Higher education workers are helping drive labor struggle right now. As last year closed out, a 48,000-strong grad worker strike flared up at the University in California. Not long after, across the country, adjuncts struck The New School in New York.
On January 31, Temple University’s grad workers joined the ranks of that struggle. With a light winter rain sprinkling them, 750 members of TUGSA walked off the job — and onto the picket lines.
Can’t Afford Rent? Time for a Pay Cut.
Temple’s grad workers are organized in the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA). One of their major demands centers on wages. Temple’a administration doles out $19,500 a year in pay to grad workers. Average annual rent in Philadelphia runs about $23,000. Skyrocketing inflation, especially in food and gas, has meant grad workers have already seen major pay cuts.
Temple’s bosses, though, have seen an explosion in profits. In 2021, Temple reported to the IRS about $165 million in revenue over expenses. That is more than double the year before. This year, Temple’s leaders also raised tuition 3.9 percent. The glut of profit is paying for a massive Temple bureaucracy. The president alone brings home $1 million a year. The army of vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, and senior deans answering to him usually rake in six figures.
TUGSA is demanding a 50 percent raise to cover rent and food, as well as subsidies for childcare and transportation. University leaders rejected these demands. Their counteroffer: a two percent raise in the first year of a new contract, decreasing over the next few years; no subsidies for childcare; no subsidies for travel. So TUGSA held a strike authorization vote at the end of last year. It passed by a margin of 99 percent.
Since then, Temple leaders have barely moved. They’ve offered a three percent raise across the board, They increased parental leave to just ten days. They rejected healthcare for dependents out of hand. Now they refuse to budge without huge concessions from people whose work lets the bosses take home somewhere between six or seven figures.
TUGSA walked out.
A Must-Win Battle
The fight between grad workers and Temple’s bosses will have major ripple effects.
My own union, TAUP — which organizes teachers, librarians and other academic workers — has a contract that runs out in October. If TUGSA wins real gains against the bosses, we stand a real chance of fighting off pay cuts and winning better pay, job security, and benefits.
But well beyond my own union, a winning strike could bring a fresh surge of energy to workers and students. It could very well inspire other unions on campus, like the organizing undergrads, not to mention workers across the city and exploited grad workers across the country.
If TUGSA doesn’t win, Temple is going to be all the more brutal in demanding pay cuts and other concessions from every other union and attacking budding union fights here on campus.
Power to Win
Grad workers are standing at a major choke point for the university. Teaching and research assistants lead hundreds of classes and hand out tens of thousands of grades every semester. On strike, TUGSA is flexing its strongest muscle: the labor that helps run the university.
The university’s leaders know this. It’s why they’re trying to turn the students against TUGSA, telling students to keep showing up to class even though their TAs are on the pickets and to report their striking teachers. They’re sending threatening emails to faculty like me to warn us against joining the pickets or striking. There’s a good chance that Temple will tell people in my union, TAUP, that we should teach and grade for the grad workers.
Winning this fight is going to take active, concrete help from lots of other students and campus union workers. Refusing to teach strikers’ classes; joining the picket lines; organizing ourselves to join the strike; bringing students to the pickets — along with coffee, mittens, and umbrellas. Undergrads can use their meal cards to deliver meals.
The Teamsters are helping show the way. Local 623 emailed Temple’s leaders that they’ll deliver no packages to campus during a TUGSA strike. My union should do the same: start organizing our refusal to teach at all during a strike. We could take a page out of the New York City professors, too, and vow not to scab for Temple’s millionaire president.
And they’ll need rallies for undergrads to show what the strike is fighting for and to build wide support. Grad workers will especially need the support of the students organizing the new Temple University Undergraduate Worker Organizing Committee, TUUWOC.
All Out for TUGSA
One tool for building power is to do what strikers have long done: create democratic spaces at the picket lines every day. Those can be places for workers from all parts of campus to meet, plan, share, and coordinate: teachers, librarians, and undergrads alike.
Democratic assemblies would be excellent places to get more people actively involved, and invested, in the strike. They would also be ready-made, accessible spaces for TUGSA to link up with, and win over, students and other workers at the pickets — to coordinate across campus groups. And they’re just another way to fight the union-busting misinformation that’s already been flowing out of the administration’s threatening emails and websites like a sewer.
TUGSA has to win, for the sake of all the other students and workers on campus. Real, active, concrete solidarity will make that a reality.
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