By JOHN LESLIE
Graduate students at Temple University went out on strike on Tuesday, Jan. 31. At issue is the university administration’s unwillingness to bargain in good faith. On offer from the university is “3% raises over the four-year contract gets the average pay to about $22,000 in 2026,” according to Bethany Kosmicki, a member of the negotiating committee and a former president of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA), who was quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Such a paltry raise does not come close to keeping pace with the inflation rate in the U.S. In response to the strike, Temple has threatened to withhold tuition from striking students and to replace them with other instructors. Workers’ Voice was told that some adjuncts were offered inducements to replace strikers, but most have refused. A statement from Temple also advised international students to consider the effect of striking on their visa status.
Talking to strikers on campus, Workers’ Voice reporters were told that other outstanding issues are better dependent health-care coverage, improved family and bereavement leave policies, and generally improved working conditions. One person told WV that the short amount of time provided for bereavement leave is a particular burden on international students, for whom travel time can take the full allotted number of days allowed under the contract. Dependent health coverage is another concern. According to TUGSA, ”The cost of adding just one dependent to a plan for a year is almost a third of the total annual salary of graduate employees. Adding two or three dependents amounts to roughly 58% and 86% of the annual salary.”
According to Kosmicki, “Temple’s administration has repeatedly ignored our demands, refusing us fair pay, affordable dependent healthcare, and increased parental leave. … TAs and RAs are a core function of the university, teaching essential courses and conducting world-class research. We deserve a contract that reflects our value to the university.”
A former Temple adjunct professor told WV, “When I was teaching there the grad students were compelled at times to teach courses for which they were not qualified—at disservice to themselves, the students, and the other adjunct faculty like myself. [It] has been hard for both adjuncts and grad students to get a decent wage there…”
TUGSA, which represents 750 grad students, has mounted large, spirited picket lines on campus. On Thursday, Feb. 23, a rally on campus drew more than 300 strikers, supportive faculty, and students to hear speeches from local and national union officials and local politicians. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten spoke at the rally. She called Temple’s actions “hypocrisy,” saying, “It should not take a strike at an academic institution that professes it wants academic freedom and professes it wants to rise up the next generation.”
Liberal Democratic mayoral candidate Helen Gym also expressed her solidarity with the strikers, stating that the strike is “sending a message to every graduate student who is trying to pay their rent, any young person who wants to have a family while trying to develop their own research.”
Another speaker noted that the administration’s intransigence with grad students has ominous implications for the Temple University Association of University Professionals (TAUP) negotiations. The TAUP contract with Temple expires on Oct. 15 of this year. Both TAUP and TUGSA are AFT affiliates. Another rally speaker excoriated Temple for refusing to pay a living wage to grad students while paying their football coach “2 million dollars a year.”
In contrast, the nearby University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), a private university, just increased the graduate student stipend from $30,547 to $38,000, an increase of almost 25% for its more than 3400 doctoral students. Princeton University, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have similarly increased grad student compensation by approximately 25%.
Graduate student pay is especially significant in a city where gentrification has sent rents soaring. Philadelphia’s proportion of renters who are spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent has been about 50 percent since 2006. According to a study, “As of March 2022, the City of Philadelphia’s average rent was 19 percent higher than it had been in January 2018, but the average hourly wage was only 2.5 percent higher; this indicates that there is a 16.5 percent gap between the average growth of rents and that of wages in Philadelphia.” The burden of housing insecurity falls more heavily on those students with family responsibilities, debt, and high health care and housing costs.
A Guardian article reports the struggles of graduate students against low pay, noting that many have trouble paying bills and delay payments or skip buying expensive medications just to scrape by. Zara Anwarzai, a PhD candidate in philosophy and cognitive science at Indiana University Bloomington, describes their plight: “We have to stop spreading the ‘I get paid to study!’ narrative of graduate school … As you go through a program, you realize to what extent your work in your departments and the university have benefited them. They need your labor as a teacher and researcher, they need you as someone who takes on unpaid service roles, and they need your academic and professional reputation.”
Temple police spending
In contrast, Temple’s police force enjoys a larger annual budget than many academic departments. According to a petition, Defund the Temple University Police Department, “Temple University’s 2019-20 budget allotted over $27 million just to ‘Campus Safety,’ a higher budget than the College of Education, College of Engineering, Klein College of Media and Communication, School of Pharmacy, School of Podiatric Medicine, School of Tourism and Hospitality, and the Tyler School of Art and Architecture.” Campus cops make “$51.80 an hour, and a Campus Security Officer makes $34.37 an hour.”
