Madeline Topf, a Ph.D. candidate in microbiology in the Pepperell Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also an organizer for the TAA. The TAA is the labor union representing all graduate student workers at UW–Madison (TAs, PAs, RAs, GAs, and Fellows).
Madeline talks about organizing efforts in the Microbiology Doctoral Training Program and the letter of demands TAA sent to the program. The goal is to set the stipend for MDTP students at a living wage in Madison.
Currently, MDTP students were struggling to make ends meet. They get small stipend and then students have to pay back up to $15 to $1,800 in student fees and international students have an additional fee of $200.
Madeline and others have the majority of support from the department. There is also support from students in other departments and TAA students. Students in the Microbiology Doctoral Training program are trying to start similar initiatives in other departments. However, the university denied the request to provide a living wage because it was a learning project and the lab had a limited budget.
At the end, Madeline hopes people to sign the letter of demands at taa-madison.org
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Reporter: You and your fellow graduate students in the biomedical department sent management a letter demanding improvements in your pay and other working conditions. Can you explain why this came about?
Madeline Topf: We wrote this letter to our department administration because students were really struggling to make ends meet. We get our small stipend and then we have to pay back up to 15 to $1800 in student fees and international students have an additional fee of $200, which is pretty terrible. In addition, we expanded a couple of diversity inclusion initiatives that we have started in 2020. We had a letter in 2020 that we sent out and certain things got done and certain things haven’t gotten done. So, we wanted to follow up.
Reporter: In reading the 2020 letter it looks like anything that had to do with monetary value was ignored.
Madeline Topf: In 2020 a lot of what got done was not financial. When we ask for things that are easy to be done it’s happily gotten done but when there’s money involved or a lot of additional time it’s much harder.
Reporter: What steps are the TAA taking in order to try to make the university pay attention to these monetary issues?
Madeline Topf: Our approach is to build power in terms of a union structure within our department. Getting students working together or the things that we all want and building power towards these letter items.
Reporter: How is it going in terms of gaining support?
Madeline Topf: You have a majority of support within our department. We also have support from students from other departments and students in the TAA. We are trying to start similar initiatives in other departments. This will be very powerful because are stipend a lot of the times it’s kind of set in our program and mirrored in other Biological Sciences programs.
Reporter: Some of the reasons the university gives you for refusing to provide you with a living wage.
Madeline: A lot of the arguments that are against us having a living wage is number one that this is a program where we are learning. Therefore, we don’t need to be paid a living wage. Our tuition is covered. Another argument is that lab budgets are very complicated. There are funding caps for how much you are able to be made that are set by funding agencies. People should read and sign the letter that we wrote to our program. We hope to post the link to our letter on the TAA website which is taa-madison.org
Reporter: Why should people sign your letter?
Madeline: It’s less easy to write off as just some students who are asking for things that can’t be done. And it puts pressure more on the university and how the university sets stipends across graduate students. Everyone deserves a living wage including graduate students.
Report by Ellen La Luzerne. Photo courtesy TAA website. Web production by Anyu Li.