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Graduate workers strike at Temple!

Interview with two members of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA)

Tempest’s Joel Sronce interviews two striking graduate workers from Temple University.

On Tuesday, January 31, the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) called an indefinite strike—a means to use collective power to demand contract negotiations and to fight for a living wage and more dignified benefits and working conditions for its members. As the strike gained momentum into its second week, Temple’s administration notified union members that it would be revoking strikers’ tuition remission and healthcare benefits. TUGSA organizers say this move is unprecedented in graduate-labor history. (Several of TUGSA’s approximately 750 members found out that they no longer have healthcare while at the doctor’s office or at the pharmacy failing to fill their prescriptions.) While the administration’s move came as an attempt to squash momentum and instill fear in strikers, instead, new graduate workers are joining the union and the strike every day, often in direct response to the university’s most recent callousness.

Outside of Temple’s graduate labor force—composed of teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate assistants—solidarity is building, both on campus and beyond. TUGSA’s strike adds an important new crest to a rising sea of organized labor nationwide and also specifically in Philly, where in the past year, strikes, unionizations, and other collective actions have been launched by workers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Please Touch Museum; the United Academics of Philadelphia; the food-industry workers at Starbucks, Korshak Bagels, Ultimo Coffee Roasters, Eeva, Elixr Coffee, and others businesses affiliated with PJB Workers United’s Local 80; independent food co-ops like Mariposa; and many more. Statements of support for TUGSA are pouring in from organized labor forces across the country. Its picket lines have been joined by workers from other higher-ed unions, like the Rutgers AAUP-AFT from across the Delaware River in New Jersey, as well as by high-profile labor leaders like Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union.

Tensions are building up to Wednesday, February 15, when students are calling for a campus-wide walkout to skip classes and swell the picket line. As Temple’s administration will no doubt continue to flex its own power, solidarity and significant pressure are more urgent than ever.

Tempest member Joel Sronce interviewed two graduate workers and TUGSA members on strike:

Manasa Gopakumar is a Teaching Assistant in the Ph.D. program in Philosophy and a TUGSA member since 2018. She’s currently a member of TUGSA’s Contract Negotiation Team, and previously has served as TUGSA President (2021-2022), the co-chair of TUGSA’s International Students’ Caucus (2020-2021), and a Department Steward (2019-2020).

Bethany Kosmicki has been at Temple and a TUGSA member for more than six years, first as a Teaching Assistant and now as a Research Assistant and Ph.D. candidate in Sociology. She’s currently a member of the Contract Negotiation Team, and formally served as TUGSA President (2020-2021).

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Joel Sronce: The history of graduate-worker organizing at Temple goes back to 1997, when the collective that would later become TUGSA had its first meeting. In 2001, graduate workers voted 290 to 16 in favor of unionizing, and the first collective-bargaining agreement was ironed out in 2002. Can you fast-forward from then to give a brief history of the recent grad-workers’ movement at Temple, and how the struggle has escalated over the past months?

Manasa Gopakumar: Graduate workers at Temple have been preparing for the current round of negotiations ever since the previous one ended in 2018. We gave our notice of intent to bargain to Temple in September 2021 and had our first negotiation session on January 7, 2022. The negotiation sessions have been open to TUGSA members, and over the last year, hundreds of them have witnessed and been part of this process. Temple administration’s refusal to bargain in good faith with us, to seriously engage with our proposals, and their dismissive and condescending attitude towards graduate workers have all contributed to the escalation that has now resulted in this strike. In November 2022, after ten months of not having made any progress at the bargaining table, we took a strike-authorization vote, which passed with 99 percent of members voting Yes. We had a couple of bargaining sessions after that, and at the most recent session on January 9, we gave Temple a counterproposal. Temple has yet to respond to our latest counterproposal, and they have been adamant about not returning to the table unless we dropped most of our demands. This is unacceptable to our members, and the strike is evidence of that.

Bethany Kosmicki: The strength of our union has increased steadily, especially in the past few years. We have an amazing group of organizers, including our lead negotiator, Matt Ford, who have helped mobilize grad workers around shared struggles relating to working conditions. Our parent union, AFT [the American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO], provides support at the National and State levels (AFTPA). They are backing us during negotiations and our current strike.

A large group of Temple graduate workers is bundled up in winter clothes while they are on strike, marching together through the university's main campus outside of a historic building in North Philadelphia. The building features prominently a red Temple flag with a white T outlined on the flag. Most are carrying signs, many of the signs read "TAs & RAs ON STRIKE!" repeated multiple times in a green background with black text, and others have red signs, some of them read "RESPECT US RESPECT OUR STUDENTS" and others have the message "TEMPLE WORKS BECAUSE WE DO."
A large group of Temple graduate workers who are on strike march through the university’s main campus in North Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Stanley Collins.

JS: What are the primary reasons that workers went out on strike? What are your demands, and what do you think it’ll take to win? How is the university administration pushing back?

MG: Our core demands are: (a) a living wage (we are currently proposing a cost of living adjustment to our current average base salary of $19,500 to $32,800), (b) dependent healthcare coverage (currently, our benefits include health insurance coverage for the employee only, and graduate workers who have dependents end up having to spend anywhere between 30-80 percent of their salary on premiums for their dependents), (c) expanded leave policies (we are demanding that the number of paid parental leave be increased from 5 days to 45 days, and that the language around bereavement leave is more inclusive), and (d) better working conditions (we are demanding that the workload guidelines, which determine the hours and terms of our appointment, be included in the collective bargaining agreement to better address the widespread issues of overwork and mismanagement of work assignments). Each of these issues is both reasonable and extremely important to our members, and Temple’s refusal to seriously engage with these proposals for more than a year has forced us to go on strike. Our members are determined to stay out for as long as it takes to win these demands.

