Today the air is buzzing like train wires in the rain.
All last week the whole campus was whispering about the student walkout. How big? Will it flop? It could be massive. Are you going? Are you canceling class? I’d been touching base with my union siblings and talking to my students the whole week. Our union leaders sent us all an email to remind us, with a wink, that only teachers create attendance policies; we can decide whether or not to cancel class; and let’s get ourselves to the rally.
More than one ominous email from the bosses told faculty to keep away and warned the undergrads to do the same.
But they’re almost laughably incompetent. My phone dings. It’s a letter from Ken Kaiser, the COO of Temple. I’ve never met him or seen him. The subject line has a typo: “Update on today?s planned student walkout.” Looks like he’s typing too fast. Or he’s distracted by something.
“We strongly encourage students to attend classes and stay on track with your studies … we ask that everyone proceed responsibly and fulfill the obligations of their role at the university.” And then he announces that the event is happening at two. He’s helping build the buzz and mystique.
Ken and Co. are paying a huge amount of money to Morgan Lewis, which is a law firm that specializes in busting unions. This email is the best Morgan Lewis came up with for a solidarity walkout. I wonder to myself if Temple gets a refund when the firm gives incompetent advice.
Temple bosses decided on harsh repression to try and crush the grad worker strike. They’re the first college administration to cut off grad worker health insurance as well as take away their tuition remission this early in a fight.
It looks like that’s starting to blow up in their faces. Now the undergrads are on the move. There’s an awful lot of them. And they’re siding with their TAs and RAs. This is not a good thing, if you’re a millionaire college president.
2,000 Undergrads Join the Fight
I get to campus later than I wanted, around 1:30 p.m. The walkout rally is supposed to be at 2. By the time I get to the center of campus — the “Belltower” — the crowd is already big, probably 300-500 people. It’s mostly undergrads and grad workers. I see some of my students there and I say hi. I find some of my teacher union friends. There on the grass at the fringes of the crowd I see TUUWOC (Temple U. Undergraduate Worker Organizing Committee). They’re the unionizing undergrads. I’ll say more about them in a minute.
Students and grad workers are laughing everywhere; everyone’s talking about how big the rally is already. All of a sudden it’s 1,000 people. A lot of undergrads are lying down sunning or standing there tilting their faces up at an empty sky, feeling the sun. The breeze is on the strike’s side. It’s almost 70 degrees. Beach balls are bouncing everywhere. It’s like a mix between a beach party and the minutes before a boxing match. I’m sweating. Why’d I wear a jacket over the “TUGSA Strike” shirt a grad student made me? I slip it off and jam it in a bag.
Right away we’re on the move. About 300 of us peel off in a roving picket. We’re loud and we’re walking fast. Sometimes I have to jog. It’s like no one could wait for things to kick off and our muscles had been itching for action. We loop through campus and we pick up even more undergrads. A lot of them were just walking across campus and decided to join in.
The rally starts when we get back. It’s like a reunion. Students see their friends and hug them; I’m shaking hands and hugging my friends who are there. Grad workers are hugging too and they’re waving wildly to point to the massive crowd. The joy is a physical thing, like bass inside your chest. Already there’s 1,500 people and it’s still growing. I thought it might be big, but I didn’t think it would be this big.
Duct taped onto a brutal concrete belltower, I see big blown-up pictures of Mitchell Morgan partying at Mar-a-Lago. He’s the chairman of the Temple board of trustees. I was at his mansion near Philly a few years ago. Me and some others in our teacher union were zip-tying a big canvas petition to its huge front gates. It is a very big house.
The speakers are mostly undergrads and some grad workers. The rally has been put together well. The speeches are short and punchy. People are screaming out at every pause, in one voice. It gives you chills. The organizers seem to sense the crowd is restless and wants to be flexing its legs and using its throats. We start to march after 30 minutes of speeches. When I glance back it’s about 2,000 people, all told. The line snakes almost the entire width of the campus.
