Florida in Philadelphia

The strike at Temple, therefore, was not just about material benefits for graduate workers: it was also about the long-term structural nature of what the contemporary university will be. It was about exposing the precarity of everyone—not just graduate workers but also adjuncts and even TT faculty—under academia’s current system.

The Temple University strike’s template for organizing the public university

Striking TUGSA workers on Broad Street. Photograph by Justin Harrison for Socialist Alternative.

Temple University’s war on graduate workers and public higher education began long before the graduate worker union, Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA AFT Local 6290), joined the recent wave of American academic labor organizing and went on strike on January 31. Temple, in line with national trends across the university system, has attempted to erode the power of unions, made budgetary decisions that cut essential services for students, faculty, and staff, and accepted federal and state subsidies while insisting on institutional autonomy from government oversight. At Temple, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences have been especially severe.

In the fall semester of 2020, months before the first Covid-19 vaccines became available, Temple was the only university in Philadelphia to force students and workers back to in-person operations on campus, in clear pursuit of the revenue generated from residence hall fees and dining hall services. In the College of Liberal Arts, administrators compelled chairs to ask for volunteers to teach in person. In the College of Science and Technology, many graduate research assistants conducted experiments in person starting in the summer of 2020. Just ten days after fall semester began, a large Covid-19 outbreak occurred on campus, and the city government forced Temple to move everything online. Many students did not receive a refund on their tuition, and many graduate workers joined the union.

In the first of what would become several organizing campaigns leading up to the strike, hundreds of graduate workers, as well as faculty members, signed a petition demanding that Temple pay graduate workers a subsidy for at-home instruction, including payment for internet upgrades for large Zoom classes, laptop repairs from increased use, and delivery fees for books normally provided at the library. The demand was $500 per graduate worker per semester while instruction remained online, a fraction of a percent of the annual revenue generated by the university. Temple responded with a three-sentence refusal email. For the next two years dedicated organizers sacrificed their limited time to build the strength of the union. We held weekly meetings and had hundreds of one-on-one conversations with co-workers so that the next time we fought, we would win.

In November 2022, as TUGSA members were discussing whether to strike for the first time in our twenty-five-year history, Temple’s HR department sent an email to every bargaining unit member threatening the removal of pay, health insurance premium subsidies, and tuition remission for anyone choosing to strike. They also wrote, in bold, that any international student who chooses to strike should “Please contact an immigration attorney to discuss the implications that participating in a strike may have on your visa and/or your ability to remain in the U.S. This may vary from person to person.” This was the first of many implicit threats of deportation against international students who chose to strike. But even with these threats, an overwhelming majority of TUGSA members voted to authorize a strike. Two months later, we took the leap.

Nine days into our strike, on February 8, Temple cut health insurance for striking graduate workers with no notice, which many only discovered when they went to the pharmacy or tried to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Since F-1 student visas require health insurance to stay valid, many international students were left wondering whether they and their families would be able to legally stay in or return to the United States again. That same day, Temple also threatened to take away the tuition remission of all striking graduate workers, setting a due date of March 9 for payment of tuition—otherwise, the administration communicated, striking graduate students would become ineligible to enroll in future courses in the summer and fall. On February 9 we held a press conference where two international students affected by the health care cuts stood in front of hundreds of political leaders, faculty, and coworkers, equivocally condemning Temple’s actions.

After forty-two days on strike, a new contract was reached between Temple University and TUGSA on March 14. While the new contract did not achieve our maximal demands of a living wage of $32,800 per a nine-month teaching or research assistantship and full dependent health care coverage, it improved our wages considerably over the four-year span of the contract, with wages increased an average of $19,500 to $24,500 immediately and increasing by a thousand dollars every year. The new contract also removed a wage-tier system that had been in place, which created wage differentials across the various colleges for graduate workers, with those in the humanities getting paid less than those in the STEM fields. We also achieved partial dependent health-care coverage for graduate workers, which, combined with the wage increase, reduces the financial burden on graduate workers and opens the possibility of increasing the dependent coverage in future contracts. TUGSA also gained improved grievance procedure protocols, input on how work hours are calculated, tripled paid parental leave, and ensured those needing to travel internationally for funerals could do so with pay.

