Holding signs proclaiming “Respect TUGSA, Respect Students” and “Temple Works because TUGSA Does” on a lively picket line loud with chants and brass horns, Temple University Graduate Students’ Association members went on strike Jan. 31. They are demanding a fair contract with a living wage and decent benefits: enough pay so they can afford to live in the city where they work, reasonable parental leave that goes beyond the five days they currently have, and family healthcare that won’t cost them 86 percent of their salaries.
On Feb. 2, AFT President Randi Weingarten joined a rally supporting the TUGSA strike. Describing the crucial teaching and mentoring performed by the teaching assistants and research assistants gathered at the rally, Weingarten said she brought “righteous support” from the AFT’s 1.7 million members. “You’re expected to do all of that work and you can’t even make ends meet,” she said. “That is why you are on strike.”
The rally, which you can see on this video, included not just TUGSA members but also undergraduate students, community members and high-profile leaders including mayoral candidate and former City Council member Helen Gym, state Sen. Nikil Saval and state Rep. Mary Isaacson.
Temple University teaching assistants and research assistants work across campus in subjects ranging from clinical psychology to English, applied math to sociology and history. They are paid an average of $19,500 a year in a city where the cost of living is more than twice that amount. Meanwhile, other universities in Philadelphia have raised graduate employee salaries: TUGSA says the University of Pennsylvania pays its graduate workers $38,000.
Lower pay blocks access to the graduate education that has become a requirement for so many careers. “One of the many reasons I'm striking right now is because I believe that being intergenerationally wealthy should NOT be a prerequisite for being in grad school and academia writ large,” tweeted TUGSA member Molly Mapstone, a contemporary art historian and Ph.D. candidate. “I'm standing up for my peers, and perhaps more importantly, the next generation of academics.”
TUGSA is also fighting for healthcare benefits: Currently, paying for dependents on a graduate worker’s healthcare plan is prohibitively expensive. Adding just one dependent to the plan costs nearly a third of the total annual graduate employee salary, says TUGSA. Adding two dependents increases the cost to about 58 percent of that salary, and adding three raises it to about 86 percent.
Many graduate workers are in an age bracket when they are starting families, so family healthcare is crucial. So is parental leave, currently set at just five days.
And activists say Temple has the money to do better. “The university cries poverty in one voice and in another makes big, big expensive plans,” said Saval, who compared the lack of pay for graduate workers with the school’s plan for a multimillion-dollar stadium and a coach’s salary set at $2 million. Graduate worker pay and benefits are not deficient because Temple doesn’t have the money, he said. “It’s because they’re choosing to put that money into real estate, into grandiose projects and not its people.”
When Temple recruits new students, “they use this beautiful rhetoric about lifting people up, … about the humanities, about better lives,” said Weingarten. “The reason you are out here is because Temple ain’t walking its walk.” She spoke directly to Temple administrators when she said, “It should not take a strike at an academic institution that professes it wants academic freedom and professes it wants to raise up the next generation, to make sure you come to the table and treat people fairly. In my world [that] is hypocrisy.”
TUGSA, which represents about 750 teaching assistants and research assistants, has been negotiating with the administration for more than a year and working without a contract since February 2022. Last November, 99 percent of members voted in favor of a strike.
“What happens here today is going to reverberate across the country,” said mayoral candidate Gym. “It’s sending a message to every graduate student who’s trying to pay their rent, any young person who’s trying to have a family while developing their own research.” An academic research institution that is on “tax-free land,” said Gym, “ought to make sure that they lift up the people who make that university great.”