The Temple University graduate student workers’ strike for better pay and benefits has entered its second month, but this coming week could increase pressure on both sides to settle.
The university has already eliminated the strikers’ pay and health coverage.
As of Thursday, Temple said only about 30 percent of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association union members are actually striking. The union, abbreviated TUGSA, has contested the university’s count before but didn’t provide its own figure last week.
Temple has demanded the strikers pay their now-uncovered tuition bills by the end of this week. Failure will mean late fees of $100, plus the inability to register for future classes until the debt is paid.
“They are now being treated just like every other student at Temple,” the university said in an email. “They have access to health care, but the university [now] does not subsidize it. Instead, they need to purchase it like every other student and many students have done just that.”
The Temple News, the student newspaper, published an article last week titled “Non-striking TUGSA members feel left behind.” It quoted three graduate students, two of them anonymously, criticizing the union and noting some union members’ financial concerns about striking.
Elizabeth Baik, a program assistant for Temple’s Student Success Center and a teaching assistant, told Inside Higher Ed she didn’t join the walkout initially but is now in her second week of striking.
“When I go on strike, it feels like a lot of us, but that’s just me on the ground,” Baik said.
“The numbers are low and, therefore, Temple feels they can crack down and have punitive measures and get away with it,” she said.
But the union has kept up its walkout since Jan. 31, despite the crackdown on strikers’ benefits.
In fact, the university’s cutting off benefits led to coverage from, among others, The Washington Post, NPR and CBS News. Striker Madison Ingram’s tweet about Temple’s tuition demand, which has over 60,900 likes and counting, was shared on those three outlets’ websites.
“The strike grew when they cut benefits,” said Bethany Kosmicki, a striking research assistant on the union negotiating team.
“People are just as strong as ever out here,” she said. “The university continues to take actions that are, you know, harmful, disrespectful, dismissive, and people’s reaction to that just makes them more committed to the things we’re out here fighting for.”
While the university says only about three in 10 graduate workers are striking, TUGSA said 92 percent of the 83 percent of union members who participated in a late February vote favored continuing striking rather than accepting a deal from Temple.
That deal would have raised the annual minima for graduate workers, which varies by discipline, by 10 percent immediately and a further 5 percent in August, the university said. It said the current average annual salary is about $20,700.
TUGSA said the average is actually $19,500. TUGSA's website says it has proposed $32,800 as the base pay.
Baik—who has health coverage for herself and her family from having served in the military—joined the strike despite past concerns with the union.
“I guess, by the end of February, I realized that I was making other graduate students be cannon fodder for something that would later, down the road, benefit me,” she said. “And I wanted to do my part.”
Late Friday afternoon, the Temple Association of University Professionals faculty union, separate from TUGSA but likewise affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, announced in a news release that 580 of its members had gathered virtually to discuss a possible no-confidence vote “in Temple University senior leadership.”
The university responded Friday night that “We are hopeful that the outcome of the discussions is that faculty members will continue to work with us to address the serious issues facing the university.”
Compared to TUGSA’s roughly 700 members, the TAUP says it represents about 3,000 faculty members, professional librarians and academic professionals in Temple’s undergraduate-enrolling schools and colleges.
TAUP’s statement on the meeting said there are decreases in tenured positions, layoffs and class size increases. At the end of the release, TAUP also mentions TUGSA’s continued lack of a contract and ongoing public safety concerns. A campus police officer was killed last month.
The release said TAUP’s Executive Committee plans to meet today “to discuss a path forward, which may include a vote of no confidence.” The university says negotiations with TUGSA will resume the next day, for the first time in a week.
Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, the Faculty Senate president, said her son is a senior at Temple. She said he texts her, when he can’t hear the professor over the strikers, “Madam president, what are you going to do?”
“I can’t do anything, that’s what I tell him,” she said with a laugh.
“But that, too, is one of our civil liberties that I would die defending: we have the right to protest,” she said.
She said faculty members in her unit, the Department of Theater, have helped one another amid the strike.
“Faculty stepped up and took on additional roles, either taking roll in someone else’s class, which is what the TA would have done, just to help a colleague, or filling in in places,” she said.
Williams-Witherspoon defended Temple president Jason Wingard and said the Faculty Senate has nothing to do with her union’s possible no-confidence vote. She cited predicted enrollment loss before the pandemic, the pandemic itself, economic recession and poverty’s connection to violence.
“If we remember that and we remember that if an individual was hired a year and some odd months ago, can we really extend blame for some of these things that are global and/or national issues, violence that we are seeing across universities, across this country?” she asked. “Or are we just saying, in this one particular case, this one particular individual, in a year and some odd months, is supposed to solve all those issues? That’s a hard gig.”
But she said the Faculty Senate Steering Committee has been working in other ways to try to restore health-care coverage to the strikers.
“It’s the health-care benefits that I think are most unconscionable,” she said. “Ethically, that’s still the largest concern.”
Mitch Perkins, a nonbinary research assistant and instructor, told Inside Higher Ed they support the union but “without there being, like, support for marginalized voices, politically, there’s no place to go from there if we can’t organize together.”
Perkins said they became uninvolved with the union after their concerns were dismissed.
“I would speak up about there needing to be Black caucuses and international student caucuses, because striking and what they will do to us once we strike hits all of us in different ways, depending upon our identities, and all these different ways that they impact us,” they said. “And there were a lot of people who couldn’t strike because they were afraid they would be deported or their visa status would be revoked.”
“I’ve been talking to people for more than a year [regarding] that we need to have a more diverse participation in the union, and I know I’m not the only one that feels that way,” they said.
“I don’t want it to sound like I had taken my issues to everyone and it was beaten down,” they said. “It was just dismissed.”
But, Perkins said, their initial reason not to strike was financial.
“At this point, because [striker support] loans are available, the financial aspect of it is not as much of a barrier,” they said, “but … I guess, just sort of like, I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time working with the union and I don’t really feel like my presence is going to make a big difference in just numbers for a strike—it just doesn’t hold any importance to me anymore.”
Perkins said intersectionality should not just be a buzzword.
Baik, the teaching assistant who didn’t join the strike at first, said, “My objections to the union were sort of based on limited knowledge, and now that I’ve been on strike and put in the work … my opinion has changed.”
But she said she wouldn’t have joined the walkout if she relied on Temple’s health-care coverage.
“I do want to say, that in addition to feeling like they don’t own or they’re not part of the union, a large portion of those who can’t join the strike is because of financial security,” Baik said.
“For people who are not on strike,” she said, “I think it’s more about financial means.”
It’s those financial means that Temple’s removal of pay, health coverage and free tuition has undermined. And so—for both the strikers, who face tuition bills, and for university administrators, who face the possible no-confidence vote and further national media criticism—the week ahead looms.