Striking Temple graduate worker: University’s ‘progressive’ reputation doesn’t extend to labor relations
Striking grad workers and allies rally on the Temple campus. | Austin Fuller / via TUGSA

Raegan Davis is a graduate worker currently on strike at Temple University and a member of the Temple University Graduate Student Association (AFT Local 6290).

PHILADELPHIA—If you walk around the campus of Temple University, you are treated to all the trappings of an institution committed to progress. Social media accounts highlight distinguished alumni who have shaped the world for the better, from Marc Lamont Hill to Reed Erickson to Ibram X. Kendi to Edith Winsor. Even Noam Chomsky was at one point educated by an experimental day school run on Temple’s grounds.

The campus is decorated with “fun facts,” boasting information about the university’s progressivism. It was the first college in the country to introduce an Africology Ph.D. program! Its mascot is an owl because it originally began as a night school for working-class Philadelphians! Temple is the only public university in the poorest big city in America, located in the North Philadelphia area (which has the highest poverty rates in said city).

As an institution which consistently markets itself as Philly’s “diversity university,” it is an alluring place for young people looking to find an education that caters to the poor and marginalized. Perhaps that is why its recent actions have been so particularly appalling.

Keeping with the Temple University tradition of students fighting for social justice despite their administration, graduate student workers established the first and only graduate student union in the state of Pennsylvania in 1997.

The Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) has since been bargaining with the university in contract negotiations every four years, and its membership has grown steadily. It presently represents over 60% of graduate workers, which is no small feat when approximately 20% of your bargaining unit leaves at the end of each year.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, addresses a strike rally on the Temple campus. | Austin Fuller / via TUGSA

However, the union was not this powerful five years ago, in 2018, when it established its present contract with the university. The union’s lack of power at the time shows in the details. The present contract includes a number of shockingly poor conditions, including:

  • An average wage of $19,500 per year in a city where the living wage is approximately $37,000, and nearby graduate workers at the University of Pennsylvania make $38,000. This wage qualifies graduate workers for food stamps in the city of Philadelphia, as it is 150% of the poverty line.
  • A tiered wage system which ensures the female-dominated social science fields are on the lowest end of the pay scale, while more male-dominated fields remain on the upper tiers, essentially codifying a gendered wage gap.
  • Tuition remission, an industry standard, which does not cover university fees. These fees average $300-$400 per semester for domestic students and twice as much for international students.
  • A mere five days of parental leave
  • Healthcare coverage which does not include dependents. To insure a child or dependent family member on these workers’ healthcare plans costs $500 per month. This alone is over 30% of the average worker’s annual income.
  • No protections from overwork, allowing the university to systematically give these workers more tasks than can be completed in the 20 hours they are officially contracted for, while still calling them “part-time” employees and justifying their low pay and benefits accordingly.
  • Four days of bereavement leave for immediate family members, as defined by the narrow American nuclear familial standard, and only three days for all other family members. Proof must be provided that one of those days was a funeral.

The present contract is particularly egregious for female and international students. During my time in the program, I have interacted with a student who, seeing the minimal parental leave, purposefully scheduled her C-section during school breaks. I spoke to an international student whose salary and healthcare costs forced him to send his daughter to live with her grandparents in India.

I calculated that I personally spent between 40-48 hours weekly preparing my classes, tutoring students, holding office hours, grading, and teaching, while the administration continued insisting it was a personal failure of mine if I could not fit that amount of work into the 20 hours they paid me for.

Few people, even on a college campus, understand the full extent of the work that graduate student laborers provide their universities. Temple University is classified as a “Research I” institution, meaning it carried on “very high research activity.” However, despite being ranked as such, it spends less on education than any other in the country.

The research structure at these universities is generally guided by a professor, while the research itself is conducted by graduate students working under them as research assistants. Additionally, while many lectures are conducted by professors, the grunt work of grading is frequently handled by a teaching assistant until they acquire a master’s degree and are permitted to teach independently. At that point, these graduate students perform all the tasks of a professor as “instructors of record.”

