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Striking grad students feel the toll of Temple’s tactics but remain steadfast

“Not having healthcare is terrifying for someone in my position,” said Hadley Leary, 31, who works as a teaching assistant. “I make a little over $20,000 a year. I cannot afford to pay that.”

Temple University graduate students walk the picket line on Jan. 31, the first day of their strike. They are entering the third week of the strike.
Temple University graduate students walk the picket line on Jan. 31, the first day of their strike. They are entering the third week of the strike.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Hadley Leary faces a $12,000 tuition bill and no pay for being a striking member of the graduate student union at Temple University.

And Leary, who has an autoimmune illness that requires a medication costing up to $7,000 a month without insurance, was horror-struck when she discovered the university had discontinued paying for her health-care insurance.

“Not having health care is terrifying for someone in my position,” said Leary, 31, a first-year graduate student in the master’s of fine arts program in fiction, who works as a teaching assistant. “I make a little over $20,000 a year. I cannot afford to pay that.”

Her health insurance has since been restored, but now she’ll be paying several hundred dollars a month while on strike. She said she can rely on savings from a previous job to pay for the insurance, but if she ultimately has to pay the tuition bill to stay enrolled — due March 9 — she’ll likely drop out.

» READ MORE: Temple withdraws tuition remission for graduate students

Even as political will builds in students’ favor — with city, state, and federal legislators voicing support, as well as national union leaders and educator associations — the stress is taking its toll on members of the Temple University Graduate Student Union (TUGSA) as they enter the third week of a strike they called over pay and benefits.

‘Short-term pain for a long-term gain’

If experience at other schools with recent graduate student strikes is any indication, TUGSA could end up with significantly higher pay.

At the University of California, graduate students, who held a six-week strike that ended in December, will receive 55% to 80% pay boosts over the next two and a half years, said Rafael Jaime, 34, a doctoral student in English and president of the union.

“In the end, every single minute out there was worth it,” he said.

One notable difference: The majority of graduate students went out on strike there, while Temple has maintained that only 20% of its graduate students are striking; TUGSA counters that the number is twice that, but that would mean it’s less than half.

» READ MORE: With negotiations at a stalemate, Temple graduate students go on strike

Still, TUGSA members on strike said they remain more galvanized than ever to continue the fight, given the university’s decision to revoke their tuition remission and require they pay for health care.

“This will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain,” said Andrew Trites, 36, a third-year graduate student in music education from Wilmington. “I know the union is fighting for family health care, and that would be literally life-altering for my family.”

While Temple pays the full cost of health insurance for its 750 graduate student teaching and research assistants when they’re not striking, Trites has to pay $988 a month for health care for his wife and two young children, which eats up a lot of the nearly $20,000 annual stipend he receives. During the strike, Trites will have to pay an additional $450 to keep health insurance for himself.

» READ MORE: How does Temple grad students’ pay compare to other schools?

He said he’s fortunate that his and his wife’s family can help and the couple has some savings. He also has a second job teaching and playing music at a nearby church.

Temple, union report ‘productive’ discussions

The two sides returned to the bargaining table Tuesday morning, with both calling the discussions “productive,” possibly signaling a turning point in the impasse. But Bethany Kosmicki, a member of the negotiating team and past TUGSA president, said the sides remain far apart on wages. The two sides plan to meet again on Thursday.

The average pay for a teaching and research assistant at Temple is $19,500 a year, and the union has sought to raise it to over $32,000, an increase that it said is a necessary cost-of-living adjustment. The university’s offer of 3% raises over the four-year contract gets the average pay to about $22,000 in 2026.

Manasa Gopakumar, 29, a doctoral candidate in philosophy from India and a member of the negotiating team, said the union is willing to negotiate, but needs to see evidence that the university is serious about making a salary adjustment and not just an incremental raise on a very low salary.

“What we want to see is them come to the table with something closer to the cost of living in Philadelphia,” she said. “If we see them move toward that, we would be happy to negotiate with them.”

» READ MORE: What to know about the grad student assistants on strike at Temple

But Ken Kaiser, senior vice president and chief operating officer, called the union’s demands “completely unrealistic” at a time when the university is coping with a 6.4% drop in enrollment. Kaiser said Temple has offered raises in line with what other unions have received, in addition to a cash payment. He emphasized that graduate students are part-time workers at 20 hours a week for nine months.

“We are sympathetic to the students,” he said last week, “but I have to consider the financial strength of Temple moving forward.”

In advance of Tuesday’s bargaining session with a state mediator, Temple put out statements addressing concerns and restating its position.

‘End this punitive approach’

Politicians have spoken out against the university’s decision to require payment for health-care insurance and to withdraw tuition remission.

“This retaliation tactic by Temple is unacceptable,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.

City Council passed a resolution, while District Attorney Larry Krasner appeared at a TUGSA news conference last week, calling on Temple’s administration to step up.

“This university needs to recognize it has made a mistake,” Krasner said. “This administration needs to turn around and recognize how essential all of you are.”

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement to The Inquirer that he “stands” with the students, too.

“In order to provide the best possible opportunities to all students, Temple must stay competitive as an employer and provide fair wages and benefits,” the statement said. “We believe it’s the smart and right thing to do.”

Some Temple professors, including Marc Lamont Hill, also are speaking out: “I call on Temple University to end this punitive approach and reach a settlement with graduate students by making a fair offer without penalty.”

Nora Newcombe, a Temple professor of psychology who works with graduate students, said the strike has taken a tremendous toll on students who are striking and those who are not.

“They are trying to juggle what they should do with what they can do and what they owe to their colleagues,” she said. “Everybody is faced with a lot of quandaries. It’s very stressful.”

Temple, she said, never should have withdrawn health-care insurance or tuition remission, and stipends need to be significantly increased.

“Right now, what they are paid is pathetically low and noncompetitive,” she said.

At Pennsylvania State University, which, like Temple, is one of four state-related universities, graduate assistants with 20-hour a week appointments earn $24,822 annually. Penn State, which has its main campus in central Pennsylvania where the cost of living is lower than Philadelphia, also pays about three-quarters of the health-care insurance premium for the dependents of their 4,500 graduate student teaching and research assistants, compared to Temple, which pays none. However, Temple covers the full cost of health insurance for graduate students, while Penn State pays 80% of the premium.

At the University of California, which employs about 19,000 teaching assistants and 17,000 research assistants, the minimum nine-month salary will be $34,000 by October 2024 at most campuses; it’s currently $23,100. Graduate students there also got eight weeks paid leave for health reasons and family care, as well as full health-care coverage for their children, but not for spouses.

The university did not take health insurance or tuition remission away during the strike, said Jaime, the union president. Intervention by the governor ultimately helped lead to a settlement, he said.

Jason Del Gandio, a faculty member in Temple’s College of Media and Communication with an expertise in social movements and activism, said he supports students’ efforts to get better compensation.

He recalled his experience as a graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Most students lived in “decrepit” housing and couldn’t work second jobs to supplement their low wages — his was about $11,000 a year — because of the intense workload. He worked 60 to 80 hours a week, he said.

“If that’s the case, the question becomes: Can someone living in Philadelphia survive on $19,500 a year?” he asked.

Gopakumar, the union negotiating team member, said they cannot. As an international student here on visa, she has the added pressure of having to maintain health insurance and her student status in order to stay in the country. Right now, neither of those are in jeopardy, she said.

But Temple has said if striking students don’t pay their spring tuition bills by March 9, they will be faced with a $100 late fee and a financial hold on their account, preventing them from registering for more classes.

If that happens, she said, “then Temple is being extremely vicious.”