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Temple U Graduate Students Go On Strike for a Living Wage

Protesters gather at the Temple University bell tower during rally on Thursday 2/2/23 (Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler)

by Michala Butler, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 3, 2023

PHILADELPHIA — The Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) went on strike early Tuesday morning for the first time in the union’s history since it was founded in 1979 and continues to show their support for a living wage through ongoing rallies on campus. 

The union represents 750 graduate student-teachers and research assistants who have demanded a living wage, healthcare, longer parental and bereavement leave, and better working conditions for over a year now. 

Thursday marked the third day of the strike as TUGSA students gathered at the center of Temple’s campus to unite in numbers and spread the word. 

The current average pay for Temple University graduate employees is $19,500 a year. The proposed base wage is $32,800, which is designed to bring the graduate employee pay in line with the cost of living in Philadelphia. 

The students are also looking for the ability to add two or three dependents on healthcare plans to about 58% and 86% of the annual salary, as well as extend Temples’ current parental leave plan from 5 days to an average 45 days. 

PhD candidate Manasa Gopakumar speaks to the crowd during a rally on Thursday 2/2/23 (Capital-Star photo by Michala Butler).

Manasa Gopakumar, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and member of the TUGSA contract negotiations team, said the association is working to draw attention to the fact that negotiations with the administration have not gone anywhere since they started this process one year ago.

“These demands have to do with our living conditions and our working conditions. Graduate workers at Temple make very little money, and just cannot survive in the city,” Gopakumar said. “The working conditions are so poor that it affects the quality of education and research in this university. Therefore, it is not only affecting us graduate students, but also the quality of education that undergraduate students are receiving from the institution.”

Gopakumar also said administrators have refused to engage with many of their proposals and are not willing to go beyond a 3% increase. 

“The University of Pennsylvania increased their stipends to $38,000 this year. When they made that announcement, they specifically stated that this was because of inflation and the rising cost of living and the fact that graduate students have been affected by the pandemic in many ways,” Gopakumar said. 

“Penn acknowledged the fact that graduate students need to be making more money to survive in the city, but Temple has refused to even talk about the cost of living, they are only talking about a percentage increase,” Gopakumar continued.

State Sen. Nikil Saval, D-Philadelphia, attended the protest, where he argued that the university’s big spending plans, which include The Board of Trustees allocating $4.7 million towards renovations on the offices of the president and other top administrators, do not reflect the realities that the graduate students are facing. 

“In one voice the university cries poverty and on the other hand they are publicly planning to make big expensive changes,” Saval said. “They are making the choice to put money into real estate and not its own people. Let’s talk about how they were scoping out land to build a multimillion-dollar stadium or the fact that they are paying the current football coach 2 million dollars a year.”

The students’ effort has attracted national attention, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., writing in a tweet Wednesday that he “[stands] in solidarity with Temple @TUGSA_6290 grad student workers who are striking for fair pay and benefits. If Temple can afford to pay its football coach $2 million per year, it can afford to pay its grad student workers a living wage and decent benefits.”

In a statement emailed to students and faculty on Tuesday, Temple Provost Gregory Mandel said the university “has proposed significant annual pay increases (3% each year for four years) that are in line with what other Temple full-time bargaining units have accepted, and offered one-time payments of up to $500 (depending on an individual’s appointment terms).” 

“The university also offered to double the parental leave and provide additional bereavement leave for these part-time employees,” Mandel said. “In addition, the university would continue to provide healthcare benefits coverage to graduate student employees across the entire calendar year, with no contribution required from the employee.” 

Mandel added that “TUGSA members would continue to receive free tuition for their programs of study, on average, valued at about $20,000.” 

TUGSA members said they’re committed to remaining on strike until their demands are met. 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.