I chose Temple because it was the “financially responsible” choice, but even after taking on a second job, I still needed to use credit cards and eventually student loans to survive in the city. I am not the only one. A full 90% of graduate student workers at Temple University live on credit.

Since 2015, when Temple adjunct professors won the right to unionize, graduate students have taken on more and more classes as instructors of record. In my case, I teach a full course of undergraduates, though I do not even have my master’s degree.

Strikebreaking: Temple stripped striking workers of their tuition discounts for the entire semester, sending them each bills totaling upwards of $8,000. | via TUGSA

I chose this school because it was the “financially responsible” choice, but even after taking on a second job, I still needed to use credit cards and eventually student loans to survive in the city, and I am not the only one. According to TUGSA, a full 90% of graduate student workers at Temple University live on credit.

Knowing these conditions were unsustainable, I joined the union and began recruiting others in the hopes that, if we reached 50% representation, the administration would be forced to take us more seriously and engage with us in good faith when bargaining began in January 2022. It has now been over a year, and an agreement still has not been reached because of the administration’s actions.

Despite TUGSA having met the administration’s standard of 50% representation, Temple negotiators insisted that they would not present their salary proposal until all benefits discussions had been finalized. When this tactic did not work, they stalled until the semester ran out, when many union members would leave and its representation percentage would then decrease back below 50%. Negotiations which began in January 2022 have now lasted longer than any in TUGSA’s history.

By the fall, the administration began admitting that its salary proposal was a measly 2% increase, which eventually increased to 3%, the equivalent of an extra $60 per month. For context, inflation since 2018 was over 18%, making this a real-time pay cut of a salary which has not been livable in Philadelphia in over 30 years.

The gridlock of negotiations continued for months until TUGSA called for a strike authorization vote. In an attempt to dissuade union members from voting yes, the administration engaged in direct dealing, emailing their proposal to the entire membership individually in hopes of undermining the contract negotiations team. Unfortunately for them, this only further galvanized the membership, and the strike authorization vote passed with over 99% approval.

Unsure of how to move forward, the administration began engaging in more overt intimidation tactics, including producing a “Frequently Asked Questions” page for students and emailing it to the entire university, implying that there would be “visa implications” for international student strikers and telling undergraduate students “not to rely” on the graduate workers or their union to answer questions regarding the potential strike, as they “do not have the knowledge or authority to provide accurate information.”

This initiated the first of multiple ongoing National Labor Relations Board complaints processes for unfair labor practices which Temple University is being charged with by TUGSA.

The university’s unprecedented threats against international students’ immigration statuses backfired and created more solidarity, again increasing union membership and support for a strike among both graduate workers and their students. For the protection of TUGSA’s members who might leave the country for winter break, and in consultation with the American Federation of Teachers, with which TUGSA is affiliated, the union opted to postpone a strike until the spring semester. Once all international student workers had returned safely, the union took action and declared Pennsylvania’s first graduate student worker strike on Jan. 31, 2023.

A heartening amount of solidarity has characterized the TUGSA strike so far. Local Teamsters working for UPS have refused to make deliveries to the university. Progressive politicians like John Fetterman and Bernie Sanders have spoken out in favor of the strikers. The Temple faculty union and faculty from other local unions have signed pledges not to pick up the strikers’ duties. Undergraduate students en masse have formed solidarity groups and multiple hundreds have petitioned the university to treat its graduate workers fairly.

The unfair labor practices continue. In response to pickets, Temple administration took away strikers’ healthcare and charged them upwards of $8,000 each for tuition, due immediately.

Rallies at the center of campus, featuring the national AFT president and local advocates on different days, have drawn crowds, then transitioned into daily teach-ins so the striking instructors can continue doing what they do best: educating. Regardless of the weather, every day, hundreds of graduate workers wearing bright green t-shirts picket across the campus, fulfilling its pledges of progress in the face of an administration that seeks equity in words only.

