Striking graduate student workers march at Temple University on Feb. 14, 2023. (Emma Lee/WHYY News)

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Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Two weeks after Temple University graduate student workers began a strike in search of pay increases and improved benefits and working conditions, their effort has attracted widespread attention and support. 

After meeting with a state mediator Tuesday to continue working toward an agreement, the two sides are scheduled to meet again Thursday. 

A protest on the North Philly campus Tuesday morning was led by state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta — a Temple grad himself — and on Wednesday, hundreds of undergraduate students joined a walkout in support of the union. 

Billy Penn spoke with Bethany Kosmicki and Manasa Gopakumar, two members of the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA), about the strike, including the university’s controversial decision to revoke tuition remission and health care benefits. You can read that below.

Meanwhile, university administration continues to stand by its actions. Temple warned TUGSA members how striking would impact their benefits in November and again in January, said spokesperson Stephen Orbanek, in response to comments in this interview, relayed by Billy Penn.

“When unions strike, it is common practice to end pay and benefits connected with employment, because they are not working. The large majority of students that continue to work continue to receive all pay and benefits connected to employment,” Orbanek said.

The sides have different estimates as to how many of the 750 TUGSA members have joined the work stoppage. Either way, some classes are now being taught by others — which the union says means the school is using instructors without adequate training in the fields they’re teaching. Orbanek countered that claim, saying teaching assignments are being handled by new and existing faculty and adjunct professors, as well as other graduate students.

The strike comes on the heels of decisions at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University to raise graduate student stipends. That’s one of TUGSA’s demands, but Temple asserts the situations aren’t comparable. Penn and Princeton, Orbanek said, are “private universities with different resources and without the same enrollment challenges facing many public institutions in the Northeast like Temple. As a state-related university, we diligently work to pay fairly without unduly burdening other components of our budget and revenue sources.”

What’s it like to be a graduate student on strike and hear that? Read our conversation with two TUGSA members below.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaks at a rally and march for Temple University graduate students, who are asking for higher wages. (Tom MacDonald/WHYY)

Bethany Kosmicki is a doctoral student in sociology, a research assistant at Temple and past president of TUGSA. Manasa Gopakumar is an international doctoral student in philosophy who is on a visa. She is a teaching assistant at Temple and also a past president of the union. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you feeling about what’s transpired so far?

According to our lawyers, this is unprecedented in the history of graduate student unions in the country — that they would go to such lengths to cut people’s tuition and health insurance and threaten international students with loss of their student status, which would jeopardize their visas. The fact that they’re willing to do all of this shows that they don’t care about international students, they don’t care about graduate student workers and they don’t care about undergraduate students. 

They’re going about it in a very chaotic and haphazard manner, trying to replace the striking workers with instructors who are not even trained in the disciplines they are teaching a course in. It seems like they don’t care about education or the core values this university stands for and they’re just putting profit over everything else.

What have you learned from the outpouring of support?

It really has been a reflection of how important these very reasonable demands we’re asking for are. It’s resonating with people who are seeing across the country, particularly in higher education, a devaluation of the work that people do at an increasingly difficult time for people to support themselves.

When we talk about not having a living wage, struggling to pay our bills or take care of families, that resonates with people who have been in that situation before and feel that those basic necessities should be easily attainable for people who are working.

Were you surprised by the university’s decision to revoke tuition remission and health care for striking union members?

It shows that Temple is willing to go any lengths to intimidate us, to break the strike and to not do the right thing, which is to give us a fair contract that allows us to live in the city where we work. This administrative burden — to individually make sure everyone’s health insurance and tuition are taken out — is a lot of work for them and they’ve not been doing a very good job of it. 

People who aren’t on strike or aren’t in the bargaining unit have also had their tuition and health insurance cut. This decision was very rash and done in a chaotic manner.

What are the risks for international students?

The student visa is tied to your status as a student and tied to maintaining health insurance. About one-third of our bargaining unit are international students. They know this population is the one that’s most at risk. 

But we’re talking to our lawyers and looking for ways to push back legally to make sure all our members are protected. What Temple’s done is not acceptable and we will definitely be pushing back. 

Where do you see the strike fitting into the growing labor movement?

It’s been really good to have the work we do at the university come to light for people. Teaching assistants and research assistants really do a lot of the backbone work of the university. We teach a lot of the core classes. We teach a lot of the labs that are necessary for introductory courses. Even when you might be a student some of the time, you’re also doing a lot of the actual work.

It does really connect with the growing awareness of the labor movement that people doing these kinds of core jobs need to have contracts, benefits and pay that reflect the value of that work. 

Did the recent raises announced at Penn influence your approach?

It hasn’t affected our decision to strike directly but we’ve definitely discussed this with Temple at the negotiation table. We know we don’t have the same resources as a university like Penn, but what justifies the fact that we’re making half of what Penn students are making? Temple’s response was, “We’re not Penn.”

Penn was explicit in saying that the increase in their stipends was because of the increase in cost of living and inflation in the city. So their announcement affirmed what we’ve been saying all the while. What we get paid here at Temple is nowhere near enough to live here in Philadelphia. 

Beyond wages, what changes are you hoping to see in working conditions?

It’s not uncommon at Temple for people to begin their work appointment before they get their individual appointment letter. This leads to things like delays in benefits being activated, so people are late to enroll in health care. Or it causes delays with things like student aid that affect the basic livelihood of our members. 

It also has to do with the way in which our work is calculated. We want the number of classes that we teach or the amount of work we do calculated by the university so it maintains a reasonable workload for our members.

For people like yourselves, what’s at stake in this strike?

What’s at stake here is the future of this university and the future of higher education across the country. Everything Temple is doing right now to break the strike is hurting the university. It’s hurting the quality of education. It’s hurting Temple’s reputation. Many academics have been choosing not to attend events and conferences hosted by Temple in solidarity with graduate workers who are on strike. There’s a lot of criticism that the university is getting, but it’s not taking those criticisms seriously.

We’ve been really disappointed that people like [Temple] president [Jason Wingard] have been basically AWOL throughout this entire process. We don’t know how many more politicians and leaders have to tell Temple that they’ve made a mistake here.