On February 8, striking graduate workers at Temple University, a public institution on Philadelphia’s North Side, received notices that their tuition remission for the spring semester would be removed, “as a result of your participation in the TUGSA strike.” The Temple University Graduate Students’ Association, an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local comprising 750 teaching and research assistants, has been on strike since January 31. With the revocation of a benefit that can be worth as much as $20,000 — workers were notified that they have until March 9 to pay the balance if they seek to remain enrolled in classes — the labor dispute has taken on a new tenor.
The administration has also shut off strikers’ health insurance benefits, a move some TUGSA members only learned of when they tried to fill prescriptions at pharmacies. Such retaliation in a higher education strike is far from the norm: while other administrations have threatened to withhold benefits like health insurance to strikers, none have gone as far as Temple.
TUGSA will seek a legal challenge to the administration’s actions; the university has defended its actions as legal, stating that students were warned that taking part in the strike and not showing up to work would cause them to lose their full compensation package, which includes tuition assistance and free health care insurance.
“This is an unprecedentedly retaliatory maneuver,” says Mathias Fuelling, a seventh-year PhD candidate in history and a TUGSA member. Fuelling notes that in other recent graduate worker strikes, such as at the University of California and Columbia, university administrations did not go to such lengths to crush the labor actions. “They’re pressing the nuke button,” he says of his employer.
The punishment is also haphazard. Workers say that a few individuals who are on fellowships and thus not in TUGSA, or who have not participated in the strike, have had their benefits revoked as well. It’s a sign of an administration desperate to crush the strike.
TUGSA and the university administration have been negotiating a new contract for more than a year, and significant distance remains between the two sides. One major sticking point concerns salaries: TUGSA says the average salary of its members is around $19,500. The union is proposing to raise that to $32,807 over the life of the contract — that number is what the estimated cost of living was in Philadelphia when workers began preparing to bargain more than a year ago. (According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the cost of living for a childless individual in Philadelphia is now $36,455.) The university’s latest proposal is for 3 percent annual raises, raising salaries to $22,000 by 2026.
Other priorities for the union include paid parental leave and health insurance costs. TUGSA members currently have five days of paid parental leave, an amount that Bethany Kosmicki, the former president of TUGSA and a PhD student in sociology, calls “not tenable for people who have children or those who might want to do so in the future.”
“Adding dependents to our health care plans is prohibitively expensive right now,” says Kosmicki, who is on TUGSA’s negotiations team. “Depending on how many dependents you have, it can vary between 30 and 86 percent of your total annual salary just to have a dependent on your plan.”
Despite these pressing concerns, workers say the university’s administration is continuing to stall and refuses to bargain until the union makes significant cuts to its proposals. No future bargaining dates have been scheduled.
“They’re coming from a position of extreme obstinacy,” says Matt Ford, TUGSA’s lead negotiator and a PhD candidate in sociology. “It’s a very disrespectful lack of seriousness with respect to what our people are dealing with.”
Ford says that while raises in workers’ pay used to at least approximate the rising cost of living, the distance between the two has increased. That may help explain why, when TUGSA took a strike authorization vote in November of last year, 99 percent of ballots were in favor of authorizing a strike.
Temple’s retaliation may have been intended to intimidate workers, adding to the pressure on them to accept a bad contract. But it has also catapulted the labor dispute into national headlines, funneling solidarity to the union. Workers say they have received support from both of Pennsylvania’s senators as well as from a host of local elected officials and unions. State senator Nikil Saval and Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner have met with the union in recent days, as has Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls and AFT president Randi Weingarten. Donations to the union’s strike fund continue to flow. The day after strikers began receiving notices that their tuition remission and health insurance would be revoked, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution condemning the university’s actions and backing the union.
“We have a massive base of support, because everyone recognizes that what Temple is doing is unjust,” says Fuelling. In matters of academic freedom, the strike at Temple has become a frontline battle. “If Temple wins this one, it sets a precedent for how retaliatory public universities can be against graduate union labor across the country. This is a battle for the future of higher education in miniature: our fight has become a fight for everyone.”
While the administration says that “more than 80 percent of the university’s graduate workers were not currently on strike and continue to receive their benefits,” TUGSA members say that participation is about twice as high as the administration’s numbers. Plus, the anger generated by Temple’s response is causing those numbers to grow. As Fuelling, Kosmicki, and Ford were walking to the campus library to call me, a graduate student stopped them. He hadn’t been participating in the strike, but now he wanted to join. They signed him up for a few shifts on the picket line before returning to our interview.