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Temple University Strike Offers Lessons For Academic Labor Organizers

Above Photo: A detail view of the Temple Owls logo during the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena on February 22, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dylan Buell/Getty Images.

Strike captain and student-worker Josh Stern explains the arc of Temple’s recent victorious contract battle.

On Jan. 31 of this year, the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) launched the first strike in their 25-year history. The decision to strike came as a result of years of organizing that largely began in 2020, after Temple’s decision to force in-person classes in the fall of 2020 led to a completely preventable COVID-19 outbreak. Striking for 42 days, graduate student-workers faced cuts to their health insurance, threats to lose tuition remissions, and more. Nevertheless, TUGSA persevered, winning a new contract that raised wages and eliminated Temple’s wage-tier system for graduate student-workers in different departments. Although the new contract doesn’t meet TUGSA’s maximal demands, the mettle and commitment displayed by student-worker organizers offers a bright spot with important lessons for the labor wave roiling academic institutions across the country. Vince Quiles, lead organizer of Home Depot United Philadelphia, interviews TUGSA strike captain Josh Stern to learn more about the story of the Temple University strike.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Vince Quiles: What’s up everyone? This is Vince reporting for the Real News Network. I’m the lead organizer from Home Depot store 4112 in Philadelphia, and today I’m very excited to announce a guest from the recent Texas strike. Our friend Josh Stern. Josh, how are you today?

Josh Stern: I’m doing great, Vince. How are you?

Vince Quiles: Doing well, man. Thanks for asking. I’m super, super, super excited to have this conversation with you today. Very excited to get this information out to people and to get one of the individuals from a really cool labor fight that just was won recently. And somebody with your background being a labor historian, obviously again, being in this recent fight that was super, super big and it’s something that we see across the country where there’s a lot of grad students that are going on strike. And so to be able to get some perspective from someone who’s on the ground and someone who has such a rich history in terms of labor and just an expansive perspective on labor within this country. So with that being said, can we just get a little bit into what your role is at Temple, what it is you do?

Josh Stern: Yeah, so I’m a student and a worker, which kind of is kind of defines the graduate student kind of bargaining unit. So I do dissertation research. As you said, I’m a labor historian. I’ve been doing that for the last five years. I go to archives and I write and I also teach, I’ve been teaching there for the last five years, started as just a grader and for the last three years I’ve been doing actual teaching and called it instructor of records. So some of us as TAs actually create the courses ourselves, create the lectures, the syllabus, the whole nine yards. And I’ve been doing that and I’ve been enjoying doing that. So I teach about 120 students a year, teaching in labor history, teaching US Latin American relations, empire studies, Cold War studies. I love doing it. I’ve been a teacher for a long time.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s awesome. And you kind of touched on something there that I think is very interesting and it seems like is kind of core to the graduate student fight, which is how much of the work you guys do yourself preparing your own syllabus, teaching your courses and things to that effect, and just having so much of that workload on you. I’m guessing that was a motivating factor for you guys where you’re like, Hey, we need to be represented better, we need to be treated more fairly because in the end you’re doing the work and you got to be getting what you’re worth and what you’re contributing to the value at Temple.

Josh Stern: Yeah, a hundred percent. we’re not supposed to work over 20 hours a week per our contract, but many, many of us are working over 20 hours a week a on average. It’s not just teachers. We have people in our bargaining unit that do research in labs that are working over 20 hours in some cases and things like that. And then also it’s not just the amount of work, but the respect for the work that we’re doing, which a lot of that is based on how much we’re getting paid. But other kinds of things as well that we were fighting for. We were getting paid on average $19,500 a year more or less.

Sometimes we get a summer course, maybe that goes up a little bit, but that level of disrespect was a big reason why we decided to go on strike as a union because we knew how much money we were generating for the university, but also how much we were contributing to the core values of what the university was saying. And them just giving us 19,5 a year was a slap in the face honestly. So that was why, a big reason why we went on strike.

Vince Quiles: And I’m sure when you dig into the books, Temple’s like it’s a public university, but it also receives private funds, if I’m not mistaken, correct?

Josh Stern: Yeah, so they get about 15 to 18% of their revenues from the state. It’s called state appropriations. So they’re a state related university. The vast majority of the revenue comes from tuition as well as other things like sporting events, merchandise, they have some money in the stock market, but all of this, because they’re publicly funded in some way. They’re audited by a third party every year. So you can go online and see a little bit about where their money’s at. And we did a lot of that forensic analysis leading up to the strike and put it in our messaging and things like that. Leading up to the strike, we found that the president of the university who now resigned recently, we can kind of talk about why he might have resigned.

