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Dispatches from the Pickets: Temple Grad Worker Strike Escalates

Things are heating up in the grad worker strike at Temple University in Philadelphia. A report from the picket line by a union teacher.

Jason Koslowski

March 2, 2023
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Image: Emma Lee/WHYY News

The contrast is sharp: dull gray clouds over bleak college buildings versus the bright intensity across TUGSA picketers’ faces. It’s week five of the grad worker strike. Someone says to me: “We’re doing another ‘hard picket’ today. We did it yesterday and stopped packages getting delivered.” I don’t know what that means but I’m not going to miss it. 

Some background. The UPS Teamsters here in Philly are refusing to cross the pickets and they’re not delivering packages. My own union could learn from this. The Teamsters’ supervisors are scabbing. They’re picking up and delivering packages at the Student Center. They’re helping a millionaire college president fight workers making $19,500 a year. Meantime, the bosses are still scrambling for scabs. Not long ago 2,000 undergrads walked out to support the grad workers. My union for faculty and librarians and some others is discussing a vote of no confidence in the president, Wingard. Wingard sent a very sad email about that to everyone today. You feel the momentum building like the motor inside an ocean tanker ramping up its RPMs.

About 70 of us march from a brutalist bell tower to the Student Center. We’re walking at a rapid clip. Now we speed up. It’s already 11:30. The trucks are going to be there soon. We’re almost at a jog by the time we get to the loading dock. We missed it; the trucks are already here. Shit.

We picket in a circle to stop any other deliveries or pickups. We’re scream-chanting “Scab! Scab!” at the drivers. And there are bright frosted donuts on a pillar and now hot coffee shows up. There’s a grade school next door. The little kids open their windows and scream their support at us in kid soprano voices. The TUGSA person on the bullhorn skips and laughs while he leads the chants. 

Suddenly the guy skipping shouts: “I need ten people!” More trucks are coming. Twelve of us break out in a dead sprint to the front. It was dumb to bring my bag with my laptop in it; it’s smacking wildly against my back and I’m sweating. I’m out of shape. 

The trucks slam up onto the sidewalk and the scabs are hustling. We get there first. It’s just a dozen of us and we line up in front of the doors. My hands are in my pockets and someone hooks their arm through my left elbow. Someone else locks their arm to my right. Their grips are like pneumatic presses. They’re breathing hard and so am I. This is the “hard picket.” We let the students in and out as they like and we’re waiting to see what the scabs do. 

The first one, in a dirt-colored uniform, steps gingerly out of a truck. She has a hand on her hip and she’s literally scratching her head. She looks worried. Now what? is what she has to be thinking.

Now more of us show up and lock arms. “Scab! Scab! Go away!” The chanting gets louder in unison and it’s ferocious. The person next to me is screaming: “I have kids to feed!”

There must be 80 of us now. My hands tremble like electricity is in my muscles. Cops show up, about six of them. They’re wearing guns to face unarmed grad workers. They line up next to the scabs. We’re screaming at them too. It’s not clear what’s going to happen. Will they try to force their way through us? You know they wouldn’t flinch to do it. They beat the shit out of an undergrad during a protest a couple years ago. I feel how tight these arms are holding me. Good luck with that. Why don’t the grad workers look scared at all? 

The cops are talking furiously with strike captains. They’re waving some leather-gloved hands at us. They look furious and that makes me smile. 

Some strike captains come over and tell us, “OK, we have to let them through.” We hesitate for a minute. Then we do. The scabs go in, they get the packages, they fill up their trucks. We scream at them. The striking workers stopped the shipments yesterday, but not this time.

The problem of labor law

The TUGSA strike is escalating and these “hard pickets” are showing us key things.

First of all, they show how key the cops are to undermining strikes. Temple has one of the biggest campus police forces in the world, costing students and faculty tens of millions a year. One of their main roles is to terrorize the majority-Black neighborhoods around Temple. But they’re also here to break strikes. 

But more than this, they show how labor law in this country is designed to do exactly what it just did. It’s like a set of casino game rules making sure the house always wins. 

It says you can picket, but you can’t block a door. You can strike, but you can’t stop scabs from keeping the bosses’ profits flowing. Other unions can say they support you, but their “no-strike” clauses can say you’re not allowed to strike with them. In other words: you can strike, but it has to be just a pretty symbol.

I think Joe Burns is right in his new book, Class Struggle Unionism. He says winning big is going to mean breaking labor law.

In the 1930s, during huge, disruptive, and radical strikes shaking the country, Democratic politicians and labor bureaucrats designed laws designed to do one thing above all: tame and stop the strikes. Then, the 1947 bipartisan Taft-Hartley Act marked a major step in restricting strike and union power. 

I think history is trying to tell us something. If there’s a main lesson for unions in the last 100 years, I think, it’s probably that politicians won’t help us break laws to win what we need. A lot of times we’re told the answer for unions is to vote for people to make better laws. But I’m thinking fighting with real power is going to have to come from us, from below, using our power even if it means breaking the law. I’m remembering how Democrats controlled every branch of federal government time and time again, yet labor law still keeps us from using all our power, and protects the bosses first of all. I’m thinking with Joe Burns that we win by breaking the rules instead of playing by them. They’re not for us, they’re designed to sap our power. 

Preparing to do that is a huge project, and not one to be taken lightly. Still, it’s the task history has set for us: to use our real power as workers against the bosses. In other words, TUGSA is now wrestling with exactly the problem — labor law — that my own union, and any union, will face eventually, if we’re going to fight off the bosses’ attacks and win big for ourselves and our communities.

The struggle is getting sharper. First, it’s “normal” pickets, then “hard” pickets. I’m wondering what’s next.

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Jason Koslowski

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

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