Graduate student workers went on strike January 31. (all photos Stanley Collins, courtesy TUGSA)

On February 10, Philadelphia’s Temple University told over 100 striking student workers it would cut their tuition remission — an average of $20,000 — and health insurance benefits. In a widely criticized move, the school gave students until today, March 9, to hand over tuition payment. But across departments including arts and humanities, many students are holding strong.

Graduate teachers and research assistants in the 750-member Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) union went on strike on January 31 after a year of unsuccessful contract negotiations focused on securing a living wage and affordable healthcare. On Tuesday, March 7, the school reinstated the students’ healthcare, but it did not resume wages or tuition benefits. It also threatened to impose late fees on delayed tuition remission payments, though a Temple spokesperson said those have not gone into effect at this time.

“The unfortunate reality is that when individuals choose to stop working and go on strike, their work-related benefits and pay stop,” the spokesperson told Hyperallergic, but said the school was pleased to have found “common ground” with TUGSA in its recent health insurance decision, “sincerely appreciates” its graduate students workers, and is thankful to those who continue to work through the strike.

Students have a vastly different perspective.

“A living wage is paramount; how it seems like something to be argued is beyond me,” Ryan Scails, a first-year graduate student in the Fiber and Material Studies program, told Hyperallergic. He stated that as wages stagnate and inflation rises, the labor issues are “inevitable.”

“I don’t like how the administration has characterized the strike as a disruption, while this has been an avoidable issue,” Scails said.

The union says that 70% of its members are currently striking, and that the number has actually increased from an initial 50%, even as the university announced it would cut pay and health insurance. The university’s calculation is much lower: The spokesperson said that only 30% of TUGSA members are on strike.

The strike is in its sixth week.

According to the university, Temple graduate students earn an average of $20,731 (the union estimates $19,500) for 20-hour work weeks over nine months. Students in the arts and humanities make less at $19,292. Philadelphia’s cost of living is $38,067, as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and TUGSA wants a base pay of $32,800 as well as affordable healthcare for families: While students are offered free health insurance, adding a single dependent costs around a third of the average student worker’s annual pay, and those numbers jump to 58% and 86% for two or three dependents. TUGSA also want longer parental and bereavement leave; right now, its members are only allowed five days.

On February 18, Temple administration and TUGSA finally reached a tentative agreement, garnering hopeful press coverage about a potential end to the strike. Three days later, however, the union rejected the contract by a landslide 92% margin.

“In an ideal world, the University would love to give TUGSA everything that they are asking for, but simply put, that would not be responsible,” said the Temple spokesperson.

The contentious labor movement is affecting other parts of the school, too. Next week, the 2,500-member faculty union will decide whether or not to hold a vote of no confidence on university president Jason Wingard and other administrators, attributing the gesture in part to the school’s handling of the labor crisis.

“The strike has elucidated people’s ethics,” said Scails, echoing a frequent point among picketing graduate workers. “Being pro-union doesn’t seem like a hard sell to me, so I’m fascinated when people have reservations.”

Second-year Art History PhD student Liam Maher pointed out the power dynamics that could prevent some from publicly supporting the movement. Many of the department’s professors are non-tenured, which could also affect their ability to publicly side with TUGSA.

While the strike has illuminated the university’s own power inequities, many workers pointed out the inequalities that the administration has forced onto the student body.

Molly Mapstone, a second-year PhD student in the art and architecture department, is paid $19,500 for a year’s work. Mapstone told Hyperallergic she is forced to take on other jobs to make ends meet, but pointed out that international students cannot do the same because of visa restrictions. International students comprise around a third of TUGSA members.

“In negotiations, developing a fair contract that ensures the wellbeing of all in the union — especially international students and first-generation students — is of utmost importance,” said Maher. “Temple cannot call itself a progressive institution if they maintain racist, classist, and unjust systems which prevent the cultivation of a diverse graduate student body.”

TUGSA members on the picket line

This semester, Mapstone was tasked with teaching an introductory art history course to over 50 undergraduates in two sections. She called Temple’s 20-hour work week cap a “particularly insidious” form of wage theft because of how it negative affects the younger students. “Teachers cannot realistically dedicate the amount of time necessary to serve as sole instructors for such large classes at the current wage,” Mapstone said.

“Arts and humanities departments, at both Temple and across the United States in general, are typically underfunded and understaffed,” second-year dance MFA student Nadia Ureña told Hyperallegic. She said she makes less than other TUGSA graduate students but works more so that her department can function. “That’s a very difficult position to be in when I also have to focus on being a student, working other jobs, and going to rehearsals.”

Yet, as students realize their shared experiences at Temple and campaign for living wages, the labor struggle has provided a solidarity formerly unknown between the university’s often-siloed departments. Olivia Fredricks, a second-year graduate student in printmaking at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture, emphasized that point.

“Tyler students can get pretty isolated because our classes all take place in the art building and we spend so much time in our studios,” Fredericks said. “While I wish the university would do right by its workers so we wouldn’t have to be in this situation, I’m grateful for this shared collective experience among the grad and PhD students at Temple.”

As negotiations with the administration inch along, striking workers will still need to pay their revoked tuition remission today. Financial inability could bar lower-income students from continuing at Temple and force international workers on student visas to either pay the school or leave the country. A university spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the deadline is still in place as of this morning, but the school is “making steady progress that could impact on this area.”

“When the university administration offers inadequate parental leave, does not provide affordable healthcare for those with dependents, and does not pay enough to live in the city where we work, it sends a clear message,” TUGSA’s director of organizing Laurie Robins told Hyperallergic. “That those with families, those unable to take on second jobs, or those without access to loans or credit cards are not welcome.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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