Striking Temple University graduates vote overwhelmingly against proposed contract

Members of the Temple University Graduate Students Association voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to reject a tentative deal reached last week, meaning their strike, which began Jan. 31, will continue.

Both sides noted they were ready to return to negotiations soon, the union said on Wednesday.

It’s unclear what will happen next, but it certainly means more turmoil for a university already in crisis as it copes with the aftermath of the shooting of one of its police officers.

The union represents 750 graduate teaching and research assistants, not all of whom are union members. Almost 400 graduate students voted, approximately 83% of the members, with 352 or more than 92% rejecting the offer and 30 accepting it. The offer included a pay rise of 10% in the first year, 5% in the second, 2.5% in the third and 2.25% in the fourth, the union said. It offered nothing towards health insurance for members’ dependents. It also included a one-time payment of $1,000 to each student covered under the agreement and improvements to parental and bereavement leave, the university said.

“Percentage increases are very misleading when it comes to low wages because even high percentages result in small dollar increases,” said Bethany Kosmicki, a member of the negotiating team and former TUGSA president.

The increases until the end of the contract would only bring the average salary to $23,500, which is not enough to live in Philadelphia, Kosmicki said.

“TUGSA members were offered the opportunity to vote on the agreement,” said Laurie Robins, a member of TUGSA’s contract negotiation team. “Your vote shows that the terms of the agreement are not sufficient to meet the needs of our members and tells the university administration that they must offer a truly fair contract.”

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The university was disappointed by the vote.

“We are incredibly disappointed,” said Ken Kaiser, Temple’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, who has been with the university for more than 30 years. “It is the first time in all my years that I can remember that a tentative agreement agreed by the university leadership and the union was not ratified.

“We are committed to getting back to the table and hopefully closing any gaps and keeping lines of communication open.”

» READ MORE: Temple University and striking graduate students reach tentative agreement

Steve Newman, past president of the Temple Association of University Professionals, the faculty association, said he thinks it’s unusual for a tentative agreement to be rejected, especially so firmly.

“But just because something is unusual doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he said.

Kosmicki said the union’s contract negotiation team had not commented on the tentative agreement but agreed to vote on it if the university so requested.

Jeffrey Doshna, current faculty association president, said the students are sending a clear message.

“The administration clearly has to be better than what they offered,” he said.

The university announced Friday night that it had reached a tentative agreement with TUGSA that would include a one-off payment in addition to salary increases in each of the four contract years. Graduate students would keep free health insurance for themselves, the university said. They would also have restored tuition waivers and been able to return to work, the university said.

TUGSA said in a press release on Saturday that it had agreed to present the university’s counter-proposal to its members in the form of a tentative agreement. Members have been voting for the past two days.

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» READ MORE: Striking graduate students feel the toll of Temple’s tactics but are standing firm

“Although the university is offering to restore benefits cut during the strike in this interim agreement, the terms of this proposed contract still do not meet our basic needs,” said TUGSA member Amanda Whitehead, a longtime instructor in the dance department. “These benefits should not have been reduced in the first place.”

Both sides have been negotiating for more than a year. It was the first strike in TUGSA’s 20-year history.

The two sides were far apart on benefits and wages.

The average salary for a part-time teaching and research assistant at Temple is $20,700 a year, according to the university’s latest figures, and the union had attempted to raise it to more than $32,000, an increase the she referred to as a necessary cost-of-living adjustment. The university had offered a 3% raise over the four-year contract.

The union had also asked the university to pay for medical insurance for the students’ dependents. Temple had paid the full cost of the students but nothing for their families.

The strike took on a divisive tone after the university decided to withdraw the tuition waivers from the striking graduate students, telling them it would pay their spring tuition until April 9. The school also stopped paying for their health insurance, prompting initial panic among students triggered the students who were temporarily cut off from the power supply.

» READ MORE: How does Temple student pay compare to other schools?

While the university said only 20% of graduate students went on strike – the union claimed twice that number – there were some disruptions to classes for those whose faculty went on strike. Many of the courses have been moved online to accommodate new faculty schedules and to deal with reported intimidation of students and faculty, the university said.

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The Temple riots came amid rising calls for better pay for graduate students nationally and followed strikes at several other colleges, most recently at the University of California. The University of Pennsylvania last semester passed a nearly 25 percent increase in its minimum salary for graduate students — the largest one-off increase in the school’s history. Beginning in 2023-24, the minimum stipend will increase from $30,547 to $38,000.

Some of Temple’s peer colleges pay graduate students more. At Pennsylvania State University, graduate assistants working 20 hours per week, 36 weeks per year earn an average of $24,822 per year.