The latest wave of academic labor organizing and graduate student employee strikes, while essential to making the TUGSA strike possible, has largely taken place under different structural and on-the-ground conditions. Many graduate labor disputes have occurred at prestigious, private, often Ivy League universities, which operate under different labor laws and with larger reputational stakes. These institutions are not representative of the kind of universities that most undergraduate and graduate students attend: approximately 73 percent of the twenty million college students in the United States in 2023 go to a public or state-related university. Temple is a large regional public university with a current student body of approximately 40,000, not especially prestigious but with a solid local reputation.

The recent strikes at the University of California and Rutgers University are encouraging developments in higher education. Because both are massive state university systems with multiple campuses representing tens of thousands of workers across multiple job titles, strikes at these schools can structurally change regional academic labor markets. At UC and Rutgers, lecturers and graduate workers have organized for living wages, full benefits, and longer work contracts that would serve to end part-time, precarious employment. The sectoral models of organization such as those at UC and Rutgers ensure more power at the bargaining table and make striking much safer for workers.

In contrast, striking TUGSA members experienced the harshest retaliation and striking conditions of any graduate worker strike in the United States so far. During no other graduate worker strike in the past few years have health insurance and tuition remissions been taken away from strikers. But the most precarious workers at all universities, including Temple, will need to fight against austerity in the coming years, and the TUGSA strike offers a uniquely representative case of how academic worker strikes can still make gains even when the deck is maximally stacked against them.

Temple’s budget and decision-making are shaped by the trends toward financialization that determine student and worker life at most public universities. Alongside Pennsylvania’s other “state-related” universities, including Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Lincoln, Temple receives yearly appropriations from the state government. In Temple’s case, the state accounts for 15 to 20 percent of its revenue, which means the school must look elsewhere for additional revenue-generating centers—including tuition, as well as stock market investments, physical asset appreciation, and residence hall fees. Even though Temple administrators often cry poverty as a result of the state’s paltry investments in public universities, they enjoy the current arrangement. Unlike federally backed individualized student debt obligations, which afford universities incredible leverage over their students, state appropriations theoretically come with political stipulations and oversight. In other words, every additional dollar that state-related universities receive from the state government potentially diminishes Temple administration’s autonomy and decision-making power—and that potential increases with every successful labor dispute. In fact, 15 percent revenue from state appropriations is just about the perfect amount, because it subsidizes in-state tuition and scholarships for students while Temple charges an average of $20,000 a year for tuition.

In recent years, as enrollment has declined, Temple has also instituted a program of austerity. Thanks to a system of “Responsibility Centered Management” established in 2014, individual departments are responsible for maintaining their own student enrollment and afforded resources accordingly. When enrollments decline overall, budget cuts follow: to mental health care, to processing contracts and benefits, to the international student office, and to academic departments that fail to compete in the enrollment marketplace. Those less profitable, less competitive departments tend overwhelmingly to be in the humanities. Budgets are ideological instruments.

Jason Wingard, hired in 2021 as Temple’s president, espouses a philosophy that higher education should shift to a more entrepreneurial and dynamic model, in order to favor business-friendly employment. This amounts to a structural adjustment of higher education, focused on removing whole departments and colleges that are deemed to have a poor rate of return, promoting online learning, and a general LinkedInification of the university system, which would see it become one giant set of online VC-backed business schools aimed at maximizing “human capital” for white-collar employers. Wingard’s lavish inauguration ceremony was the crowning of a new way of doing business at public universities.

Wingard was just the kind of person Mitchell Morgan wanted for his university. Morgan is the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Temple, a graduate of Temple’s Fox School of Business, a real estate investment mogul, a major Republican Party donor, and a former Christmas Eve guest at Mar-A-Lago in 2019. Morgan has donated over half a million dollars to Republican candidates and PACs since 2000. He has also been on the Temple Board of Trustees since 2002, joining at the invitation of Howard Gittis, an attorney and former advisor to Frank Rizzo, the notoriously racist police commissioner of Philadelphia from 1968 to 1971 and mayor from 1972 to 1980. Morgan himself is worth an estimated fifteen billion dollars. In October 2008, Morgan also co-signed a mass email sent to 75,000 Jewish voters in the state of Pennsylvania, which insinuated that the election of Barack Obama would lead to another Holocaust.

