Negotiations delayed for TUGSA contract

The graduate student union is demanding all students are paid equally, regardless of their area of study.

The Temple University Graduate Student’s Association’s contract with the university expired on Feb. 15, while negotiations for its 2018-22 contract are still underway.

TUGSA is a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, representing graduate students and research and teaching assistants at Temple. TUGSA, officially recognized by the Board of Trustees in 2001, is the only recognized graduate student union in Pennsylvania.


  • Equal pay for graduate students, regardless of their discipline. The current contract has three pay tiers, so graduate students in different schools get paid more based off market rates.
  • Continued health care coverage for graduate students’ dependents. The new contract could lessen a subsidy some graduate students used to pay for their dependents.

The deadline for the collective bargaining agreement was Feb. 15, said Ethan Ake-Little, the president of TUGSA and a fourth-year urban education doctoral student.

Under Pennsylvania law, any collective bargaining agreement that expires stays in effect until a new agreement is signed. The current 2014-18 contract will remain in place until an agreement is reached for the 2018-22 contract.

Ake-Little said the university and TUGSA are two-thirds of the way done negotiating the 2018-22 contract.

The university’s negotiation committee is comprised of four people: Director of Human Resources Karin Sullenberger, Director of Labor Relations Monica Washington, Vice Provost of the Graduate School Zebulon Kendrick and the Vice Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Shawn Schurr.

Schurr said he was not able to comment because of the ongoing negotiations.

For every new contract, TUGSA and Temple’s committee negotiate mandatory bargaining items including wages, stipends and benefits like health care, workload and paid leave for graduate students.

Permissive bargaining, which is listed at the end of contracts, pertains to subjects on which neither party is legally required to agree. This includes office space, outside employment and bookstore discounts.

Both mandatory and permissive bargaining must occur before a contract is signed, Ake-Little said.

Currently, there are three different pay tiers for graduate students. Graduate students in science, technology, engineering and math get paid the most at $18,697 per academic year. Those in education, business, social sciences and health are paid $18,000, and students in arts and humanities are paid $17,308.

The three-tier pay scale reflects the differences in market rates among the various disciplines at the university, Washington wrote in an email.

“This is the principle upon which the parties have agreed and negotiated the rates since the union’s inception 16 years ago,” Washington wrote. “Schools and colleges can, and in many cases do, pay above these rates when necessary to attract graduate students when market conditions demand.”

TUGSA believes this is unfair because it does not follow the concept of equal pay for equal work in labor rights, Ake-Little said.

“We’re trying to make it so the university understands that you can’t really divvy up people based what they call ‘market need,’” Ake-Little said. “When you come here and you’re admitted to the program, you already competed with everybody to get here. There’s no need for another to divide and segregate like that.”

Benefits for graduate students are another point of concern, specifically health care. In the current contract, graduate students are able to receive health insurance with a stipend for dependents. The university does not want to cover the students’ dependents in the new contract, Ake-Little said.

“It’s not fair that [the university] would pull the rug out from under them halfway through their process,” Ake-Little said. “They may have come here two years ago knowing that they could get those kind of benefits, and for [the university] to just leave them high and dry wouldn’t be fair.”

Washington wrote that the university has provided health care coverage for graduate students at no cost, while all other employees pay a portion of the health care premium cost.

“The university has never outright covered dependent health care,” Washington wrote. “The graduate student is and was required to pay amounts beyond the subsidy to cover dependents. It is telling that the number of graduate students who actually use the subsidy toward dependent coverage is low, less than 10 percent.”

The university’s negotiation team and TUGSA’s negotiation committee will next meet March 23, Ake-Little said. The last meeting between the two groups was on Feb. 14.

Evan Kassof, a second-year music composition Ph.D. candidate and a TUGSA contract negotiation team member, said the delay in negotiations is frustrating for the union, but there has been significant progress.

“What [TUGSA] thinks is required for a healthy graduate employee body and what the university thinks is required for an employee unit are [different],” Kassof said. “I’m happy with elements of [the new contract]. … Other areas, I think we’ve discovered that the university is reluctant.”

“There are students here who have dependents, they’re married, they have lives,” Kassof added. “We’re not only transitioning out of student life, but we’re transitioning into adult life.”

Christian Ward, a fifth-year electrical engineering Ph.D. student, served as co-president for TUGSA in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. When Ward served as president, the 2014-18 contract had just been signed.

As a STEM graduate student, Ward gets paid more than students in other fields of study. Ward voted to lower his pay so all graduate students have equal pay, but not all STEM graduate students agreed to take lower pay.

Destinee Grove, a first-year kinesiology student, is the department representative for kinesiology in TUGSA and is on its outreach committee.

Grove isn’t surprised by the negotiation delays because TUGSA’s Feb. 15 deadline was ambitious, she said.

During a break from negotiations due to scheduling conflicts, TUGSA will host a rally on Wednesday at the Bell Tower in hopes of gaining visibility with undergraduate students and to send the university a message, Ake-Little added.

TUGSA will be reaching out to undergraduate students for support by selling “I love my TA” buttons, stickers and T-shirts.

“Undergraduates have a lot more power than they often think that they do, and coming together and fighting for voices of equity, whether it’s something like the stadium or issues of race and diversity, don’t discount yourself,” Ake-Little said. “When [undergraduates] talk, whether or not people like it, they have to listen.”

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