They renovated his offices for about $4 million the last year and we were getting paid 19,5 a year. So that was a big kind of messaging factor. They want to build a football stadium, the coach of the football team gets paid $2 million a year, this kind of stuff. So they cry poverty, and I do think that the state should be giving more money to universities and things like that, but they really enjoy having these individual debt obligations from students that are fully financed by the government and then being able to use that for whatever they see fit.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, absolutely. I mean something you allude to there, and it’s something that we see just in this labor struggle across the country, which is when you start to crack open the books, you see that they’re the means to take care of your employees, take care of people that have long-lasting work. Because I think another thing that’s important to note with graduate students, correct me if I’m wrong, but the fact that the work that you guys do, the research you do that is then available for as long as the school is open. So you’re contributing something that is very long-lasting and to be getting what it is that you guys are getting compared to what you see Temple’s making, yeah, that’s got to be a very frustrating experience not being valued at where you guys are at again and contributing something that is so long-lasting.

Josh Stern: Right. Yeah, the research for sure, I mean, I’m not a research assistant, but I’ve talked to many obviously doing organizing work. They get NIH grant, National Institute of Health grants from the government. A lot of that money comes from the government and Temple takes about half that money for whatever reason. And then all the amazing work that those research assistants are doing in their labs contributes to products that we all use and need. And I think also in the teaching aspect, you can think of it as we’re teaching students that are going to go off and do all kinds of things, and that is not just a benefit to Temple and of the other classes that the students are in and that kind of environment but is a benefit to society. Coming from a teaching background and doing teacher organizing work, I know that’s a huge motivating factor for teachers is knowing that the work they’re doing is for a public good generally and therefore should be supported well, for the work that they’re doing. So both cases [inaudible 00:07:00] benefits, but the whole society does too.

Vince Quiles: For sure. And I mean, right, again, it’s the classic case if you’re going to expect a certain level of quality from individuals, you do have to pay for that, right? It’s always the case if you get what you pay for and if you’re paying under and you’re shafting people, which can lead to a whole plethora of issues that we’ve kind of touched on a little bit. But I’m sure many people who will be watching this, who’ve been organizing in their respective efforts can empathize with that really pushes that energy to get people to that point to say what we’re going to try and form a collective unit. Something I kind of wanted to just delve into a little bit more you just touched on is your background with teaching. Can you give us a little bit more of your personal history and how you ended up where you are?

Josh Stern: Sure. Yeah. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Went to a public school, well-funded public school from a well-to-do area generally where property taxes, I got to see what a great school could be through property taxes, through public funding. And when I left there and I went to Chicago for undergrad, I ended up getting an education degree. Learned a lot in Chicago growing up in the city. I worked a lot in the public schools and realized immediately that it was not the same public school that I went to. And I learned a lot from the teachers there that were working there. I learned a lot from the struggles that were going on, the labor struggles that were going on in Chicago.

Chicago is the labor town strikes everywhere, big marches around workers’ rights. The biggest one for me I think was the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 where they had a insurgent caucus that won the presidency, won the executive office of the union, and then immediately went on strike. And they went on strike, not just for bread and butter issues like wages, which are really important, but they went on strike for lower class sizes. They went on strike to make sure that the schools were safe. They went on strike because they understood that the work needs dignity and that’s the students that they’re teaching need to be treated with dignity as well. And I just learned from doing that, from being at those strikes and walking the picket lines and going to the marches and talking to people at them that, wow, okay, this is a bigger kind of fight. And that really opened my eyes to the importance of bringing together worker rights and public education together in a broader struggle.

So I did that for a while. I ended up getting a major in math education. I taught math Chicago public schools for a bit, and then I traveled to Chile to teach math down there as well in English. And that experience was also pretty eye-opening in terms of seeing, talking to people about the different kind of politics. And I kind of expanded my ideological and kind of political lens around the history of Chile specifically and got involved in really wanting to study history. I didn’t in undergrad for a minor in it, but learning about Salvador Allende and the rise of his coalition government in the 1970s and everyone kind of still talking about that. And then the dictatorship that happened after and being able to hear about that really also opened my eyes to the possibilities that we have in the United States compared to other countries.