Unfortunately, Temple University’s administration cannot stand for such displays and has once again earned itself multiple unfair labor practices suits with its actions this past week. In response to its quads and corridors being filled with workers dancing, chanting, and supporting one another, the university enacted two measures it had no authority to do: taking away strikers’ healthcare and charging them each upwards of $8,000 for tuition, due immediately.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Temple is the first university in history to do this in retaliation for a strike and, in its desperation to quickly remove these benefits, ended up taking tuition remission even from people not in the union’s bargaining unit.

Regarding healthcare, policies are not meant to be canceled until 60 days of delinquency on payments, beginning the day the university canceled the strikers’ plans in retaliation for their strike participation. Despite this, staff members from Temple University manually turned off strikers’ healthcare coverage, ensuring they did not have the full two months of leeway guaranteed to employees in these situations, all for participating in an entirely legal strike.

Luckily, the union once again stuck up for its members and got the university to agree to turn on health insurance plans once again for the legally required 60 days. Unfortunately, graduate workers are required to alert a specific member of the university individually, using specific language, in order to access the healthcare coverage they should never have lost in the first place.

Regarding tuition, the situation is much less cut and dry. In universities, it is industry standard to give free tuition to those who work there, in the same way it is industry standard to give memberships to gym workers or discount meals to food service workers. University employees, from professors to librarians to administrators, not only get free tuition for themselves, but it is also an industry standard to give free or reduced tuition to even the children of those workers.

Though Temple University often makes the case in contract negotiations that tuition remission is a benefit which makes up for the low salaries of graduate workers, free tuition is never considered a part of the librarians’, administrators’, or professors’ income, even if they have multiple people collecting free classes as a result of their employment.

Tuition remission is a benefit that is earned over the course of the semester, week by week, but this intimidation tactic charged graduate students the full amount—thousands of dollars—as if they had not worked at all during the semester, even as they definitively had worked for all of January and will, hopefully, return to work within a few weeks.

Worst of all, many graduate student workers take advantage of student loans to compensate for their low salaries, myself included. Our loans, which we need in a regular month to pay rent when we do have incomes, sat in our university accounts for over two weeks without being refunded to us and when the university became aware we were striking, were snatched up to pay tuition we never owed in the first place and had at least partially already earned remission on.

Austin Fuller / via TUGSA

The situation of Temple University’s graduate students shows once more that corporate entities, even ostensibly “public” ones, are only in favor of serving others when it serves their brands, and they should not be trusted to administer human rights like healthcare and education.

No matter how often Temple brags about how many first-generation college students it has, its goal is not to help those students but rather to lure them in and charge them enough that President Jason Wingard can continue making a multi-million-dollar salary.

It is not advocacy for the marginalized or the working class that propels this institution, but profit, just like any other under capitalism. Solidarity, to Temple University, is not something one does but rather a set of slogans, carefully crafted to ensure maximum return on investment. Progressivism is merely a brand, a marketing strategy.

That is why Temple cannot bring itself to truly increase wages for its workers but can easily send out an email claiming it has done so. That is why the administration is happy to express to the entire student body its proposal to “double maternity leave,” without including that this means increasing it to ten days. That is why the provost felt comfortable sending emails to the entire student body with blatant misinformation about the union’s numbers to minimize its power.

To these administrators, we are not people—we are a public relations crisis, which can only be solved by hoping their existing power will be capable of shouting down the full story of Temple University’s actions.

However, our union has something more powerful. We have solidarity and we have truth and that is why we will win.


Raegan Davis
Raegan Davis

Raegan Davis is a community organizer based in Philadelphia. She serves as archivist for the Philly YCL and organizes with the Temple University Graduate Student Association while working on her MA in Political Science.