Overworked, underpaid and burglarized — this is reality felt by graduate student workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Graduate workers are required to pay Segregated Fees to the university every semester, despite being employees. The minimum teaching assistant salary for a 33% appointment is $13,667/year. Fees total $1468.60 per academic year for domestic students, and international students are charged an additional $200 in International Student Services fees.
Simply stated, graduate workers have to pay 10.7% of that back to the university by way of segregated fees.
“The pandemic has exacerbated both TA overwork and the financial precarity of students across the university and workers across the university,” Teaching Assistants' Association Co-President Miranda Alksnis said. “What you have there is a really toxic combination, and graduate workers are reaching a breaking point. It's just a question of whether or not the university can be made to listen in time to protect people from further harm.”
Graduate workers have until April 2 to pay their segregated fees, but the Teaching Assistants’ Association — the Graduate Worker Union of UW-Madison — hopes to have those fees remitted. The TAA is flexible in terms of how the UW-Madison administration replaces the funds and ultimately just want their needs met, Alksnis said.
“It's hard to even think about at this point because for the UW-Madison administration, many of whom make six figure salaries, [Segregated Fees are] chump change,” Alksnis said. “For me, that's a trip home to see my family in Canada.”
It isn’t a matter of taking away the funding, and the TAA believes the monetary funds are important services. Rather, it's a matter of asking the university to find funding elsewhere.
“This is something that we think will really improve the lives of our community, not just to grads directly by giving them more money — that's always good — but also by giving them the peace of mind that comes with greater financial stability,” said TAA Stewards Council Co-Chair Stephen Dennison.
Graduate workers have long fought for more fair treatment, but Act 10, which was enacted March 11, 2011, makes negotiating with the university for changes in policy more complex. The legislation was highly protested at the time by TAA. Because the TAA is not a certified union, they lack the leverage to make UW-Madison administration meet or bargain with them.
“We continue to advocate for graduate workers and we continue to raise issues that we hear about and try to do our best to make graduate worker concerns heard, but it can be hard to, because in some more formal, official channels, we're not necessarily included in those discussions,” said TAA Co-President Alejandra Canales.
Professional pressures and near total supervisor control are examples of the stressors that graduate workers face, with an unjust impact on BIPOC graduate workers according to Alksnis. Because there isn’t direct university policy, supervisor treatment of graduate workers is varying and can often be exploitative. This leads to uniquely isolating experiences for graduate workers, said Alksnis.
The TAA is currently pushing to end segregated and mandatory fees for all graduate workers as part of their Financial Precarity Campaign. Graduate and undergraduate workers can pledge to withhold their segregated fee payment until the April 2 deadline to show their support for the effort.
“We want to show support for one another, and we want the university to join us in showing the support and solidarity by making sure that we don't have this unjust burden levied on us anymore,” said Dennison.
The TAA also runs a Mutual Aid fund and has dispersed $31,660 to 279 graduate workers in the past year.
With the April 2 deadline for segregated and mandatory fees approaching, the TAA will consider its options to make sure those fees are remitted for graduate workers.