Other countries, you go on the streets, you get shot sometimes or there’s a dictatorship for 17 years if you fight for your rights. So it really put into perspective, it’s still tough out here for sure, but the level of political violence that can happen when you try to transform society and what the stakes were that really put that into perspective for me. And not that we shouldn’t be doing that, but that we need to be prepared and we need to be very calculated about when we do organize and fight because there are real consequences to that.

But that really kind of shaped my view of what the struggle was really going to be long term to really fight for these things because in other countries they really tried to do that. And there can be a backlash, [inaudible 00:11:21]. So that was always in my mind in terms of organizing later, was that there’s always a chance of the employer or whoever you’re fighting against fighting back hard and making… And if you want to make sure that you survive that fight, you got to make sure you’re really [inaudible 00:11:36] well organized and people are ready to do that fight. And I think that contributed a lot to my organizing work at Temple with grad students too.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, for sure. I mean that’s amazing. And something I kind of just want to point out to people, take it from Josh, he studied math, he’s got experience, this guy knows. So when you talk about the importance of organizing, there’s a lot of weight that goes behind that and a lot of perspective that goes behind it. And that’s something that’s so important within this labor struggle. And it’s just absolutely fascinating to see and to be able to speak to someone who has that wide breadth of knowledge and experience in organizing and understanding how to take that to the forefront of their fight. And so can I ask then, can you think of maybe a particular time where within your fight you reflected on those experiences and maybe where you felt things were a little bit difficult? But then you kind of remember the difficulties that you just talked about living in a country that has a dictatorship, the dangers that come with organizing and in an environment like that just being like, you know what? Yeah, this is really difficult, but at the same time it could always be worse.

Josh Stern: Yeah, I think for sure there was a few times, I mean one of the big kind of reason I got involved and organized at Temple, which again, I mean I also want to say too, I mean all these experiences helped me with putting my ideological and political and kind of perspective on what I was doing. But I hadn’t really done hardcore organizing work day-to-day until I went to Temple. And I learned a lot from the organizers that were already doing that at Temple. And there was a great group of people that kind of started pushing for the union before I kind of jumped in. But I jumped in around COVID and the reason I did was because Temple was one of the only… I think the only university in Philadelphia, there were other universities doing this, it wasn’t just Temple, but in Philadelphia that kind of forced people back to work and students back to campus in the fall of 2020 before vaccines.

And as a result of that, the administration kind of forced department chairs to have to find people to teach those courses that were in person and we had to get volunteers. And to me that was the breaking point where I decided that I was going to sacrifice my work time for my dissertation to do this work because it reminded me of what I learned in that level of violence and also the violence I had seen on the streets in marches and strikes and things like that. Oh, okay, like that is a level of violence that I cannot accept. At this university at this institution I’m going to make sure I dedicate a lot of time to make sure that when they try to do that again, they’re not going to be able to do that again.

And I think we were able to accomplish that. We have a much stronger union now because of the strike win. But yeah, I would just say that kind of maybe reflected bit on my past experiences, listening to reaction of employers and things like that and their ability to put workers in harm’s way. So I decided that was the moment when I was going to spend a lot of time doing this work and I’m happy I did.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, for sure. Hey man, look, as somebody who also tries to organize and is from the city, it was really awesome to see what you guys did there and to see the ferocity with which you fought. And I can say I’m personally very appreciative of it. I’m sure many of our viewers who followed with the fight also appreciative of that. Kind of digging into it though, one thing that you allude to a little bit, just talking about the struggles within your fight, what are the difficulties that you face in a grad student fight? I feel like we’re very familiar with retail struggles, trade union struggles in the trades. What did you find unique to the grad student struggle?

Josh Stern: Yeah, I think there’s a few things. One is the isolation. The type of work that we do, meaning research work, especially in the humanities in history, for example, there’s almost no co-authors on a book. You’re really just doing it for yourself. You’re sitting in a room researching in an archive or whatever. And as you know as an organizer, that’s like the opposite of what you want. When you try to organize people, you’re doing a collective effort. It’s not an individual effort. And there’s a lot in-house. And also a lot of people are sitting there when they’re doing that work, they’re sitting there thinking in their heads. So there’s a lot of abstraction, which is great. I mean you need theory and you need abstraction and you need to believe in something when you want to win. But as the most important thing with organizing is the day-to-day things about what you do, not about what you think or say, but what you do every day.

