Updated on Jan. 14 at 2:36 p.m.
While inflation continues to plague Americans struggling to afford high food and housing prices, the soaring costs are acutely affecting members of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association.
“Our members struggle to pay rent, they struggle to buy groceries,” said Bethany Kosmicki, a research assistant in the sociology department and a former TUGSA president who is on the contract negotiations team. “So for us with the way inflation has skyrocketed, our wages have always tracked below the cost of living, but now they are even further away from the cost of living.”
TUGSA’s strike is emblematic of larger labor movements in Philadelphia and across the United States in response to worker frustration about stagnant wages and rising inflation. While the union has yet to reach an agreement with the university, similar work stoppages may signal how TUGSA might be able to gain leverage to secure an agreement.
College employees across the country in particular have striked at universities including the University of Illinois-Chicago, where faculty went on strike for four days, and other colleges like the University of Washington and University of California, POLITICO reported.
In Philadelphia, the strikes come at a time when local wages have struggled to keep pace with rising costs, leaving some workers unable to afford basic necessities.
“We’re a city with a really high poverty rate, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inexpensive to live here,” said Michael Sances, a political science professor. “We’re less expensive than New York or California, but I think we’re more expensive than many other places in the country.”
Inflation isn’t rising as sharply in Philadelphia compared to other parts of the country, but price hikes for necessities like food, housing and medical care all rose higher in the city than in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the country, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
TUGSA members earn an average of $19,500, leaving some members feeling they cannot afford living in the city. The union also subsequently rejected Temple’s offer to increase pay over concerns the increase wouldn’t cover rising costs.
“Because of our low pay, some TUGSA members go into significant debt, live in unsafe or crowded housing and struggle to care for their children so that they can come to campus every day to teach and conduct research,” wrote TUGSA’s negotiations team in a letter to The Temple News.
In Philadelphia, similar concerns were expressed by Temple nurses during the fall, who voted to authorize a strike after pressing the university for pay increases and safety improvements. SEPTA workers also nearly went on strike in 2021 after advocating for parental leave provisions and aid for families affected by COVID-19.
Bill Zoda, who was part of negotiations when Temple nurses were striking for 28 days in 2010, felt that Temple Hospital had no plans to negotiate with until union members declared a strike last October.
“Overall, people were willing to walk and then took a vote to strike and it passed way north of 90 percent [of votes],” said Zoda, co-executive director at the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, the statewide union that represents Temple nurses. “If the hospital hadn’t negotiated [or] if the hospital had treated us like they were treating the grad students, we clearly would have walked.”
Zoda believes that Temple’s current unwillingness to meet the union’s demands may end up costing the university more money than if they opted to meet TUGSA’s demands, which include a base-wage of $32,000.
“It’s like the Pentagon, like a black budget,” Zoda said. “Anytime you’re fighting your own workers, the war chest opens up and nobody pays attention to the money that flies out.”
Although both Temple nurses and SEPTA workers reached agreements, the path to a new contract for TUGSA members could depend on how much the university views them as a necessity for campus operations, whereas nurses and SEPTA personnel are essential workers to their respective employers and may not be as easy to replace.
The university estimates that more than 80 percent of TA’s and RA’s are still working, and Temple has already worked to fill TA vacancies. TUGSA believes that approximately 34 percent of its members are striking, with more members joining each day.
Temple told The Temple News that new instructors are being paid in accordance with TAUP’s contract, but declined to disclose specific salaries.
U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman have urged Temple to reach an agreement with TUGSA, along with several state and local politicians who have visited Temple’s campus to rally alongside union members.
Despite the support from national lawmakers, Sances believes that senior legislators in Harrisburg are the leaders who can play a critical role in swaying Temple to meet the union’s demands due to Temple’s status as a state-related institution that receives government funding.
“What I’m waiting for is to see if anyone with more influence like a committee chair in the legislature, party leadership or even the governor would weigh in because those are the folks with the most power,” Sances said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the amount that TUGSA union members are paid per hour.
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