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Monday, May 20, 2024
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Teaching Assistants Association protest for paid family leave Feb. 14, 2024.

Armed with valentines, TAA demands paid family leave in letter to Mnookin

The Teaching Assistants’ Association on Wednesday delivered a letter with more than 700 signatures to University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin demanding 12 weeks of paid family or medical leave for graduate student workers.

“People are choosing between continuing in their program and starting a family,” said Madeline Topf, TAA co-president. “It's pretty common and acceptable advice to tell graduate workers to not have children during grad school. It's tough being a grad student and a parent, but it's great that as a union and as a graduate student community that we can help each other out.”

As part of a Wednesday demonstration, the TAA also distributed valentines with personal stories about graduate student and faculty struggles to start a family while working for UW-Madison.

“I had a child while writing my dissertation at UW and received disparaging comments from a committee member, laughing,” one card read. “He said I would never finish.”

Event attendee and doctoral student August Brereton held a sign that read, “Pregnant mama, Ph.D. student. Don’t make me choose.”   

After beginning her doctoral program, Brereton said she looked for available support but found no available policies  at the university level. She worked with her department to create a flexible plan during her pregnancy. 

“There is just sort of an impossibility about it if you get pregnant at the wrong time,” Brereton said. “I was sort of lucky in that it lines up with being done with coursework.”

The TAA first drafted the letter in May 2023 following Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to fight for 12 weeks of paid parental and medical leave for state employees. 

“We've been working on both collecting signatures for a petition [and] collecting stories from folks at UW who have had to navigate the process of getting paid leave, either paid family leave or maternity leave,” said Nina La Vonne Denne, TAA co-president. “Those stories are really poignant.”

Democratic lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday morning to introduce paid family leave policy for the state. Denne also spoke at the event.

Valentine’s Day has historically been a day of protest for the TAA. In 2011, more than 1,000 UW-Madison students protested potential budget cuts from then-Gov. Scott Walker. This came during protests against Act 10, a controversial law that limited the ability of public unions to collectively bargain on any issue other than wages. 

“What we've done is we've handwritten dozens of Valentines that tell the stories of UW graduate students, alumni and faculty. We wanted to give those stories to Chancellor Mnookin in the form of Valentine's while calling back to the TA protests during Act 10,” Denne said.

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Denne also said a police department horse at UW-Madison is afforded more parental leave than grad student and faculty workers, referencing a Tone Madison report from May. 

“Think about how we, as graduate students, don't get that same policy,” Denne said. “Humans deserve the same rights that horses do at UW-Madison, and we think that policy should extend to everyone.”

Both Topf and Denne also mentioned a card presented to Mnookin Wednesday that detailed the story of a graduate student worker whose disability was seen as a direct threat to their education due to the lack of paid medical leave.

“I'm a disabled graduate student,” the card read. “When I reached out for help due to my chronic illness. I was essentially told my only option was to drop out and reapply.”

Following the event, TAA leaders said they hope to begin an ongoing conversation with UW-Madison administration about graduate student rights.

“One of the things that we're pushing for in conjunction with this issue is for the union to be able to meet with a chancellor directly, which is something that she's denied us,” Denne said. “We are interested in having these types of conversations with her directly so that we can share these stories.”

A UW-Madison spokesperson said Wednesday Mnookin is committed to offering paid parental leave and continues to work with UW System and state partners to advance the initiative.

Noe Goldhaber of The Daily Cardinal contributed to this report.

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Annika Bereny

Annika Bereny is the Special Pages Editor for the Daily Cardinal and specializes in campus reporting. Follow her on Twitter at @annikabereny.

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