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Temple’s Graduate Worker Strike Ends With Important Victories

The last report on the strike from a union teacher at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – It’s official. The Temple University Graduate student Association (TUGSA) has voted; and by a margin of 344-8, the six-week-long strike of grad workers in Philadelphia is over. It ended in important victories.

As a teacher looking in from the outside — I’m an adjunct in the faculty union here at Temple — it seems to me one of the most important wins is: TUGSA defeated a brutal anti-union campaign. Early on in the strike, Temple’s administrators stripped grad workers of healthcare and tuition remission. They returned healthcare to the workers before the strike even ended, a sign that the bosses saw they were losing. Now tuition remission has been returned as well. If Temple had won using those kinds of measures, it would have had a devastating effect on union struggle, especially in higher ed, across the country, like in the looming Rutgers strike.

There’s another big win too. TUGSA destroyed the system of “tiered” wages for its members. That system of tiers left some making significantly less than others in the bargaining unit. That’s no small feat. Dividing members of a union against themselves is the order of the day when it comes to union busting. Getting rid of tiers is a key demand other unions are fighting for, too, but one many haven’t yet been able to win.

Grad workers also won more bereavement and parental leave, as well as an important  raise in pay. In the first year of the new contract, they’ll make 23.1 per cent more; by the end, in 2026, grad workers will make about 30 per cent more overall, moving them from $19,500 to $27,000.

The deal isn’t perfect, to be sure. For example, the wage bump takes grad worker pay closer to a living wage in Philadelphia, but won’t take it all the way there (according to MIT’s living wage calculator).

From the outside, it seems that more could have been won.  A key reason is that my own faculty union didn’t throw its full weight into the struggle. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Lessons from TUGSA

First we should talk about one of the most important things about this strike, which is how TUGSA won what it won — a militancy, creativity, and cunning that could inspire others in the U.S. labor struggle, especially at colleges and universities.

TUGSA made no end of trouble for the university bosses. Its members built big, loud, disruptive pickets. Crucially, over the course of the struggle TUGSA’s rank and file intensified those pickets, from “normal” ones (marching, chanting, singing, but allowing people to and fro) to “hard” ones.  Grad workers set up a series of pickets to block trucks and to stop scab drivers from entering buildings. They linked arms — letting students and others in and out but blocking the UPS supervisors. It worked.

Solidarity was key. In February, TUGSA linked up with undergraduates — like the union for undergraduates, TUUWOC — who staged a 2,000 strong walkout that ended by surrounding the president’s office. When the university hired wildly unqualified teachers as scabs, the grad workers helped spark a class-action lawsuit by parents against the university. TUGSA helped push the leaders of my own union (for faculty, librarians, and others) to ramp up its “anti-scabbing” message. Rank and file faculty organized across their departments and colleges to flood the bosses with signed statements of support for TUGSA.

Momentum was building throughout the semester. It crested in March, when the “hard” pickets  started and when my union (TAUP) started organizing for a “no-confidence” vote in Temple’s President Wingard. Exhibit A: the sadistic way he responded to the strike.

By itself, a no-confidence vote can’t dethrone the leader of a university. But it can start the process. It became clear that President Wingard was rattled. Once proceedings towards a vote started, he sent an alarmed email to the university — and gave the vote free publicity — to say that harsh austerity moves are needed for the sake of the university.

This is not the kind of message you send  to win over students, or grad workers, or faculty. It was a message to his bosses, the Board of Trustees, a kind of public pleading for his job. It’s no coincidence that this deal was struck amid the whirring of the machinery of that no confidence vote.

They Could Have Won More — with More Solidarity

It’s clear, in other words: TUGSA won what it did because of the solidarity and militancy that it built up.  But I think it could have won more — like if my union, TAUP, threw its full bulk into the fight.

To be sure, there were key ways TAUP stood behind TUGSA, like delivering food and beginning to organize a vote of no confidence in the president. We shouldn’t sneeze at any of this.

But right when the strike first started, my union leaders’ messaging was almost ambivalent. An early email said that many of us would not need to scab, though maybe some might — not exactly a full-throated rejection of scabbing. It was only on February 8th, weeks into the struggle, that this line was hardened, in an all-union email, to (to quote the subject line) “Say no to scabbing.”

More importantly, there were just too few of us on the pickets next to TUGSA. Some of us were there, for sure, though not many. Especially early on, our leadership told us time and again that joining the pickets would violate our “no-strike” clause in our contract.