BK: We have been in negotiations for over a year, with little movement from the university. They refuse to negotiate with us unless we make significant cuts to our proposals, and we’ve had enough of their obstinance. Our demands address the needs of our members and the value of our work at the university. We currently make around half the cost of living in Philly. We need to make a wage that allows us to live in the city where we work. In response to our strike, the university has begun cutting healthcare coverage and rescinding tuition remission. This egregious decision is just the latest act of union-busting from Temple.

JS: Can you address how your current salaries and other aspects of your working conditions affect you and your families’ livelihoods?

BK: I struggle to make ends meet and have never known a year at Temple that I haven’t had to take out loans and credit card debt. I worry about the cost of medical bills and affording basic necessities. Our low wages make it impossible to live in the city unless we take on debt or work additional jobs. The prohibitive cost of adding dependents to our healthcare plans combined with receiving only five days of paid parental leave means that many grads are unable to start families or take care of them if they do.

MG: Currently, like all the TAs in my department, I’m funded for nine months of the year, with a stipend of $20,064 and a health-insurance subsidy of about $500 per month. As an international student worker who, like most graduate workers at Temple, is not offered guaranteed funding over the summer months, I find the constant financial precarity to be extremely stressful and exhausting. Under the conditions of my visa, I am not allowed to seek employment outside the university. Summer teaching opportunities are extremely limited in the department; there are only about 3-4 courses offered by the department in the summer terms.

Additionally, there are very few loans and similar financial options available to international students. Without summer funding to sustain me here, I am forced to travel back to my home country, India, over the summer (which was not possible for three years during the pandemic due to travel restrictions in both countries). But going back home is also expensive: roundtrip plane tickets cost about $1,600-$1,800. Sometimes, I have to time my apartment’s lease so that I can vacate the apartment before going home for the summer and find a new apartment after I return. But having to move apartments so frequently is also financially prohibitive; there are moving expenses, storage expenses, security deposit payments, etc., involved. The only reason I am able to stay afloat is that my spouse who is a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania (also on a student visa) has a higher stipend compared to mine: currently, around $32,000 for ten months of the year.

JS: There seems to be an increasing number of higher-education workers unionizing and striking—in California, most prominently, and also beyond. Have y’all seen similar themes and issues across university systems, or perhaps similar causes like COVID-19 and the economy? And are there also problems more specific to Temple?

MG: Definitely, there are similarities. At other universities, too, graduate workers have been organizing around issues related to inflation and the rising cost of living. The pandemic has certainly exacerbated many of these issues. At Temple, our stipends have not been increasing in accordance with the cost of living in Philadelphia, which is now $38,000. We make half of this. Most of our members struggle to make ends meet and have had to incur significant debts in the form of loans, credit card debts, and so on. The stipend offered by Temple is one of the lowest among comparable institutions in the country and is well below the national average of $27,000. Other universities in Philadelphia have announced increases to graduate workers’ salaries to match the cost of living in the city. For example, UPenn has announced that graduate student stipends would be increased to $38,000 next year, but Temple still believes that their offer of a three percent increase to our base salary and a one-time bonus of $250-$500 is generous. Temple’s three percent offer would bring our salaries up to just over $22,000 by the year 2026 (which is when the administration’s proposed contract is set to expire).

BK: I think labor organizing is resonating for a lot of people who are increasingly facing financial pressures to survive because their work doesn’t provide the conditions to support them. In academia especially, there is an increased devaluation of education, treating higher education institutions like profit machines, rather than investing in the people who provide the teaching and research that makes the institution exist. This is forcing employees in higher ed to rally together to push back against greedy administrations for basic needs like living wages and better working conditions.

JS: Folks across any university campus are exploited and often deal with precarity: food-service workers, groundskeeping and housekeeping workers, adjuncts, undergrads falling into debt, student-athletes, and more. Has there been solidarity at Temple across these groups, as well as from the community beyond campus?

BK: There has been a lot of solidarity from the campus community. Faculty, undergrads, and staff have been outspoken about their support for our cause, resulting in hundreds of letters to the administration demanding they negotiate a fair contract with us. Supporters have been joining the picket line, dropping off food and supplies, and donating to the strike fund. It’s been extremely inspiring to see the collective effort.

MG: Yes, we’ve been getting support from many unions on campus, including the faculty union that represents adjunct faculty, the nurses’ union, undergraduate student workers who are trying to unionize, and so on. We’ve also received support from Philadelphia’s mayor, city council members, PA state representatives and state senators, members of Congress (including Senators Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman), AFT national, and other unions in the city. There is widespread understanding in the larger community that this fight is not just about graduate workers at Temple, but is a fight for the future of higher education in Philadelphia, in the state of Pennsylvania, as well as in the entire country.

You can support TUGSA’s struggle by contributing to the strike fund, spreading and amplifying TUGSA’s social-media campaign from their Twitter and IG pages, signing their petitions, and, if you’re in Philly, joining and honoring the picket lines.

Featured Image credit: Photo by Stanley Collins; modified by Tempest.

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Joel Sronce View All

Joel Sronce is a writer and activist from North Carolina, currently living in New York. He is a member of Tempest and the Greensboro Revolutionary Socialists.