And there were a lot of people that were definitely willing to do that work, but others that had to be convinced to, like I said, to sacrifice a little bit with what your dissertation is, which is why you came here to this university ultimately to fight for this thing that’s a collective struggle or something that… And it’s actually kind of beautiful for something that there’s a lot of, I’m a fifth year, this contract we won is going to be four years. I’m not going to see that. I’m not going to get a dime out of that.

A lot of people were in that position that went on strike every day and were teachers and they did it knowing that they weren’t going to materially benefit directly from it, but they did it anyway. And that was something that kind of symbolizes the transformation that people felt in this struggle and that we were able to feel when they went to the negotiation sessions, the open negotiation session, and heard the other side demean us. And not care about their coworkers and saying that you don’t deserve more than five days parental leave, even if they didn’t have kids, they knew someone in their department that did that needed that.

So just that experience, that is a unique thing I think to grad school is the abstraction and thinking and trying to step out of that and just start doing something collectively was a struggle in some ways. But there’s also a lot of benefits to having that, right? Because people have these particular fields that they’re focusing on. The computer science for example, there’s a lot of folks that ended up joining the union and organizing in computer science. And those skills were directly applicable to winning the strike in terms of coding, organizing work in that way, super helpful. Sociologists and social workers that had already had experience talking to people, going through emotions and grief and being able to have that on the picket lines was incredible. So all these particular skills that you develop and you’re there for at the university can be a wealth of knowledge and resources that can be used towards its collective struggle.

So once you figure out a way to organize people around and make that decision that they’re going to sacrifice the individual for the collective, all of those resources can be used to your benefit. I think that’s why grad students are winning right now. It’s a big reason why grad students are winning because they do have a lot of this, these different kinds of skills that can be applied in this way. And the last thing too is the amount of international students that were there. A lot of jobs have people from other countries for sure, but with the international students specifically, a lot of them ended up having a lot of experience that they would bring to the meetings about their experiences in their home countries in organizing, in student organizing, you go to a lot of other countries like France or India or Bangladesh or whatever and or Southeast Asia.

And in those countries, student strikes are very common, much more common than here and in particular ways in with much larger institutions. So a lot of organizers had that experience already doing student organizing where they came from in their undergrad and were comfortable doing that. Now for them, they’re in a particularly risky situation because they’re on a visa, but they still have the right to strike and all this stuff. So they had to overcome a lot of what Temple was lying about or implicitly saying… They put out a ton of stuff in the lead up to the strike being you should seek an immigration attorney, stuff like this. That was just really crazy trying to convince people not to go on strike saying like, Hey, maybe you won’t be here if you do that, or something like that, even though they had the legal right to do it.

Like I was saying before they, they’re from countries where if you go… I have an organizer from Jordan who was telling me about what happens in Jordan when you go out on the streets, it’s not a pretty thing and they still did it. So it’s going from that to this is kind of, it’s still scary, but it’s having those experiences and bringing them to the union is incredibly rich. So I think those are what’s unique about the grad students struggles are these particular challenges, but also these particular amazing resources that you can bring to win the fight.

Vince Quiles: I mean, it seems like right with anything in life, it’s always a double-edged sword. And the thing I thought about as you talked about how everybody’s very into what they do, they’re a bit isolated. It sounds like maybe the issue you guys had in the beginning was too many cooks in the kitchen, but eventually you found out how to get that to jail well together. And it seems like where it can be a struggle, it’s also very useful in the sense that there has to be that balance of these ethereal concepts of what labor organizing is about and being able to take these things conceptually and then overcoming the barriers that you guys face being grad students and that isolation and basically just taking it and saying, okay, well let’s take this knowledge that we have, let’s now distill it and get to the day-to-day work to that groundwork.

And what it also sounds like with the international students is there’s also just this source of motivation because you see these direct examples of courage and I mean a major staple, you can speak to that, that is very, very important within an organizing effort. Because in the end of the day, you guys are all individual grad students trying to collectivize, but you’re taking on a very powerful university. And I grew up in this city, Temple has a large history, carries a lot of weight behind it. And so that must have also been very useful in the sense of being able to derive that inspiration from one another, which is also something that’s so intrinsic to organizing.