For background: it is normally not forbidden to walk on another union’s pickets. That’s a first-amendment right. And yet our leadership had agreed to a no-strike clause in our contract which is so wildly prohibitive that it expressly forbids even constitutional activity like walking on a picket. Grad workers told me again and again: a mortal fear of that clause has been drummed into my union’s rank-and-file.

First of all, a no-strike clause should never have been accepted in our contract in the first place. It should have been fought tooth and nail. The power of workers like us comes from the fact that we do everything that a business needs to run: teaching and grading, sweeping and cooking, coding and pouring coffee. We’re the ones who make the bosses rich. We flex our muscles by refusing to work, and giving up the right to strike means we agree to fight with our hands tied behind our backs. No wonder our bosses love the no strike clause.

And certainly any clause like this — probiting constitutional activity like walking on another person’s pickets — should have been laughed out of the room at any bargaining session. Why wasn’t it? Besides, there was absolutely no way for the university to tell if any of us were on the pickets. They were so busy scrambling for scabs the entire strike, they had no time or personnel to even check up on us. The bosses’ threat here was totally empty, and that became clear from day one of the strike. It would have been child’s play for our leaders to organize contingents of teachers, “under the table,” to the pickets, and they refused.

But there’s a deeper reason for such timidity at play here. For years, my union’s leadership left us unprepared to fight the way we need to — so when a strike was knocking on our door asking for our help, we didn’t know what to do. “Strike” is almost a dirty word for our union leaders in any meeting I’m at — even though our contract, with its “no strike clause,” ends in October. Three years ago, at our last contract, leadership told us that TAUP isn’t ready to strike; it’ll take time and careful preparation. But that was three years ago, and in that whole time they never started preparing. Now we’re facing down our next negotiations this year, and now we’ve been left unprepared to fight the way we’ll need to for a better contract — let alone to walk the pickets and support other strikes.  The Temple bosses were vicious to TUGSA, and TUGSA only won through a strike they’d been preparing for for years; their strike is how they won what they did.

Is there any chance we could win a deal anywhere close to TUGSA’s without a pitched fight?

But all this points to the problems with top-down “business unionism” that’s been the norm in the US labor movement, not just my union, for far too long. It’s a model that says: unions don’t need to fight and strike to win, they just need to trust the wiles of union leaders, and their political allies, the Democrats, who will do the fighting for us. Unions made a harder pivot to that approach than ever before starting in 1980. The last forty years show: this is a strategy for losing. It served as the midwife to perhaps the most catastrophic decline in the U.S. labor movement in its history.

But imagine Imagine a different situation. Imagine my union had been preparing for our own strike for the last three years — building up a network of “strike captains” in every department, and creating escalating rallies to ready ourselves, to screw up our courage, for when our contract runs out this October. Now jump forward to the TUGSA strike this past January. All of a sudden there’s a strike on our doorstep and it starts knocking. Now we’d have a union that had been training itself to not be afraid but to fight, practicing basic skills like rallying and creating a communication network to mobilize ourselves in big numbers.

In that world, it’d probably be pretty hard to stop a lot of us from being on that picket line. We already know TUGSA built up its numbers through years of strike prep. Imagine how much TAUP’s numbers would have increased. Our membership, in fact, did jump during the TUGSA strike. With those bigger numbers and with more prep, who knows what else we could have done, too — like a sickout. When I was in the IWW we used to say: there’s no such thing as an illegal strike, just a strike that has the power to win, or one that doesn’t.

Imagine, in that alternate universe, how much stronger the TUGSA strike would have been — and how much more TUGSA would have won. And it’s not just about TUGSA. Any union winning big at Temple is good for every union at Temple. And across Philly, and for unions in the United States in general. Big wins raise the floor across the board, and they spread inspiration like sparks.

The TUGSA strike offers a key lesson, in other words: militant pickets and active solidarity mean victory, and the more the better. It’s a lesson that my own union, and every union, should pay attention to.

Ripple Effects

TUGSA ended its last “Strike Daily Debrief” like this: “We will see you all at the Rutgers picket lines…”

The Rutgers faculty down the road from us in Philly is preparing for its own strike. At the University of Pennsylvania, undergrads are unionizing. So are medical residents at Penn. But not just in Philly. UTLA, the primary ed teacher union in Los Angeles, looks like it might go on strike in the near future.

TUGSA’s strike goes way beyond TUGSA. It offer lessons not just for my own union at Temple. It could very well be a spur and lesson for education unions, or any other kind.

See you on the picket lines!

For more coverage from the front lines of this strike from Left Voice, see thisthisthisthisthis, and this

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