We’re in the midst of an academic labor wave. Between the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on universities, the constant squeezing of academic labor, as well as the general crisis of the academic job market with the collapse of the tenure system and precarious contract teaching and research labor spread out to graduate students and adjuncts, it’s not hard to see why. For the vast majority of all university courses in the US, approximately 75%, are taught by people off the tenure track, graduate students who are overworked with declining career prospects, and adjuncts living desperately from semester contract to semester contract. However, academic labor is in a uniquely powerful position, via the withholding of labor during a strike, as universities are dependent for their functioning on having qualified teachers drawn from a pool of graduate students and credentialed academics teach courses – no teachers, no courses, and the university grinds to a halt. The current wave of graduate student employee and adjunct union strikes have resulted in major successes, with strikes at the University of California, the New School, and Columbia achieving almost all their demands.
The Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) strike at Temple University has become bitter and a flashpoint of future graduate student union activity in the country – on February 8th the university removed the tuition remission benefits and healthcare subsidies of striking graduate students, an unprecedentedly retaliatory and punitive reaction, setting a date of March 9th for tuition payment, or graduate students face the prospect of being unenrolled from the university. No other university at which graduate student strikes have occurred has taken such a step. The university administration is seemingly locked now into a zero-sum mindset, willing to stoop to the tactics of potentially destroying the university itself via forcing out hundreds of graduate students, and thereby fracturing multiple academic departments, and ruining the ability of the university to provide quality instruction in dozens of future courses, rather than concede to the union’s demands. Will Temple cut off its own nose to spite its face?
The strike was a long time coming. TUGSA’s contracts are negotiated on a four-year basis, and the last contract negotiations were to be finalized and new contract agreed to a year ago, in early 2022. TUGSA leadership began preparing for contract negotiations in the fall of 2021. The university administration however refused initially to even countenance contract negotiations, and it took the threat of legal action on the part of TUGSA to bring the administration to the table for legally required negotiations. Temple graduate students are among the lowest paid on the East Coast, making only an average of $19,500 a year for full time positions, with no guaranteed summer funding or teaching positions to even marginally improve on that number. The estimated cost of living in Philadelphia as of 2021 was $36,000. Graduate students at Temple are only given five days paid parental leave and three days paid bereavement leave and have to pay close to $500 out of pocket for each dependent on their Temple healthcare plans. Some families spend close to half their monthly TA or RA pay on dependent healthcare. This is an especially hard burden for international students whose F-1 Visa makes it illegal to work outside of Temple to supplement their incomes, and in some cases forced to leave their families behind in their home countries due to the exorbitant cost of out-of-pocket dependent healthcare. TUGSA’s leadership sought to negotiate a new and improved contract that would mitigate these terrible working conditions, including an immediate cost of living adjustment to approximately $32,000 the first year, 100% premium coverage of dependent healthcare, 45 days paid parental leave, and 7 days paid bereavement leave. The university administration refused to even consider any of TUGSA’s proposals, claiming that the contract was fine as is and essentially wanting the union to rubber stamp the old contract with nothing changed and no questions asked. The university has claimed that a pittance of a 3% raise over a four-year period, resulting in $22,000 by 2024, is a substantial act of generosity on the university’s part. With such low pay and benefits, TUGSA members are unable to survive in Philadelphia without taking on second or even third jobs on top of their teaching and research positions, or going into exorbitant amounts of debt, all of which results in lower standards of education for undergraduates – if teachers cannot make ends meet and exist in a highly stressful state of precarity, their ability to teach suffers. The low wages and benefits of graduate students are a twofold disservice by the university then, affecting undergraduates as well by delivering them a subpar education.
TUGSA refused to be treated in such a callous and inhuman manner and continued to try to negotiate for improved conditions and higher pay. For over a year the university administration has stalled and misdirected at all negotiation sessions and refused to take the union seriously. The current strike is a result of the administration’s pigheadedness – with the refusal of good faith negotiation, union members had no choice but to refuse their labor for their demands to be taken seriously. With the university administration’s unprecedentedly extreme retaliation against its own graduate students, the TUGSA is now at the forefront of academic labor relations and union organizing in the US. When we win (and I am confident that it is not an if but a when) we at TUGSA will show how powerful graduate student employees really are, and how no one should ever again be afraid of a university’s retaliation in the fight for better wages and improved working conditions. However, if TUGSA were to lose, it would set a precedent of how far universities can go in breaking graduate student unions and strikes and get away with it. The stakes are high – the strike is no longer an internal issue to Temple University, but a marker and trend setter of the future of academic labor in the US.
