TUGSA plans to file government complaint after losing benefits

The union is seeking to challenge the university’s decision to cut healthcare and tuition remission for striking graduate students.

The deal includes new language about the process for raising grievances, and teaching and research assistants will receive the same pay regardless of their academic discipline. | EARL KUFEN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Temple University Graduate Students’ Association plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint following the university’s notification last week that striking members would not be receiving tuition remission for the spring semester.

On Feb. 8, TUGSA members on strike reported that their health insurance plans were deactivated immediately without warning from the university, with some learning they were uninsured while at pharmacies or doctor’s offices.

“We’re talking to our lawyer about all of our options, but we are seeking a challenge to what we believe is retaliation for going on strike,” said Bethany Kosmicki, a research assistant in the sociology department and a former TUGSA president who is on the contract negotiations team.

The union is still exploring its plan to submit the complaint through the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, and deciding whether the complaint applies to taking away tuition remission, healthcare or both, Kosmicki wrote.

Employers in Pennsylvania are legally allowed to pay striking workers, but ultimately can decide whether to cut benefits, according to Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Relations Act.

Morale within the union is high, and they’ve received immense support in light of the administration’s recent actions, Kosmicki said.

The university notified striking members twice that failure to report to work would result in the loss of their full compensation package, which includes work-related benefits and tuition remission, wrote Stephen Orbanek, a university spokesperson, in an email to The Temple News. 

“It is important to remember that in accordance with Pennsylvania law, those TUGSA members who have chosen not to work and are on strike are no longer entitled to compensation and work-related benefits, including tuition remission,” Orbanek wrote.

While Temple is not required to pay wages or health insurance to striking members, the university is taking a radical position by terminating health benefits at this stage of the strike, said Bill Zoda, co-executive director of Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners.

“In terms of, you know, looking at the strikes throughout the country, they may be the only university that has actually taken that position, especially so soon,” Zoda said.

At times, employers will decide to take benefits away after the strike has been going on for a longer period of time as a pressure tactic, Zoda said.

Last November, adjunct faculty at the New School in New York striked for more than three weeks while keeping pay and benefits, Forbes reported. The strike came to a close shortly after the university threatened to stop compensating faculty.

Temple’s decision has drawn criticism from multiple politicians, including United States Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who introduced the Striking Workers Healthcare Protection Act with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown last year.

“The right to organize, and to strike, are foundation principles in a democracy,” Casey wrote in a statement to The Temple News. “Temple grad students are exercising that right for better pay and working conditions. This retaliation tactic by Temple is unacceptable.” 

Casey and Brown’s bill was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last year, but it has not yet been passed.

Members who return to work can have their benefits restored immediately, and returning does not prohibit them from picketing or voicing their concerns, Orbanek wrote.

“We want the university to negotiate a fair contract with us, you know, they shouldn’t be having to participate in these kinds of union busting tactics, when they could sit down at the table with us and negotiate a fair contract,” Kosmicki said.

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