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Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Courtesy of River

‘We don’t get paid a living wage’: The TAA on ensuring rights for graduate students

The Teaching Assistants’ Association is the labor union representing graduate students at UW-Madison who strive to advocate for living wages, better working conditions and other concerns while working for the university.

The Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison works to ensure all graduate students earn a living wage and continues the fight to address issues within the workplace affecting each department within the university. 

TAA is the labor union representing all graduate student workers at UW-Madison, including teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs), graduate assistants (GAs) and fellows. 

Third-year microbiology graduate student and TAA organizer Madeline Topf described the TAA as a community where graduate students come together to share their concerns regarding their working environment and address issues as a coalition.

“The TAA is a community of grad workers, so it’s really kind of a vehicle for people to have support on any of these issues that they and their fellow coworkers care about,” Topf said. 

One issue the TAA has been particularly vocal about is the wages graduate students receive and the fees they have to pay back to the school. 

Minimum stipend rates for 50% appointments — which include graduate students working 20 hours per week, or half of full-time employment, while completing their required academic course load — were raised for the 2023-24 academic year, with TAs receiving a salary of $23,227 per year. 

However, graduate students also continue to pay a total of $1,523.04 in segregated fees, which are charges assessed to all students for student services, activities, programs and facilities that support the mission of University of Wisconsin System institutions, according to the Bursar’s Office

International students also pay an additional $200 in fees which go towards the cost of maintaining international student services.

“We don’t get paid a living wage, we don’t get paid enough,” Maya Banks, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the mathematics department, shared. “We make around $25,000 a year [in my department], which is about $10,000 less than the cost of living in Madison. And that doesn’t include what we have to pay in segregated fees and international student fees.”

To attain a living wage in Madison and afford food, medical bills, housing, transportation and other miscellaneous costs, an individual would need to earn at least $36,000, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. Not being able to attain that number causes graduate students to worry about their ability to afford basic necessities. 

“I’m kind of living this reality which includes putting off going to the doctor, worrying about food, not being able to afford the food I want or that are nutritious and skipping meals,” Topf said. “This is the reality for many grad workers, that we are very concerned with our finances and it really takes up a lot of our mental capacity.” 

Topf explained how, as a result, she and other graduate students are constantly worried about whether they can afford basic necessities while still working and studying full-time. 

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“As people who are doing research in microbiology, we should be focusing on solving really big problems and solving the problems of tomorrow, but we can’t look beyond today and devote our entire focus and energy to those pursuits,” Topf continued.

Nina Denne, a second-year graduate student in the cell molecular biology program and corporate secretary for the TAA, echoed the same sentiments regarding wages graduate students receive for the work they do. 

“I think a lot of the time as graduate students, we sometimes forget that we are workers too,” Denne said. “We teach classes, we do research, we write grants and so much more. We do deserve better working conditions.” 

Students in the microbiology department came together last fall to write a letter to program administrators, asking for a stipend that matches the Madison living wage, and for the program to pay for both segregated and international student fees. 

The graduate students also demanded the program establish greater student representation in its leadership and improve diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within the department. While the students did not get an official response to the letter, they will be receiving an unplanned raise of $456 per year, according to Topf. 

“We have more protocols in place for increased transparency about how decisions are made that affect us and our work,” Topf said. “There’s overall just more discussion and acknowledgement that these issues are real. I think that this shows that we do have a lot of power when we work together and collectively have a voice.”

Another issue graduate students are concerned about includes working conditions, which vary between each department. In the mathematics department, specifically, Banks shared TAs are working on improvements in the grading process to make it more efficient and friendly for workers by standardizing the amount of time given to graduate students to grade examinations. 

“One thing that people want is more of a say in the policies and procedures around teaching, because many grad students in my department are employed as TAs, that is our most common funding source,” Banks said. ”We want to be able to have more say in how our teaching positions work.” 

Ultimately, TAA members hope to increase awareness and membership, and are working to engage other graduate students to come together and advocate for the issues they face across the university.

“In my department, our biggest priority right now is helping bring in more people into the democratic structures of our union so that people can have more say in what they need, what kind of improvements they want and so that we have more collective power when we fight for these improvements,” Banks said.

Topf, Banks and Denne agreed the only way to provoke change from the university administration is through collective action from all the graduate students. 

“We need to work together as a community through the union and push for change, and that can only happen when we stand together as a union and work together,” Denne said. 

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