Temple University's main campus in North Philadelphia (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

A week after Temple University graduate students went on strike in search of better pay and improved working conditions, the fight between the union and the administration has turned ugly. 

On Wednesday, union members began receiving emails from the university alerting them that their tuition remission would be revoked for the spring semester, which would force students to pay thousands of dollars by March 9 if no agreement is reached. Some students have also reported having their health insurance taken away, leading elected officials and others to condemn the university’s actions. 

The Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) said in an email Thursday that these were not just “drastic and immoral” actions by the administration, but also unnecessary and out of line with the response to previous graduate student strikes across the country. Health insurance is provided to all Temple students, regardless of employment status, so the attempt to cut off members’ coverage was “confusing, cruel and clearly misguided,” the union said.

As the strike and its response bring national attention to Philadelphia labor issues, here’s a look at how we got here and where this battle is headed.

What is tuition remission?

Tuition remission — where the school covers all or partial tuition for employees — is offered to Temple graduate students if they work for the university as teaching or research assistants. 

If it’s taken away, they would need to pay a full semester’s worth of tuition. For a standard course load of 12 credit-hours, that amount can be upwards of $20,000 for out-of-state students, depending on their field of study. 

Is it legal to take that and health care from striking students?

It’s unclear. The union said it plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the Federal Labor Relations Authority, so we’ll know more if a ruling is made. 

Generally, tuition remission for graduate students performing teaching or research activities is not taxable as income, so it may not count as compensation. But the administration says not only does it have the right to dock pay for striking workers — it can also withhold benefits. 

“Those TUGSA members who have chosen not to work and are on strike are no longer entitled to their compensation and work-related benefits, which include tuition remission,” a Temple spokesperson told VICE News, maintaining that the university has done nothing that violates Pennsylvania law.

Taking away health care has been a commonly used strike-breaking tactic. Last year, Sen. Bob Casey introduced federal legislation to make it illegal, but the bill has not been passed. 

When did this union form? Are grad student unions common?

TUGSA formed in 1997 as the Graduate Association for Teaching and Research, rallying around concerns over graduate students’ working conditions and proposed cuts to teaching and research assistants. In 2000, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board declared that Temple’s graduate students were, in fact, employees who could unionize, and they did so the following year.

Temple’s union formed in the midst of a busy period for unionization on campuses across the country. 

The first union of the kind formed in the 1960s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and after the wave that included TUGSA, nearly 40,000 U.S. students were part of unions. With dozens of unions, that number is now estimated to be twice as high. Locally, graduate students at Penn State voted against unionization in 2018 after four years of effort, just two months after University of Pennsylvania graduate students withdrew their petition to vote for a union.

Who are its members?

There are approximately 750 graduate students in TUGSA, representing about 60% of the university’s graduate workers. They teach core undergraduate classes and work with faculty members on research.

In total, there are around 10,000 enrolled students across Temple’s graduate programs.

What exactly is TUGSA striking over?

The union’s members are seeking a raise in their pay from an average of $19,500 a year to $32,800, which they say is in line with the cost of living in Philadelphia. 

They are also seeking to lower the cost of health insurance for family members, increase parental leave beyond the five days currently allowed, and improve working conditions by securing control over their own workloads.

Who’s supporting the strike?

The striking union members have garnered support from a variety of fellow unions and political leaders. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten joined Philadelphia mayoral candidate Helen Gym at a rally on behalf of the union last week. After Temple told striking students it would remove tuition remission for the spring semester, Sen. Casey posted that “this retaliation tactic by Temple is unacceptable.” 

Sen. Bernie Sanders also voiced his support, saying, “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.”

City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas called the move “retaliatory and cruel” in a resolution co-sponsored by eight of his fellow councilmembers. The university’s failure to reach an equitable resolution with TUGSA “shows a lack of respect for the teaching and research assistants that keep Temple functioning,” Thomas said.

What does Temple say about the union demands?

“We support our students’ rights to peacefully protest,” a spokesperson for the university has said, “but we are also mindful of our obligation as a steward of public funds and student tuition dollars that university resources are being used to fulfill its academic mission to educate students.”

The two sides began mediation this week but don’t appear to have made any progress. Temple has offered graduate students 3% raises over the life of a four-year contract that would bring pay to $22,000 by 2026.

The university has pointed out that graduate students are part-time, temporary employees who work nine months of the year and average about 20 hours a week. The university has also said that only about 150 of the 750 union members have actually gone on strike. Their classes are being taught by faculty members and other graduate students. 

How have grad students fared at other universities in the city?

In response to years of student advocacy and pay increases at other major universities, Penn last month gave its 3,000-plus doctoral students a nearly 25% increase in minimum pay — from $30,547 to $38,000 — beginning in the 2023-24 school year.

Penn Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein said the raise “recognizes the unique pressures they currently face, especially in the wake of delays to research and hiring” tied to the pandemic. She also acknowledged the need to pony up in a competitive marketplace for graduate students.

What have similar strikes looked like elsewhere?

The largest graduate student strike in history wrapped up two months ago after nearly 36,000 students in the University of California system spent five weeks picketing for improved pay, among other things. The agreement they struck with UC will raise base pay for research and teaching assistants nearly 50% in the next couple years, while also offering help with transit costs and dependent health care.

A strike last spring at Indiana University resulted in the administration acceding to nearly every one of the workers’ requests, including the university covering certain mandatory student fees, improving health care offerings and addressing the grievance process. In 2021, a strike by New York University’s graduate students resulted in a 50% wage increase over the life of the contract they later agreed to.

What happens next at Temple? 

For now, the sides will continue to bargain through mediation in search of an agreement that could end the strike. 

If Temple holds to its decision to remove tuition remission, students would owe the university thousands of dollars by next month. 
The union has already filed multiple complaints with the National Labor Relations Board regarding the university’s tactics, and without an agreement the most recent actions will likely be added to the list of issues to be adjudicated.