Why Temple University’s Graduate Students are Striking

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Striking TUGSA members march with undergraduate students on Broad St. in North Central Philadelphia. Photo: TUGSA member Dan Confalone.

The Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA 6290), a union that represents more than 750 graduate student workers at Temple has entered the second month of their strike. TUGSA, the only graduate student union in Pennsylvania, continues to fight for a living wage, greater parental and bereavement leave, and dependent healthcare. Founded in 1997, TUGSA is on strike for the first time, making this the first graduate student strike in Pennsylvania’s history.

TUGSA’s Demands

Temple graduate student workers, comprised of TAs (teaching assistants), RAs (research assistants), and IORs (instructors of record), currently make $19,500 per year, and are granted less than one week (each) of parental and bereavement leave, and receive no dependent healthcare coverage.

TUGSA is currently demanding the following:

+ $32,800 per year (based on, but still less than, the cost of living in Philadelphia in 2022)

+ Full healthcare premium coverage for all dependents

+ 6 weeks of parental leave

+ Bereavement leave: Include grandparents as “immediate” family and provide an additional 7 days for international travel

A study by the Century Foundation found that Temple University spends just $0.62 of every tuition dollar on instruction, the least of any “R1” public university in the country.

TUGSA Takes Action

Graduate students at Temple have been working without a contract for over a year now. Temple’s administration halted contract negotiations with TUGSA back in February of 2022. Fast forward through the summer, and early fall, and by November of 2022, 99% of TUGSA members voted to authorize a strike. The strike was officially called only two weeks into the Spring semester, on January 31.

The strike gained wide support from the outset and remains widely supported on campus and by the public, as it continues to receive positive regional and local media coverage from CBS, ABC, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Two articles have also appeared in more widely read venues such as CNN’s opinion section, and Politico, though TUGSA has yet to receive significant national media attention. The strike was, however, quickly thrust into the spotlight with support from TUGSA’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and its President Randi Weingarten, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman, as well as other state and local representatives, and local union chapters including Philadelphia’s local AFL-CIO and Teamsters.

Temple University Retaliates

Temple wasted no time retaliating. On February 4, less than one week into the strike, striking graduate students had their healthcare terminated without notice – a tactic rarely if ever used by universities to suppress a strike. Since the university didn’t notify striking workers of this action, TUGSA’s leadership and other members were only informed as news began to spread that people were denied their medical visits at doctor’s offices, and their prescriptions at the pharmacy.

Healthcare at Temple is a student benefit, meaning every student has the option to buy healthcare through the university; It is not necessarily tied to worker status except to the extent that it is subsidized for graduate student workers because of their worker status. This is important because striking TUGSA members (because we are still students) can have their healthcare reinstated (with the subsidy in abeyance), by requesting this of HR, although Temple processes each case individually. My healthcare coverage, and countless others’, has yet to be reinstated by the university, although we have made a formal request.

Not only was our healthcare terminated, but four days later, on February 8, striking workers’ tuition remission (a standard for PhD students across the U.S.) was revoked. Of this we were notified. Each student was sent an email informing us that our tuition remission was revoked due to our participation in the strike, and that we have outstanding tuition balances due by March 9 or we will incur a late fee and financial “hold” on our account. In addition, there have been cases wherein students who borrow federal loans to supplement their low pay (and many do), had their FAFSA loans seized by the university to be used to pay the tuition balance that resulted from revoked tuition remission. Retaliation did not stop there.

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International students faced the brunt of Temple’s intimidation tactics, as it was suggested to them, in a deliberately convoluted and confusing manner (and with no legal basis) that they could be deported for striking. One student’s testimony at a rally noted that this email stated that “penalties for failing to follow the rules will result in F1 [immigration] status and all related benefits and could lead to removal and deportation from the United States.”

On top of these retaliatory and intimidating measures, Temple immediately began the search for scabs to teach the classes of those of us who are instructors – a violation of our previous collective bargaining agreement. Some scabbed classes have even moved online, like mine, and some are being reportedly scabbed by people not qualified in the field. All graduate workers are covered under TUGSA’s contracts, but only striking workers have been retaliated against – an age-old tactic to divide and discipline labor.

TUGSA members picketing on Temple’s campus in North Central Philadelphia. Photo: TUGSA member Dan Confalone.

Retaliation Backfires

While TUGSA represents over 750 graduate students in our bargaining unit, a conservative estimate of union density is somewhere near 60%, meaning there are somewhere around 450 dues-paying members. Density varies from semester-to-semester, mostly due to students graduating out of the union, or their worker status changing to fellowship or dissertation completion. However, density was not that high pre-pandemic, as TUGSA members have worked tirelessly to increase the ranks over the last year.

Despite Temple’s retaliatory tactics, the strike has only grown over the last four weeks, with at least 250 graduate student workers on strike, or just greater than one-in-every three graduate student workers at the university. In addition to support from political leaders and other unions, TUGSA has been very well-supported by undergraduate students at Temple, who continue to organize in support. Just two weeks into the strike, more than 1,000 undergraduate students participated in a walk-out from their classes to join us on the picket line and to rally. Undergraduate support continues to grow, assisted by TUGSA’s “strike classes,” which are held on campus Monday to Friday at Noon to inform students and passersby about the strike and how they can support it. TUGSA has gained some support from faculty at the university, and their union (TAUP, Temple Association of University Professionals), but not nearly enough to pressure administration.

Rather than dividing the union and souring the relationship between undergraduate students and TUGSA, retaliation has thus far backfired, as it only proves what well organized unions are able to withstand. In fact, TUGSA’s resilience finally forced Temple’s administration back to the bargaining table, only for TUGSA to overwhelmingly reject their offer on February 21st.

The Tentative Agreement Is Rejected: The Strike Continues

After two-and-a-half weeks of striking, picketing, and rallying, Temple administration agreed to continue negotiations. After a few days of negotiation, TUGSA’s negotiating team put a “tentative agreement” offered by the university to a vote for union members. The following results were read the evening of February 21st: with 83% of eligible voters voting, TUGSA voted by over 92% to reject the offer, with 352 “No” votes to only 30 “Yes” votes. The strike continues. The tentative agreement proposed a one-time $1,000 bonus this year, and $22,000 in salary for the first year. The offer would have increased the average salary to $23,500 by the end of the four-year contract – in 2027. It included no dependent healthcare coverage.

Unsurprisingly, before the team even left the room, Temple administration had already leaked information to the public. This led to the Philadelphia Inquirer reporting that a deal had been reached and that the strike would be “coming to an end,” or so it’s author tweeted, prior to the university’s own email about the agreement going out. (The article has since been updated).

Despite Temple’s anti-labor tactics, TUGSAs negotiating team was nonetheless surprised to learn of this after they left the meeting with administration. Continuing with its false narratives and corporate spin, Senior Vice President of Temple, Ken Kaiser sent an email to the entire campus which made it appear as if the dust had settled. Kaiser’s email not only promoted the idea that an agreement had “been reached” and that striking workers were to be “welcomed back” to their respective duties, but considered maintenance of graduate workers’ healthcare benefit “free” healthcare.

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We ask that supporters follow TUGSA on Instagram @_TUGSA_, on Twitter at @TUGSA_6290, on Facebook, share our posts, and donate to our strike fund. If you are in the Philadelphia area, we also ask that you come join the picket line, Monday through Friday, 9am–4pm. TUGSA will continue to strike – even as striking workers are set to miss their first paycheck – until we win a fair contract and a living wage. As we say on the line: “When we fight, we win!”

Alex Fisher is a Phd student at Temple University.