Josh Stern: Yeah, I think so. I think we definitely fed in each other’s energy during this whole thing. And I guess I can give an example, it was during the strike that same organizer from Jordan, and he was one of the folks that were targeted, we think maybe not, maybe it was random, but he was organizing in the hard sciences and the computer science, which are places where there weren’t as many people on strike. And about a week into the strike or as eight, nine days, they cut our health insurance itself, which was a student insurance. We thought maybe they would cut our subsidies that was union negotiated for our premiums. But they then didn’t just do that, they stopped the health insurance coverage without telling us. So people went to the doctor and couldn’t get their prescriptions they needed for pain or whatever it was. Mental health appointments for canceled, this kind of stuff.

And when he told me that, I mean he was dejected that day, it was during the strike day he came up and told me that. And for them, for international students, that’s also something that’s really dangerous because you need a health insurance to be on a visa. So for him, he was thinking, “Am I ever going to be able to come back to this country again? Am I going to be able to finish this?” Always going through his head. The next day after all this was happening, hundreds of people came out for a press conference that we had. And he another student from Jordan who also lost his health insurance, came out in front of hundreds of people. English is a second language, cameras rolling. I think the DA Krasner was there, all these really important political people were there and told Temple that he wasn’t afraid and he was going to stay out on his strike.

And I think that moment brought everybody together, moments that are incredible and brought everybody together. And at that moment we were like, no one’s going back. No one’s going to go back in. And then people started joining the strike after that. So that’s some of that stuff is the juice. That’s like the that’s, and he got that from his experiences in Jordan being in these and I’m sure from organizing and not being afraid and being be out there. So that motivated me for sure, and I’m sure a lot of other people. But yeah, I just wanted to make sure we talked about that too.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, I mean that’s super, super powerful. Again, somebody that has everything to lose, they put their life back home on hold in order to come out to the US to trying to better their lives, to expand their horizons, and they’re fighting again with their coworkers for something that’s better… To your point, English is a second language. You’re in a place that you don’t really know. And when you have every reason to say, you know what? Yeah, I’m just going to walk away from this. Instead, you decide to stand up and to fight. That’s so powerful and so amazing.

And one of the things I think is so important for people to really hear about in your guys’ struggle and to just take away from the importance of courage because it’s something that is so important I hope for organizing, is to have that level of courage and to hear those examples of it is absolutely amazing. Can we also delve a little bit more into… You talked a little bit earlier just about some of the things around COVID, but what were your personal motivating factors that really pushed you along with organizing that said, we’re going to engage in this strike, we’re going to engage in this fight? What experiences did you have? What did you see in your day-to-day work life that really just animated you to be like, yeah, you know what? We’re going to do this, we’re going to go ball to the wall with it?

Josh Stern: Yeah, I mean there’s some personal stuff from my background. Like I said, my family was well-to-do family. And when I went to Chicago and kind of changed my political ideologies a little bit to the left, I brought that back and kind of talked to my family about these different… My redistributive policies, universal healthcare, raising taxes under the rich, needing to restructure our society worker rights. And they weren’t totally against that stuff, but I became the black sheep little bit of the family at family dinners or whatever it was, or when I was talking to my friends or whatever, and that’s okay, that’s okay. But I think personally that I needed personally something where I knew that those things I believed in could be possible. And this moment was an opportunity to really dedicate myself to making sure that that could be possible at Temple University in this particular struggle.

And if that’s possible… And then I think a lot of people saw that too, where I was just like, I didn’t think this was possible and it’s possible and now I’m going to go to my next job and I know other things are possible with that job. I might start a union there, that kind of stuff. So that was personally a big one, moving into it. But also just my day-to-day interactions doing the organizing work after that COVID experience and talking to international, specifically international students actually. But also people with families, people that come to Temple, single mothers with three kids, people that they don’t talk about. But when you look at the contract of five days parental leave and no dependent health insurance, we’re like, you got to pay $500 out of pocket, but one dependent on your healthcare sitting at 20K a year where you’re not allowed to work outside of the university if you’re an international student.

Like that to me just says that you don’t want working mothers to be grad students, to teach other people. That’s what that says to me. When I was talking to people, that’s how they felt too. And they wanted to change it. And that really motivated me. I mean, with international students too, not having to go to the food pantry, that kind of stuff, like talking, being embarrassed. I remember talking to one international student who was embarrassed to go to the food pantry, and I always looked over her shoulder to make sure her students wouldn’t see her when she did that. So that kind of stuff just motivated me even more to make sure that we fought in one, even for folks that at the end of the day didn’t choose to strike because they were so scared. There were a lot of folks that could have struck and unfortunately they didn’t, maybe would’ve won more, but there were a lot of folks that didn’t strike because they were really scared and they didn’t have this kind of thing.

