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Graduate student workers will get stipend increases next school year. Here’s why some are hesitant to celebrate

The Teaching Assistants' Association, which represents graduate workers on campus, is apprehensive about 14% minimum stipend increases for next school year

The University of Wisconsin-Madison announced a 14% increase in minimum stipend amounts in December for graduate student teaching, research and project assistants for the 2024-25 academic year.

The minimum stipends for graduate students maintaining at least a 50% appointment on top of their academic course load will be $26,506 for teaching assistants, $32,396 for research assistants and $26,506 for fellows next school year.

According to a statement from William Karpus, the dean of the graduate school, minimum stipends for teaching assistants and research assistants have increased by 79% and 52%, respectively, in the last 10 years.

“UW-Madison recruits graduate students globally and funding packages need to be competitive for top applicants who receive multiple offers of admission. Over the past several years, the university’s stipend increases have placed UW-Madison’s minimum stipend levels at or above our peer institution median,” Karpus said. 

UW-Madison shared that 71% of doctoral students work in graduate assistantships that qualify for tuition remission, and an additional 16% of doctoral students are funded through other appointments.

“Transparent employment policy strengthens the graduate student experience at UW–Madison, and combined with competitive stipends and benefits, make it clear that the university values and invests in graduate assistants,” Karpus said.

Despite these increases, many workers in the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the UW-Madison graduate student labor union, are apprehensive to see this as a victory. According to Maya Banks, a TA in the Math Department and member of the TAA, the raises fail to address the economic realities and work expectations for graduate students.

“Anytime the university sets minimums for a specific percent appointment, it’s important to remember that the departments can make arbitrary decisions about what percent their workers are actually working,” Banks said. The appointment percent a worker fills influences their salary. 

“There are people that do the same amount of work as I do but are classified as a lower percent and will not make the new minimum.” 

A living wage in Madison is at least $36,000, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. Those who do not meet this threshold may struggle to afford food, medical bills, housing and transportation.

The median rent for a Madison apartment is $1,372, according to PayScale. After the 14% increase, the minimum TA stipend is about $2,208 per month, before fees and taxes. 

UW-Madison is also facing a housing crisis due to inflation and a growing student population.

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Graduate students in the Math Department “already make more than the increase,” Banks said. “Based on an internal survey we did last year, about 70% of the TAs in my department are rent-burdened.”

Additionally, she said some TAs in her department have to work second jobs to stay afloat, cutting into time that could be spent on research or meeting with students. 

Financial strain also impacts a grad worker’s ability to travel for conferences — an important part of research, according to Banks. Many cannot pay travel costs upfront even if the university eventually reimburses them. 

Union members question the motive, timing for increase 

In early December, the TAA joined other Wisconsin unions as plaintiffs in a case opposing Act 10, a 2011 law that eliminates collective bargaining rights for most public employees in Wisconsin.

The TAA criticized Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin for declining to meet once per semester. A stronger relationship with university administration was cited as a possible change with the reinstatement of collective bargaining rights through the lawsuit.

“The university announced this raise just one day after our union announced a lawsuit for collective bargaining rights. It didn’t even take 24 hours,” Banks said. “The university knows that grad workers collectively want more than this and that as soon as we have our collective bargaining rights restored, we will get more.” 

Karpus indicated that the university shared the stipend increases in late December to “allow programs and departments sufficient time to prepare for new graduate student recruitment.”

“The university is committed to being responsive to graduate student concerns and engages regularly with graduate students through ASM and a graduate student advisory board that includes members selected by ASM,” Karpus added in his statement.

UW-Madison has a rich history of grad worker advocacy, beginning when Badger activists negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between student workers and university administrators in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, many grad student workers across the country have organized strikes and collective bargaining agreements to increase pay and improve working conditions. 

The TAA has not announced any current strike plans. Act 10 also limited public employees’ rights to strike. 

According to Act 10, employees engaged in a union can legally strike without fear of being fired if over 50% of employees continually vote to keep the union. If less than 50% of employees vote for the union, striking employees can be fired. 

“The question is not will the union strike,” Banks said. “The union is the workers, so the question is, what do the workers feel like they need?”

Editor's note: This story was last updated at 9:29 p.m. on Jan. 26, 2024. The Daily Cardinal has updated statistics describing tuition remission.

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Bryna Goeking

Bryna Goeking is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on campus news. Follow her on twitter @BrynaGoeking.

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