The Temple University Graduate Students’ Association proposed more than higher wages and better health benefits for graduate employees in its campaign to unionize. “We are asking the University to refocus on graduate and research programs,”

The Temple University Graduate Students’ Association proposed more than higher wages and better health benefits for graduate employees in its campaign to unionize.

“We are asking the University to refocus on graduate and research programs,” said research assistant Paul Riley, 26.

Riley works in Temple’s Old Medical School Building at Broad and Ontario Streets as part of his program to complete a Ph.D. in biochemistry. The researcher worries about the university’s commitment to funding research and other graduate programs.

This worry attracted the son of a 1960s peace activist to TUGSA. He believes TUGSA’s demands are reasonable.

According to Riley, graduate employees at the medical school perform over 90 percent of the research duties. Temple University’s Health Sciences Center gets grant money for “successful graduate research.”

TUGSA represents 1,100 graduate students who are graduate assistants, teaching assistants and research assistants. These students perform administrative duties, teach classes or assist in research for the university in exchange for funding of their education.

The graduate group has been drawing battle lines with Temple since 1998. The definition of the role of graduate, teaching and research assistants lies at the heart of the dispute. Temple officials and lawyers say assistants are students. TUGSA members say they are also workers, whose labor helps to keep the university in business.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board agreed with TUGSA in a unanimous decision on Oct. 17, 2000. The PLRB ruled that Temple University graduate students, who are hired by the university, are employees protected under the Public Employees Relations Act.

There are no requirements to work as assistants in order to earn a graduate degree, noted the board. Those who choose to become assistants “perform vital teaching and research services for Temple” in exchange for “compensation,” according to the PLRB. These assistants “are required to perform service for Temple in exchange for that compensation.”

Temple graduate employees receive tuition remission and stipends for work within the university. The stipend is offered in exchange for approximately 20 hours of work a week, according to information posted on the graduate school’s website. Temple also offers fellowships that cover the costs of full tuition in addition to stipends for students pursuing doctoral degrees.

Stipends range from $11,000 for assistantships to $16,000 for fellowships, yearly. It takes about three years for a graduate employee to complete a master’s degree. A fellowship, like Riley’s, could take up to five or even six years for completion.

Riley studied at the Fred Huchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh before choosing Temple. He accepted a cut in pay when he left Carnegie Mellon, where he earned a $17,500 stipend for one year. He now receives a stipend of $16,000 a year for work as a research assistant in addition to full tuition coverage of approximately $15,000.

The TUGSA member believes Temple must raise stipend rates in order to compete with other universities in attracting better-qualified graduate students. Riley says his stipend goes quickly, but he makes ends meet. Housing found in Germantown that costs $300 a month helps.

While the stipend provides basics for Riley, many other graduate employees struggle to stretch their stipend dollars, he says, especially those with families. Some grad students work at second jobs, although their programs restrict such actions.

Riley talked excitedly about his work in the biochemistry lab and in the university-affiliated laboratories at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. His working hours vary. Now Riley works approximately 50 hours a week on the job. During the summer he averaged 70 to 80 hours weekly.

He considers himself lucky to labor under the auspices of Peter Walsh, a respected professor of biochemistry and thrombosis. Not every graduate employee has a “boss” who is as supportive or “well-funded,” he said.

Walsh steers the course of his studies, but a grad student “teaches himself,” says Riley.

Where stipends are traditionally considered “awards,” graduate employees say their stipends are wages, not awards. The Assistant to the Dean of Temple’s Graduate School, Shannon Mrkich, would not comment about TUGSA.

TUGSA is one of at least 10 public university student organizations now seeking graduate student employee unionization. Graduate assistants are also fighting for unions at two private institutions, Yale University and New York University. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of graduate student unionization at NYU on Oct. 31. The board defined assistants as employees protected under the National Labor Relations Act.

“We will not deprive workers who are compensated by, and under the control of, a statutory employer of their fundamental statutory rights to organize and bargain with their employer, simply because they also are students,” wrote members of the NLRB in their decision.

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