And I think now that we won this, they’re now feeling much more comfortable and more protected, being able to do that for the next time or join the union. So I think it was a combination of both my personal kind of experiences and wanting this to be won. And trying to do everything I possibly can to win it, to make my belief in the left and worker rights and worker strength to be a reality, but also just the day-to-day speaking to people. And that really made me decide I could be doing this other thing, but I’m going to do this now today. And that’s how you win.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, I mean, one thing I think that’s very interesting as you talk about your background and the trajectory that you’ve gone on getting into labor organizing is you just seem like a person who’s kind of walked in two worlds. To your point saying that you came from a more well-to-do area, and so you saw what was possible and then you went into places like Chicago, you went to places like Chile, to your point that you were just talking to different students or different graduate students who were having various struggles. You get to really see both sides of the spectrum and really find that balance.

And it’s something that’s so powerful and hopefully resonates with people in the sense that you’re fighting to try and make something possible. You’re trying to fight and make that ideal possible. And that’s what it’s about is you don’t know going into these fights how it’s going to look on the other side, but in the end, you’re guided by what you feel is right. You’re motivated by the people around you and the struggles around you and trying to advance that cause because ultimately we are a society that needs each other.

We can try and have the singular approach. So even what you stated in the grad students struggle where everybody’s kind of off in their own corners doing their own thing, but in the end you ultimately need to come together because if not, it’s very difficult to overcome various obstacles in life that are presented by the system that we have in place. And that’s so commendable and so admirable that again, you want to fight to try and make something better to say, Hey, I know that the odds are insurmountable. I personally love Star Wars, and so it makes me think of that line from Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds,” right? And in the end, you can make the impossible possible and that’s awesome. How does it feel? Just going through that fight, having gone through what you guys went through, I’m sure that there were some… Clearly, you talked about some very high highs. I’m sure that there were also some very low lows, as you were saying, people getting their healthcare covered. How are you feeling now post fight achieving the win that you guys achieved?

Josh Stern: It feels incredible, honestly. I mean, it wasn’t exactly… For some reason I felt like it was going to be someone was going to come out of the negotiation table with a big piece of paper, we all are going to cry or whatever, or it was going to be a terrible, terrible situation where I was just like, we lost and it was just like this… And it was something in between that. And I think, so it was a very strange feeling of doing that work for years and culminating in this contract and feeling proud of it. And I mean, I have to say, for those of you who are going to go on strike, because you have such a high emotional state when you’re on strike, it’s like you’re on a high. That after the strike, you’re going back into that employer employee relationship again, which is not always the best.

And you going back to work, there’s a freedom in being on strike. I mean, a very dangerous thing, obviously. This should be a last resort. You shouldn’t have to go on straight to get the things that we’re trying to get, but the act of doing it and is a really freeing thing. You get to focus just on this disruption and finding a way to fight together to win. And that’s really, really incredible feeling. And then right after it’s like, that’s not happening, so you kind of go on this low and I was feeling a little sad actually, not about the contract, but just not doing that and going back to… But now I’m feeling good, now I’m getting back into research and all that kind of stuff. But I felt it was incredible and we celebrated together as a union, and it was incredible just to take that long view back of where we came from.

We had, what was it? The last contract in 2018 when I first came to Temple, I wasn’t super involved in the union. I signed the card or whatever, but I wasn’t super involved. I think we had maybe 15% membership density or 20% meaning one out of five people paid dues that could in the bargaining unit. By the beginning, of the strike many, many organizers, worked really, really hard those years to get that membership density up to about 60, 65% in just three years. So tripling that number or quadrupling that number. And then going through that strike and having pretty much no one leave the strike, no one went back and people joined the strike during it. And overcoming all of these hurdles, the health insurance cut, I didn’t mention that they added tuition back onto our accounts. And it’s kind of a unique thing with grad work, but essentially grad students can’t pay for tuition.

So they work and they get a tuition remission often, even if you don’t have a union, it’s pretty common in other universities almost anywhere, and that allows you to work and study. They were like, no, now that you’re on strike, you’re going to have thousands and thousands of dollars of dollars put under your account, which could theoretically mean that you won’t be able to register for classes, which means your dissertation’s over effectively. So that was the first time any university had done that and cut the health insurance. So we were an unprecedented territory. It was a huge mistake on their part because that brought national attention to the strike. Like I said before, they underestimated us. They underestimated that organizer that decided to come out the next day and tell them to go shove it essentially. And they underestimate us the whole time. And I’m just so proud that I was able to do that with everybody else and make an incredible amount of friends during that time.

