to their segregated fee payment method.

The change would require graduate student workers to pay segregated fees before their first paycheck, as opposed to making the payment after receiving three paychecks, as has been the case in past years.

Many protesters explained that the change in payment method would add even more stress to an already unnecessary burden.

The TAA, the graduate worker union, organized Thursday's protest and has previously advocated for changes like grad student wage increases, transgender healthcare and paid parental leave for UW-Madison employees.

Paying an upfront fee at the beginning of the year would be nearly impossible for grad students, many of whom are unemployed during the summer months, according to TAA member Francisco Santiago-Ávila. 

He also mentioned that peer institutions offer graduate workers full remission of segregated fees, meaning the fees are covered by the university just like tuition is.

“I know of no organization which forces workers to pay over $1000 a year as a precondition of employment. The university treats us as students rather than workers, even though we do a lot of the teaching work as TA’s,” Santiago-Ávila said.

Protestors said frustration stemming from a lack of communication between the university and graduate workers also sparked today’s protest.

“We want administrators to consult [the TAA] on these changes and to really try to understand the lived experience of grad students before they unilaterally decide to make changes,” said Katie Zaman, a TAA member and protest organizer.

The university released a statement outlining their position on the change in payment method.

“UW-Madison is seeking to develop flexible and reasonable segregated fee payment options that will not place additional financial stress on graduate students,” said Meredith McGlone, a spokesperson for the university. 

After meeting at Bascom Hall, protesters walked down the hill to East Campus Mall.

“We pay to work, we pay to learn, don’t make us pay before we earn!” protesters chanted, finally gathering at the bursar’s office to share personal stories.

“I have kids and a family and I don’t have a single dollar to put towards these fees so I have to put it on a credit card with a high interest rate. And there are tons of stories like mine,” said Zaman.

Other students spoke of food insecurity, mental health issues and additional financial burdens placed on LGBTQ and international students.

The TAA has gathered 1000 signatures, representing nearly a third of all graduate students, on a petition that requests a halt in the policy change.

Following the protest, organizers from the TAA and other graduate students met with university administrators to share their stories and call to action.

The TAA has asked the Dean of Graduate Students and the Bursar’s Office to present a possible solution at a follow-up meeting scheduled after spring break.

Another protest is scheduled for next month.

“We have to stand together,” said TAA treasurer Tina Treviño-Murphy. “If we raise up grad workers, the whole university benefits.”

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