It’s 6 a.m., still dark and cold outside in the early March gloom, when Temple University third–year Ph.D. student Daniel Carsello leaves his apartment to pick up the UHaul loaded with supplies.
Elsewhere, Mathias Fuelling gets ready to head over to the picket line after a night working on his Ph.D. dissertation. Madison Ingram flips back and forth between two tabs on her computer, publicizing strike activity and planning a research trip to New Orleans. Across Temple’s campus, graduate students are awake and ready to fight.
Life as a graduate student is far from an aesthetic Pinterest board of romanticized academia. Instead of living in a movie montage of coffee–stained textbooks, shadowy Gothic buildings, and oversized tweed jackets, students often find themselves reliant on meager wages as they juggle research, teaching, student loans, and often multiple jobs.
While no Philly–based graduate students are exempt from these challenges, Temple grad students face particularly exploitative conditions, receiving tiered wages from $19,500 to $22,000 per year in a city where the average livable wage is around $32,800. And while they struggled below the living wage, a few streets away, Penn raised its graduate stipends to $38,000.
Temple initially justified their low wages by classifying graduate student labor as part–time work. But Madison, a fourth–year Ph.D. candidate in history, notes that she typically works around 40 hours a week. Like most graduate teaching assistants, Madison’s responsibilities include grading assignments, planning class sessions, and hosting office hours and recitations—often working more time than the professor teaching the class.
Due to the insufficient wages, Madison had to take on a second job as a tutor in addition to her graduate student responsibilities, an unspoken requirement for completing a graduate degree.
“Now, is that fair? Not necessarily. But I knew that, on a personal level, that [was] something I could get through for the five to six years it would take me to complete my dissertation,” Madison says. “That's simply not the case for so many of my colleagues. I have colleagues with children—with young children in particular. I have international colleagues who really aren't allowed to have that second job in the way that I could. It’s unfair that the second job is kind of a known system.”
Graduate students pursue further education because they want to learn. But many find that the unfair compensation they receive not only impacts their personal livelihood but also prevents them from fulfilling those intellectual goals.
“If I'm doing those 20 hours—[and] I'm doing more than that—then it pushes into [those] 20 hours that they think I should be working on my dissertation,” Madison says. “The unfairness of the wage means that I don't get to spend the time that I want with my students and their work, because I'm also pushing against that research time and this gig economy.”
Mathias Fuelling, a sixth–year history Ph.D. candidate, explains that the Temple administration exacerbates his and others’ stress with unsafe COVID–19 policies and lack of support. Grad students live in a precarious situation as both students and employees of their institutions, a gray area that leads to unfair compensation and unequal support.
“The thing that's kind of weird about being a grad worker is that sometimes your boss is trying to convince you that you're not really an employee, but at the same time, it's very clear that they rely on the fact that you are an employee,” says Sam Seymour, a fourth–year Ph.D. student in the Penn English department.
Fed up, in November of 2022, the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) voted with a 99% majority to authorize its first campus–wide strike. “Everyone was really fired up last fall about a strike. Everyone was really angry,” Mathias says.
TUGSA ultimately decided to delay the strike over logistical concerns that would affect its longevity—finals seasons, international student visas, and a short timeline with the upcoming break. But when students came back to campus on Jan. 31, the fight for fair wages began.
Wearing neon green shirts emblazoned with the phrase “TAs AND RAs ON STRIKE,” over 750 graduate students picketed on Temple’s campus, joined by supporters from around the Philadelphia community. TUGSA members protested unfair working conditions and walked out of their classes in order to pressure the university to meet them at the negotiating table.
The strike quickly gained momentum and national attention, receiving support from the likes of John Fetterman and Bernie Sanders. Graduate students from around the Philly area, including Penn students, met their peers on the picket line in a show of solidarity, and those who didn’t join still vocalized support for the efforts of their Temple counterparts.
Two weeks into the strike, Temple cut healthcare and tuition remission for participating TUGSA members. Temple’s drastic measures faced national scrutiny, being the first institution to entirely slash the typical benefits awarded to graduate workers. Hundreds of Temple students received emails stating that they had a week to pay tuition fees which ranged from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Some students had to pay for medical expenses out of pocket, while others feared the potential impact these tuition payments could have on their savings.
“I know of a few people who have paid out of pocket for their health care services,” Madison says. “But I don't know that anybody has stopped striking. What it really did for a lot of people, me included, was reinvigorate our dedication to the strike.”
Despite their commitment to the protests, students still struggled to balance both student and organizer responsibilities. Students would demonstrate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while balancing their research obligations and financial responsibilities. “The strike was very intense,” Mattias recalls. “Every weekday the strike was going on—going to meetings, planning, calling people, organizing—it really was like a full–time job. And that's just me as a rank–and–file member.”
Daniel Carsello, a third–year Ph.D. student in Music with a Music Studies concentration, faced a unique struggle as both president of TUGSA and director of the Glee Club at Penn, commuting between the picket line and chorus line. “There were some days where I was at Temple for nine hours a day and at Penn for an additional five,” Carsello says, “My experience is not unique–many TUGSA members have taken on second or even multiple jobs to make ends meet. While it was never easy, simultaneously directing the Glee Club and being TUGSA president during the strike was incredibly rewarding.”
Students joined the strike from across campus–spanning various departments and years. Madison recalls learning how to manage stress from psychology students during the strike while political science students offered strategic advice. “It's been a bonding experience being on strike together,” Madison says. “Strikes are doing really important work, but they're fun when you get to hang out with your friends. And you know that you're doing something important and lasting.”
For many TUGSA members, the strike became an opportunity to build community at Temple. Often, graduate students are isolated within their own departments without a wider support network of peers. TUGSA provided both political and social support for grad students who were able to find newfound solidarity over their experiences in higher education.
Even in the midst of immense pressure, strikers leveraged their community to fight against Temple’s extreme retaliation measures. Mathias says, “Temple really tried to back us into a corner, but that just made us stronger and fight harder. I think pretty much everyone was saying 'We are not going to back down. We're going to fight harder, and we're going to win.'”
At the end of February, Temple pressured TUGSA to vote on a tentative deal. While the university’s administration lauded it as a potential victory, TUGSA ultimately rejected the proposal by a landslide, citing insignificant improvements to student compensation.
One month later, Temple renegotiated, this time with a much–improved offer that raised wages and provided greater support for graduate students with dependents. It was accepted by 90% of TUGSA. “It wasn't exactly everything we wanted, but we definitely got movement on all the things we wanted to see improvement on, so I think of it as a victory,” Mathias says.
The TUGSA strikes are part of a larger wave of national unionization at higher education institutions. “It’s my hope that the TUGSA strike can serve as a reminder of the power of collective action, organizing, and trusting in each other,” Daniel says. Across the country, graduate students have begun to organize against unfair treatment and exploitative practices. Even within Philadelphia, two new unions have emerged since the TUGSA strike, organized by Penn Museum workers and resident advisors. “Whenever the strike happens, we’re going to be on their picket lines. We're part of a big broad national movement rather than just about Temple,” Mathias says.
In fact, unions might be the last hope for a higher education industry in crisis over departmental cuts, shrinking tenure positions, and political conflict. Madison, who is originally from the South, notices parallels between the experiences of southern universities back home facing political pressures over curriculum choices and Temple’s battle for collective bargaining. In fact, graduate students at some southern schools even reached out to TUGSA for organizing advice as they began their own fights for unionization.
“In my own personal hope, what TUGSA can do is show that in a David and Goliath situation, especially for unions in the south that are historically really pushed against, if you come together, you can make these things happen,” Madison says. “You can fight against some really draconian measures when you're together in a union.”