It’s such an emotional kind of time that you build these relationships with people that will never break after you’ve all been through something like that before. And I’m so happy that we’re going to have a strong union moving forward. That was one of the biggest wins is that now this union’s going to be here and it’s going to get stronger, and we’re going to win an even better contract next time and build on what we already won. And we set out to make sure that we got dependent health insurance on the board, which we did increases of parental leave, which we did, all the things we were fighting for to make sure that families could be whole and be grad students. International students could be whole, and be grad students and live here and not live in fear and that people could have enough to live.

And that teachers, a big month for me is that I had to work other jobs to make up for the money. I couldn’t live on 20K, so that means I’m not focusing on my teaching, which I love to do. So students won too. Students won a better education during this as well. So yeah, all those things came together at the end and it was kind of hard to process, honestly.

Vince Quiles: For sure. I mean, it’s such a major fight. I guess you could maybe for some of the viewers out there, they can relate in terms of a post-show sadness or something that’s just so powerful. It’s such a powerful experience. And then what’s all over, you’re like okay, what now, what do we do now? And again, your guys’ fight was… It was super, super awesome to watch and a really big learning experience too in how to come together and how to engage in that battle of attrition and to continue to fight. And I mean, hey, you guys should be super, super proud that you have written an amazing chapter in the labor history of this country.

Something that will forever be talked about as long as we talk about labor within this country. And I thank you for the example that you guys set, and hopefully people watching this can learn something from what you’ve had to say today. So with that being said, as we close out, is there anything you’d like to shout out? Anything you’d like to plug? Is there a way that we can keep up with you and keep up with what’s going on at TUGSA? Yeah, just anything you’d like to plug in.

Josh Stern: Sure. I would say at Temple right now, there’s still a fight going on. So the president resigned, which is awesome. And now because there’s a no confidence vote that was being put out, that’s going to be voted on starting next week by the professor’s union, TAUP and two other people are on the board of trustees chair, Mitchell Morgan, who is… He went to Temple, their business school, I think kind of got overlooked a little bit about in this strike. And then the president got a lot of flack, but that’s still a fight to make sure that he resigns because his leadership has led to a lot of these problems at the university. It’s led to the corporate kind of transformation of the university is at the forefront of that, in terms of education, corporatizing education, this is a fight.

If public education is going to be something that we need as a public service, as a public good, we need to get some of these corporate guys out of the decision making power. So that’s happening. And so people should follow that and support the professor’s union. They’re going to have a contract coming up next semester, a really big one, to fight budget cuts and things like that. The university said, oh, we’re going to pay for the increases in wages to grad students by raising tuition. So I know undergrads came out strong for us. They had a 2000 person walkout, did a huge walkout on Broad Street. They’re going to keep fighting for tuition freezes, things like this, right? That’s really, really important. Rutgers had a strike authorization vote. It’s a huge AFT union across three campuses, and they have a wall to wall situation.

So that’s a really, really important fight for them to win. And then finally, shout out to Brandon Johnson in Chicago, won the mayoral race in Chicago Teachers’ Union organizer [inaudible 00:39:29] teacher organizer as the mayor of Chicago. And that, those of you who followed Chicago politics, Karen Lewis, who was the former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, who was the president during that strike that I was talking about, who won that election. She was going to win against Rah Emanuel, who was the opposite of her, right? This kind of corporate democrat guy. But unfortunately, she got diagnosed with brain cancer and she died and she couldn’t do it. But this is like the resurgence. And now Chicago is going to have some brighter days, and I just want to give a shout-out to the CTU and Brandon Johnson and that wins.

Vince Quiles: Oh yeah. That’s amazing. Well, my friend, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for enlightening us to your struggle and just teaching us a little bit about how you guys found a way to overcome that struggle and get the win that you did. Congratulations again, and I think another important takeaway, just to let the viewers know clearly from what you’re saying, the fight never really truly stops and just evolves. And so we must have all [inaudible 00:40:28] it.

Josh Stern: Thanks to you, Vince, and all you do.

Vince Quiles: Yeah, hell yeah, man. Great talk with you, my friend. I’ll be talking with you again.

Josh Stern: Cool.

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