Letter: Graduate workers deserve a fair contract

TUGSA urges Temple to offer TAs and RAs a living wage and improve healthcare, working conditions and parental leave.

The following Letter to the Editor is from the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association’s negotiations team. The content in this letter is not reflective of the opinion of The Temple News. 

Temple University Graduate Students’ Association has been on strike since Jan. 31 until the university’s administration agrees to a fair contract for teaching and research assistants: a living wage, dependent healthcare, better working conditions and parental leave longer than a mere five days. 

Although the administration claims they value students and education, our negotiations have shown that Temple prioritizes profit more than quality education.

We are asking Temple to meet our demands because Temple employees and students deserve the best education, resources and support. TUGSA’s demands are clear, pragmatic steps towards making Temple the world-class institution it should aspire to be. The way the administration chooses to spend its money is a disservice to employees and to all of Temple’s students and community members.

This year, Temple raised tuition by another 3.9 percent and cut its budget by 3.6 percent, but not all of that money is going to the classroom. Temple spends just $0.62 of every tuition dollar on instruction, the faculty and resources required to offer coursework, according to a university spending calculator tool from The Century Foundation, a public policy think tank. This is the lowest amount spent by any public R1 university in the country. 

Instructional spending offers a useful gauge of the educational value being provided to students. When budgets are cut, teachers are underpaid and classrooms lack resources, the quality of education being offered decreases.

Many TUGSA members come to Temple with years of teaching and industry experience that make them highly-qualified instructors and researchers. Yet, the average graduate worker currently makes approximately $19,500 a year, roughly less than half the living wage in Philadelphia, according to a union analysis of TA and RA pay rates.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Temple has generated approximately $500 million in excess revenue over expenses — the equivalent of profit — and stands to bring in $1.2 billion dollars in revenue this year alone. Failing to support the employees who teach students directly and negatively impacts the quality of education that Temple can offer.

Unlike its approach to educational investment, Temple’s spending on bureaucratic extravagance goes unchecked. In March 2022, the Board of Trustees voted to increase spending on renovations to Sullivan Hall, where President Wingard and Temple administration work, from $240,000 to $4.7 million

The university has yet to explain what justified an increase in renovations of $4.49 million, nor why university funds are being allocated for top administrative offices while their employees struggle to survive.

TAs are the sole instructors for hundreds of introductory and GenEd classes. We spend the majority of our time providing the foundational education required for undergraduates to develop essential skills. We also contribute to cutting-edge research that generates millions of dollars for the university annually. 

Not investing in educators shows that university leadership doesn’t value us, and therefore, doesn’t value the students who spend thousands of dollars to get an education at Temple. Both employees and students deserve a university committed to its stated mission of high-quality education for all. 

There’s nothing fair or reasonable about a contract that fails to meet our basic needs, but to make it seem that way, Temple tends to focus on percentages rather than dollar amounts. 

The administration’s claim that 3 percent raises are standard doesn’t address the significant pay increase needed for small percentages to be meaningful. A 3 percent raise might be a lot for an adequate salary, but 3 percent of nothing is still nothing. Dollars pay our bills, not small fractions of a meager salary.

Temple also continues to misrepresent other parts of its proposal. For example, the administration describes tuition remission as a benefit worth $20,000 to bulk up the facade of a fair proposal. 

Describing tuition remission as a feature of our compensation package is dishonest because it isn’t a cash benefit for TAs and RAs; it’s simply a process of shuffling money in a way where none of it ever actually leaves Temple’s wallet. 

The lack of liveable wages and benefits just shows that the administration doesn’t see us as a financial priority. If they did, they’d put a tiny fraction of their revenue toward ensuring Temple TAs and RAs were paid enough to live in the city where they work. 

Around 90 percent of TAs and RAs require outside means to supplement their pay, according to a union survey of members. For the third of us who are international students, visa restrictions do not allow off-campus employment. 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. 

The administration does not aspire to be better, and its values do not align with what Temple employees and students need most: livable wages, quality healthcare, affordable tuition, small class sizes and all the resources and security that improve life for everyone. 

The money is there, but if those in charge won’t do the right thing, the employees and students at Temple have no other choice but to make them. The striking members of TUGSA urge everyone in the campus community to join us in this fight. A better Temple is possible. 

We look forward to seeing our students and peers on the picket line.

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