Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

The Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA), representing 750 graduate teaching and research assistants, has been leading a strike on campus since Jan. 31, and as of this week will continue to strike indefinitely until their demands are met. 

The Jan. 31 protest was spurred on by discontent after nearly a year of failed negotiations with Temple University. After the contract between the university and the union came to an end in Feb. 2022, TUGSA has since been asking that graduate student teaching and research assistants (TA and RAs) be seen and treated as legitimate employees of the university — however with no success. 

Since then, TUGSA has been striking Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to a statement released on Twitter.

TUGSA has been a graduate student union since 1997, and has consistently advocated for improved working conditions and employee benefits. Starting with a mere 30 members, TUGSA has since grown to represent roughly 750 graduate students, according to 6abc.

Their essential demands center around increased pay for TAs and RAs. Currently sitting at $19,500 a year, the union wishes graduate salaries to be raised to $32,800 a year — a nearly 60% increase. TUGSA substantiates this demand using the MIT Living Wage Calculator, stating that the desired base-wage of $32,800 is adequate to the livable wage within Philadelphia.

TUGSA also lists healthcare coverage for the dependents of graduate students as one of their demands. As stated on their website, “The cost of adding just one dependent to a plan for a year is almost a third of the total annual salary of graduate employees.” Coupled with extending the university’s coverage of healthcare, TUGSA is also demanding longer parental leave. Currently Temple University only provides five days of leave within their graduate program policy. 

The protests starting on Jan. 31 came after a multi-week-long process of a strike authorization vote within the union in Nov. 2022. Ultimately, TUGSA members showed overwhelming support to strike, with 99% voting yes, according to Temple University’s student newspaper, The Temple News.

Classes at Temple have continued as normal, although many are without the instruction of TAs and RAs who refuse to work until their demands are met. Protesting employees will be denied pay for the hours they do not work, the university said in a statement on Feb. 6.

The most recent concern developed when Temple University responded to the strikes in early February by completely withdrawing tuition remission from protesting students. This means that any tuition costs paid for by the university in exchange for graduate work would be revoked. 

In an email sent to protesters, students were informed they would need to pay their remaining tuition balance by Mar. 9. If not paid, students would be charged an additional $100 fee and would receive a hold on their student account.

While some TAs and RAs have returned to work to regain their benefits and tuition remission, various Pennsylvania representatives, including Senator Bob Casey and Senator John Fetterman, have criticized Temple’s response, calling the action “unacceptable” and “appalling,” respectively. 

On Feb. 17 Ken Kaiser, the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the university, stated on Temple Now that the university and TUGSA had been working on a tentative agreement. The agreement proposed a one-time payment of $1,000 and a 10% raise within the first year of assistant work, followed by an increase in salary of 5%, 2.5%, and 2.25% over the next three years. TUGSA forwarded the decision to accept the terms of the contract to its membership. 

“TUGSA will present the agreement to its membership for ratification in the coming days,” Kaiser said in his statement.

Though in the end, the vote resulted in a resounding ‘no’ from the union. In an interview with the Philly Inquirer, Bethany Kosmicki of TUGSA’s negotiating team stated that, “The raises by the end of the contract would only bring the average salary up to $23,000, which is not enough to live on in Philadelphia.” Out of 400 votes by TUGSA members, 352 voted to not accept the agreement. 

Comparatively, other large universities have made changes to their graduate assistant’s salary. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the University of Pennsylvania raised the minimum pay for doctoral students by 25% for the 2023-2024 academic year — from $30,0547 to $38,000 — which is the largest single increase in the university’s history. 

Penn State also has a higher salary for its graduate assistants than Temple. Earning around $24,822, Penn State graduate assistants work the same hours as those at Temple. Another difference between Penn State and Temple is their healthcare coverage, as Temple fully covers the assistant’s individual premium, while Penn State covers 80% of an assistant’s premium and approximately three-fourths of any dependent. 

As for West Chester University, our graduate assistants are only paid $2,500 every semester, or $5,000 every academic year. The stark difference in salary is due to West Chester graduates being classified differently than graduate assistants at institutions that are categorized as a ‘Research 1 University,’ like Penn State and Temple. West Chester officials are currently looking into adjusting the pay gap for graduate assistants in different ways.

So, after the vote ‘no’ on Feb. 21, where are negotiations now? According to the most recent announcement on Temple Now, the university and negotiators from TUGSA are engaged in further discussions. However, TUGSA’s website states that the organization is still on strike. 

Concurrently, The Temple Association of University Professionals (TAUP)  is now preparing to take a no-confidence vote; this is a parliamentarian vote to reconsider whether the current administration is still deemed fit to hold office. The vote is specifically targeted at the university’s president Jason Wingard, Provost Gregory N. Mandel, as well as Ken Kaiser, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s most recent coverage. 

TAUP and the union’s president Jeffrey Doshna planned on discussing whether to take a vote of no-confidence on Mar. 3. If decided yes, it will be the union’s first no-confidence vote in its 50-year existence.

Between TUGSA and TAUP’s recent efforts, top officials at Temple University are feeling pressure from both unions to make changes on campus. 

Olivia Schlinkman is a second-year Political Science major with minors in Spanish and Journalism.

Gaven Mitchell is a second-year History major with a minor in Journalism.

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