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Dispatches from the Picket Lines: All Out for the Temple Graduate Workers Strike

A Temple faculty member reports.

Jason Koslowski

February 3, 2023
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Photo: Tyger Williams

Today’s the third day of the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA)  strike. My friends and I in our union and our rank-and-file caucus are messaging and talking constantly: how do we support? Zoom meetings; more zoom meetings.

The sky is clear and the frigid air pricks our skin on the picket lines. It’s not bad in the sun. Shaded picket lines are colder. Most everyone has gloves. It’s hard to march and drink hot coffee. But there’s a lot of coffee at every strike station. Pizzas show up and everyone takes a break. The grad workers are laughing and dancing while they march. 

The biggest battles are coming. Both sides — bosses and grad workers — are gearing up. They’re fighting for the best position, each trying to win over the students and teachers.  

Striking Smart

Right off the bat, TUGSA  did a lot of brilliant things. First off, they got the jump on the Temple administration. 

The first morning, for at least three hours, the union was in complete control of the story. 

They sent out mass messages on the Temple Subreddit, through personal emails using their lists, etc. It went to teachers and students. Even some Temple hospital workers got emailed by the union. (I don’t know how, but they managed to get their email addresses. They’re good at this.) They handed out fliers in crowded walkways in bitter winter rain the first day. They have been shifting the location of pickets every day to make sure they catch the most students. 

The Temple bosses didn’t send out their first university-wide email until 11AM.  A real head start. The bosses were on the back foot. Now they’re trying to make up for it. That first day, students started getting emails telling them to go to class even if their teachers are on strike. That first night, teachers like me were blasted with emails from our department chairs. 

They’re practically begging for scabs. All of a sudden, they tell me, I could get a promotion. I would officially be a full-time employee with benefits (until June). I’d get a raise. I’d get my pick of classes at the scab buffet. (About two years ago, my boss sat me down to promise me I would never, ever be hired full time at Temple. The dean likes him a lot. He got a promotion a couple years later.)

The deans and their bosses look like they’re scrambling. I got my hands on an email a dean sent to department chairs. It snarled that they need scabs, they need them now, and it’s an order, get people in the classrooms or else.  Oh, and the email noted that Temple is planning to cut off pay and student healthcare Friday. It’s in part a scare tactic; PA state law says you can’t do that, and strikers would be able to be on COBRA instead. Of course, the department chairs I know about hopped to without blinking.

The rest of the faculty and staff are paying close attention to this strike and we know that the struggle of these workers is our struggle too. We know what will happen if the strike is broken and the administration can force a terrible deal on the grad workers. We know that when our union contract ends in October that they will attempt to do the very same thing to us. 

I also heard from a TUGSA member that bosses started begging undergraduate students to be “facilitators” who answer “questions.” I wonder if this is a tough sell after raising their tuition 3.9% this year.  All this sounds desperate. And desperate animals are dangerous.

Stop the Scabs

A key question right now is: can they get scabs to take over the grad workers classes? It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the strike hangs on the answer to this question.  

WIll it work? If it does, the bosses will break the biggest leverage TUGSA has right now — the control over their labor, costing the university major money. There are 750 people in TUGSA. That’s tens of thousands of grades at stake.

So a main front of the battle is: stop the scabs. The message has to be: absolutely no scabbing. And that message needs to be everywhere and reach every teacher and faculty member in the region who might possibly be enlisted to break the strike. 

This will depend above all on union rank-and-filers, the ordinary members of the grad union as well as the members of my own union, the Temple Association of University Professionals  (TAUP). 

Indeed, at all the pickets I’ve been to, scabs are what we talk about: the rank-and-filers trying to figure out how many there are, how to reach them, how to prevent more. I ran into a TUGSA member flyering students, getting them on mailing lists, trying to gather info on what classes are being scabbed, trying to get more students involved in getting that data. A lot of students had signed up already.

My union, TAUP, has to step up here more too. To its credit, our leadership has been getting the word out. Our president sent a version of that message to us all the first day; then, the equivalent of the chief steward blasted all adjuncts to warn us about the dangers of scabbing. 

But far, far more of us rank-and-filers will need to be driving that struggle. Our leaders aren’t going to be the ones who stop the scabs. They’re hemmed in by wretched labor laws designed to stop us from using our power.  It’s the ordinary members who will make the difference. We need to be on the pickets, and get other teachers there, too. We need solidarity assemblies to reach as many teachers as we can to stop the scabbing. 

There’s something of a roadblock here. For years, my own union’s leaders have mostly said that strikes aren’t really possible, or we’re a long way off, or we can only find other ways of fighting rather than getting ready to use our strongest weapon as a union. But that means a lot of us have been lulled to sleep. Now there’s a strike on our doorstep. And whether TUGSA wins will have a major role to play in whether or not we can win real gains in our contract. We’re fighting an uphill battle in my union to be supporters of the strike. But it’s a key to winning this one.

And this is a crucial learning moment for all the workers and students on campus. How do you build a successful strike? Where should the strike headquarters go? How do you coordinate pickets? Where do the pickets go? TUGSA is giving us all a chance to find out.

Another main front: the students. Everyone is trying to win them over. Will they report their striking teachers or become  strike-breakers? Will they join  the pickets or not? So far, I’m hearing hundreds have been joining the picket lines. Most of my students are on the side of their TAs, they’ve told me. But there are tens of thousands of students, and winning all of them over  is a huge task.  

Yesterday at a big lunchtime picket, I noticed a few of the undergrads helping lead Temple’s new student worker organizing project. It’s called the Temple University Undergraduate Workers Organizing Committee (TUUWOC). They’ll be really important in this fight as well. They’re gathering some of the most active and passionate undergrads for workplace organizing. TUGSA needs their thumb on the scale to win over students.

Winning Over Students and Teachers

We — TUGSA members and TAUP members and other supporters — we’re going to need to find ways to reach a lot of teachers and students, and do it fast.  The other day I mentioned that big open-air assemblies would help — not just rallies, but places for the regular members of our unions as well as undergrads to meet, discuss, and plan the strike. That’s an effort that’s probably going to have to come from regular members in my union and/or in TUGSA: the rank-and-file.

I think that’s even more true now. Everyone has to walk to their classes. What better way to win big groups of people over than big open meetings, to snag students and teachers as they walk by, and debate and discuss the strike? There’s a rally today at 2:30 (the one with the AFT president). But that’s really highly programmed. Maybe a strike needs that too. But assemblies are one way to answer the question: how do you get more new students and teachers involved? And create new spaces for them to “plug in” and be part of the planning? And create places to share stories about scabs, and win them over? 

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Jason Koslowski

Jason is a contingent college teacher and union organizer who lives in Philadelphia.

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