We take Broad Street without flinching. The cops weren’t ready for this. There are a lot of cops, Philly cops and Temple ones. Temple has the biggest campus police force in the country. It’s very expensive, dozens of millions of dollars a year to run. They completely underestimated what we’d be and where we’d go. The organizers kept them in the dark, no small feat. We shut down two lanes of traffic chanting, dancing, screaming chants. “Who makes Temple work? We make Temple work.”
We circle back onto campus. We stop at Sullivan Hall. It looks like a castle. It’s where the millionaire president’s office is. It’s surrounded, dozens deep, by chanting and marching people screaming “Fuck you!” at the windows. I’m walking with a grad student friend and they suddenly turn to me and they smirk when they say, “Well, I guess we could take the whole building over if we wanted.” The castle looks fragile. There’s no one at the windows. Someone turned the lights off. I wonder if they’re hiding somewhere inside the building, and if someone rushed the president, hustling in expensive leather shoes, off campus in a hurry. I bet they did.
This whole walkout — grad students and teachers and undergrads coming together — feels like it’s jogging some old muscle memory. Suddenly, we’re starting to remember we have these mass struggle muscles, and they’re itching for a real workout. The walkout is just a bit of exercise. It’s a quick little jog. These muscles can do an awful lot more.
Feeling Our Power, and Feeling It Grow
How’d they pull it off? Philly’s local chapter of Socialist Alternative called a meeting about a week ago, which has been key to laying the groundwork. Another key was the undergrad union. To me, they look like the most organized and active layer of the undergrads. They were here at Temple, with an inner structure and far reach on social media and well beyond, when the drive for a walkout started. I doubt much would happen without them.
But it’s more too. It feels like a dark, restless mass energy is pulsing inside the 40,000 person student body. Its like more and more flammable material has been stacked, one on top of another: like when cops beat the shit out of Temple students on campus during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising (the cop is back on the streets again); then when Temple forced the university open amid the pandemic, only to be shut down a week later so that Temple could take room and board even with closed dorms; again when tuition increased 3.9 percent, even when Temple raked in $240,000,000 in
profit “excess revenue.” Now there’s a strike and it’s showering sparks onto that stack of flammable material.
Politicians have been showing up at the pickets recently; Helen Gym, a City Councilwoman in Philly, showed up at the end of the rally. But I’m walking away with one main lesson ringing in my ears.
The power of this movement is coming from us from below. The undergrads are organizing themselves, and they’re flinging themselves by the thousands into pickets and rallies with the grad workers. The grad workers are being driven in part by rank-and-filers, like the strike captains who are leading the disruption and the withdrawing of TUGSA’s labor from the bosses’ control. My own union is starting to move its bulk behind the grad union, too; more of us are meeting and planning how to support; bubbling up from below, faculty are writing letters and petitions to the bosses, and a good number joined the rally today.
Grads and undergrads said constantly at the rally: we have power because we make the thing this university sells for profit: classes. We fund the president’s salary, and the deans’ and vice presidents’ salaries. No wonder the bosses are so savage. They know who their money comes from. In this struggle, too, something else is coming into view: how absurd it is for any university to be run like temple, with a massive, baroque bureaucracy raking in huge profits. it should belong to us; we should run it, students and workers and the surrounding working-class neighbors.
Today feels like a leap. The undergrads are linking up with their teachers. The profits of the university are at risk. We’re feeling our power, and we’re feeling it grow. One time a writer said that that’s the definition of happiness.
But this really will have to be just a first step. Dozens of thousands of undergrads have yet to speak. My own faculty union at Temple, TAUP, will have to step up more, organizing to stop scabs and to stand on the pickets and to build democratic places where my union can learn from and coordinate with the grad worker and undergrad struggle every day. This strike would end awfully fast if we could organize ourselves in big numbers and stop teaching altogether. Someone mentioned a sickout today. That’s not a bad idea.
The fate of workers and students here at Temple depends on TUGSA winning. And people across the country are watching what happens. Not just other university bosses, either. Grad workers across the country have been rising up.
There’s a lot to be done and a university to win.