Temple finally dropped its plan to build a more than $100 million football stadium adjacent to the campus. Student organizations and residents of the neighboring community, a mainly Black working-class neighborhood, objected to the cost and disruption to the community that a new stadium would cause. The team currently plays at the state of the art Lincoln Financial Field, used by the Eagles professional football team. In 2014, Temple “transferred $8.3 million in annual university revenue” to the athletics department. In the same year, “students paid 26 percent of Temple’s 2014 budget in the form of tuition and fees. Much of that share was funded by private debt, and when a nation is drowning in private debt.” This staggering debt has long-term effects on things such as home ownership and career choices.
The neoliberal attack on higher education
Neoliberal austerity has slashed university funding, leading to a ballooning of education costs borne by students through massive debt. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems reports: “Since the 1980s, decreased funding for higher education has created the expectation that students are solely responsible for enhancing their own well-being. Although Americans have long been told that a higher education degree will help them secure a higher-paying job, neoliberalization has also forced students to take on exorbitant student loan debts, with the average amount ballooning from $3,900/person in 1980 (EducationData.org, 2020) to over $32,000/person today.” Increasingly, students face long-term debt and food and housing insecurity. One study found that out of “86,000 college students … 45% of respondents experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days—meaning they lacked consistent access to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle.”
Writing in Salon, Henry Giroux notes that neoliberalism’s “effects are visible in the gutting of tenure-track positions, increases in tuition, an onslaught of administrative positions, and the redefinition of higher education as a competitive and profit-making institution. The attacks on tenure have been especially effective in transforming higher education into an adjunct of corporate interests.”
In a disturbing turn of events, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has effectively seized control of the state’s liberal arts university, the New College in Sarasota, by naming six new conservative members of the university’s Board of Trustees. One of the new trustees, Matthew Spalding, is a dean at Hillsdale College, a Christian school. The president of the university has been fired and replaced by a DeSantis loyalist. The new trustees are seeking to reshape the university curriculum ideologically. One goal is to phase out programs promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and critical race theory (CRT). The Florida state legislature is set to outlaw both DEI and CRT at an upcoming session. This is all part of the far right’s offensive against what they term “woke” ideology. DeSantis is weaponizing resentment against criticism of structural racism, feminism, and LGBTQI+ in service of his political aspirations.
Reimagine the university!
It is in the interests of all working-class and oppressed people to re-imagine the meaning and role of higher education in society. We have to ask why there is always money for imperialism’s wars overseas or for tax cuts for the rich, but never enough for education, housing, and health care.
University education must be free, accessible to all, and fully funded by the state. The universities themselves should be autonomous and democratic spaces controlled by the workers and students and not subject to the whims of reactionary politicians and oligarchs.
An article published by Workers Voice, The Cordoba Reform of 1918 and building a student movement in the U.S., on the education reform movement in Latin America, points to a possible alternative: “Importing the traditions of the Reform Movement into higher education in the United States would mean organizing across constituencies (students, faculty, staff, recent alumni) and fighting together for the democratization of university governance. That is, for the replacement of boards of trustees or regents with councils elected by these constituencies with authority over all policy, including financial and personnel decisions.
“This would make our institutions more socially responsive, providing accountable and effective means for the resolution of conflicts, from harassment and discrimination cases to crisis response. Democratic governance would demolish the Ivory Tower, giving meaning to learning and service by immersing higher education in society and joining the struggle for free, open, and democratic higher education, to fight for reforms across the board, for free public health care, nationalized pharma, guaranteed sick and parental leave, and a proper social safety net.”
In this current fight, the labor movement of Philadelphia and nationally must speak with one voice: “Victory to TUGSA!” and “Education is a right, not a privilege!” All working people in the region and nationally have an interest in the victory of the Temple grad students. Their victory is ours. This means that we have to build concrete solidarity in the unions and neighborhoods to let Temple know that their union busting is unacceptable. We have to be prepared to turn out in solidarity with TAUP when their contract is due for renewal.
Contribute to the TUGSA Strike Fund! All out to support TUGSA! Solidarity with the strikers! One day longer, one day stronger!
Photo: John Leslie / Workers’ Voice