Temple University Graduate Workers Poised to Strike for Fair Contract

The Independent Socialist Group spoke with a second year graduate student and Teaching Assistant (TA) in the Physics Department who is a graduate worker union activist. 

When did you become involved with the grad worker union at Temple?

I first joined the union, Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA), in March of this year, allowing me to attend one of the first open bargaining sessions, and every one since then.

Some people don’t think of graduate students at places like Temple as workers, but many of you are actually employed full-time by the university. What kind of work do you and other graduate student workers do on campus?

There are two types of graduate positions: teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs). TAs’ responsibilities vary, and can look like running a small breakout class like a recitation or lab, grading assignments and/or exams, or sometimes running a full sized course as an “Instructor of Record.” RAs assist professors with their research, in whatever form that takes. 

Temple administrators have claimed that graduate workers don’t “deserve a full time lifestyle” despite grad workers performing integral labor to keep the university running. How has this impacted graduate workers?

It has a lot of us asking, “What does that mean?” Does that mean we don’t deserve to pay a full month’s rent? Does that mean we don’t get to eat three meals a day? It’s been a very callous sentiment to come from Temple University’s administration.

A living wage and better working conditions have been key demands in recent union efforts. What are some of the demands that the union is fighting for through the strike?

A living wage is the big thing. The average TA/RA at Temple makes $19,500 a year, which is about half of the living wage in Philadelphia. We are simply fighting for graduate workers to be paid enough to live where we work. We are demanding remission of student fees, which can take hundreds of dollars out of students’ first paychecks of the semester. Another demand is adequate parental leave, as currently members of our bargaining unit only receive five days off. Additionally, we want adequate bereavement leave, which is currently only four days. This barely provides enough time for some international students to get home and come back. This is all to say, we are trying to get Temple to recognize that graduate workers come in all shapes and sizes, and all deserve respect and dignity.

What are some ways that people can support you?

Go to tugsa.org/strike!

All of this is happening in the wake of the pandemic, and as the world teeters on the edge of a global recession. How have factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic crisis affected the graduate workers?

We are struggling. A recent poll showed over 90% of graduate workers are supplementing their income through loans, credit cards, and other forms of borrowing. I am personally ending every month with a negative balance in my checking account, thankfully without overdraft fees.

Graduate workers have been in contract negotiations since January. At other universities, the administration has refused to meet with the grad worker union, in hopes that they would be able to outlast the effort and deny them a first contract. Do you feel that you’ve had a similar experience? How has Temple’s administration responded during contract negotiations, and how are they reacting to the strike vote?

Our experience is different insofar as we are not organizing for union-recognition/a first contract, but rather we are trying to get a contract that drastically improves the lives of graduate workers at Temple. We have met over 10 times in as many months with little movement towards an agreement. Overall, Temple’s administration has not been taking our requests, testimonials, or reasoning seriously. The strike authorization vote seems to have gotten their attention, but only time will tell what it will take for us to get their respect at the bargaining table.

A strike of graduate workers at Temple would coincide with a huge wave of labor activity that we’ve been seeing since the pandemic started, which workers bore the  of. In other areas, we’ve seen successful unionization campaigns at places like Starbucks, of grad student workers at universities including Clark and Bates, the historic nurses’ strike at St. Vincent Hospital, and much more. How has the recent resurgence in labor organizing affected or influenced the union? Have you been in touch with workers who have been involved with similar struggles?

This is just my personal opinion, but I think it really has. Right now TUGSA is the strongest it’s ever been in its 20+ year history by a wide margin. I personally feel empowered to be part of this wave of labor organizing, especially as we are the only unionized graduate workers in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I hope that our current fight is inspiring to graduate workers, and workers at large, across PA. 

We’ve been in contact with organizers from other graduate worker unions, and their experiences have been valuable to hear. Of course, we also have the support of our parent unions AFTPA and AFT National, and sibling unions TUHNA, PASNAP, and TAUP, who all negotiate with Temple as well.

Photo Credit: Temple University Graduate Students’ Association