The tragedy is that Temple University was founded on an egalitarian vision in 1884 as a night school for the working class of Philadelphia, then burgeoning into a major global industrial powerhouse. Tuition was free and there were no admission requirements. Over a hundred years later that vision no longer exists. Temple is an example par excellence of the neoliberal university. Since the pandemic started, their coffers have grown $500 million due to a combination of increased tuition and fees, stock market investments, and government emergency aid. For example, when Temple received $150 million from the federal government for covid-related aid, they only spent half of the aid money and kept the rest for profit. During 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and as the university moved its operations online, with precariously employed graduate students and adjuncts facing the brunt of the sudden shift, TUGSA requested that the university pay $500 out of the federal Covid-19 aid to every graduate student per semester to help with the transition. The university administration refused this request, claiming that dispersing the aid would be “financially irresponsible.” In 2022, Moshe Porat, the dean of the Temple business school from 1996 to 2018, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy for juicing numbers and data to artificially boost the business school’s rankings and thereby attract more students and charge higher tuition. For the past decade the administration has been fixated on the idea of building a football stadium, estimated at a cost of over $100 million, and which would displace hundreds if not thousands of local residents in the predominately Black neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Despite pushback from residents in the areas of the city around Temple, and its own students, the administration still presses on for the stadium, hoping that once built it will generate even further profit as part of the university’s expansion. Temple among R1 universities, a classification for the highest level of research universities in the US, is last in the amount of money it spends on educational instruction relative to how much money it brings in through tuition and fees. Temple University’s administration is devoted to the relentless accumulation of capital, no matter the detriment to the primary claim of existence of a university in the first place, that of providing quality education.
As highlighted in a recent episode of The Dig, the modern American university is a strange beast, a hyper-monopoly that in many cases is simultaneously a hedge fund, landlord, sports franchise, real estate investor, research company, non-profit, police force, hospital, and healthcare provider. The largest employer in many states is either a university or a university affiliated medical company. The university is no isolated ivory tower, but rather a pillar of the economy, a site of capital concentration and capital flow on a massive scale. Yet all of this rests on a foundation of one kind of irreplaceable labor, that of providing educational instruction. Everything at a university is predicated on the maintenance of its stated goal of providing education and degrees, in order to draw in the tuition, accreditation, tax designations, federal and state government grants, and customers in the form of students, which make all of its other functions possible. This means that those who provide the education to students are in a position of extreme leverage over the overall function of the university, and the accompanying hundreds of millions of dollars that flow through it. Labor organizing at universities is then a matter of direct importance to the labor movement at large, both nationally and globally. In the revolutionary moment of 1968, a concern was how to link up radical students with factory workers to create a broad revolutionary united front capable of challenging the power of capital. Today, the students and the workers have been fused into one. Precariatized adjuncts and graduate students, the most isolated and exploited workers on university campuses, are also the most powerful people on university campuses, but only when they collectively realize their common position and stand together. Together, they can shut universities down, alter the flow and accumulation of capital, and force internal changes to university operations for the benefit of themselves and their students. Universities cannot afford to destroy their own educational workers, without risking destroying their own operations in the process. But is Temple willing to do so, in order to stop the momentum of the national academic labor wave?
The current president of Temple is Jason Wingard, a business executive and manager and self-proclaimed thought leader who has previously worked for Goldman Sachs, was former vice dean of the Wharton school of business and is the “Dean Emeritus and Professor of Human Capital Management at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS). He is also Founder and Chairman of The Education Board, Inc., a boutique management consulting firm specializing in executive coaching and corporate training.” Last week, while TUGSA members were on strike, marching miles every day on the picket line on Temple’s campus, and having their healthcare and tuition remission taken away, Wingard was as at a conference for business school deans in San Antonio run by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, where he gave the keynote address on the theme of “the college devaluation crisis.” During his address Wingard stated to the deans, “Do we pivot? Do we adapt? Do we blow it up? It is up to us to decide…this is a pivotal moment.” Wingard is more true than he realizes, but it is the TUGSA members on strike at his university that are deciding these questions, not him and the business school deans. The future of higher education in the US is in a pivotal moment. And it is on the picket lines at Temple and universities across the country that the old order must be blown up, in order that a new one can be built which can deliver a higher ideal – a high quality, democratic education for all, in a world free of capitalist exploitation. The strike at Temple cannot by itself achieve this. But it’s a start.
Mathias Fuelling is a PhD candidate in history at Temple and a TUGSA member. Many thanks to Josh Stern for his help in crafting this essay.