Morgan and his fellow Republican-donating, real-estate, banking, and venture-capitalist board members needed a new face for the university after the dean of the business college was caught conspiring to provide false information to U.S. News & World Report for their school ratings assessments. Wingard’s Goldman Sachs pedigree and his aspirations for Democratic party politics may have provided a veneer of institutional legitimacy. The strike changed that: as a result of the administration’s handling of the strike, the Temple faculty union held a vote of no confidence against Wingard, Morgan, and the provost, Gregory Mandel, and Wingard resigned on March 31. Morgan—the man who put Wingard in charge in the first place—is still in power as head of the Board, and the faculty union is scheduled to hold a vote of no confidence against him beginning today.

No matter the outcome of the vote, Temple University is at the forefront of the hostile takeover of higher education by finance. If the strike had lost, multiple departments would have been shattered, losing many of their graduate students and thereby much of their budgets. Professors would have left, department reputations would have declined, and more budget cuts would have followed. It is not an exaggeration to say that our own department—history—would likely not exist in five years if we had lost. The fight is existential.

Over the course of the strike we found military metaphors more and more appropriate. Graduate students, adjuncts, and TT or tenured professors who did not support the strike revealed themselves to be essentially collaborators with a hostile regime—a regime that ultimately views them as expendable. We’ve heard that some faculty resent the strike as having forced the crisis of Temple’s viability: that striking workers gave the administration an opportunity to advance the wholesale violent restructuring of the university. But this resentment is mistaken. If Temple’s administration was glad to use the strike as an excuse to advance an agenda already in place, then the strike should be praised for having forced the issue into the open. Far better for an open battle for power to occur than for faculty to acquiesce to a longer and slower process of administration-driven austerity and exploitation, without a flashpoint of confrontation. If the ship of academia is truly sinking, then we are not going down without a fight, no matter the odds, because without a fight the ship will sink anyway.

Some critics contend that graduate workers are not true workers—that they are spoiled scions of elite institutions who play-act radicalism and trade unionism and have no real fundamental stakes in their actions. But the contemporary university has become a major capitalist endeavor, a collection of hedge funds and real estate investment companies with educational veneers, and as such the position of graduate workers—who number close to three million across the country—to the broader labor movement has changed. In an era in which academic labor is increasingly exploited and precarious, graduate workers find themselves essential workers to the functioning of universities—find themselves, indeed, the very core of the modern university as we understand it. With universities and their accompanying medical system empires among the largest employers in many American states, the labor of teaching in those universities is at the heart of modern American capitalism.

The strike at Temple, therefore, was not just about material benefits for graduate workers: it was also about the long-term structural nature of what the contemporary university will be. It was about exposing the precarity of everyone—not just graduate workers but also adjuncts and even TT faculty—under academia’s current system. (Thus the incoherence of crossing the picket line: for workers who perhaps thought that in scabbing that they would gain greater favor with the university administration and get access to a better job, they instead worked to ensure that no further chance of permanent academic employment will be offered to anyone in the near future.) And the strike was about the future of humanities education, in an educational marketplace that values profit over historical knowledge and literacy.

It was also about the role of international students, who, prior to the strike, faced a dilemma akin to indentured servitude, their insurance and visa statuses essentially held hostage by their employer. Entirely dependent on their advisors and lab directors’ favor for future career stability and for finishing their degrees, they are highly susceptible to extreme exploitation and pressure. International students are often also older and have families, meaning they may face a heartbreaking dilemma: go to graduate school in the US, frequently a life-changing opportunity for class and career advancement, but, due to the low pay and lack of dependent health care, either leave their families behind, or bring family members with them and live in severe poverty. If international students have children, the dilemma is even worse. One member of our strike team was forced to send his daughter back to India because he could not afford to pay for her dependent insurance. Or take the case of an international graduate student from China in our strike team. He is from Wuhan and came to the US to start his program in the fall semester of 2022, before China ended its Covid-zero policies—meaning that he underwent extreme protocols to come to the US when he did. After living in the US alone for months, his wife could finally join him early this year once Covid-zero ended. He is the sole provider for himself and his wife. With dependent health insurance premiums costs at $500 per month per dependent, striking, for him, was a matter of being able to live together with his wife in the US, instead of on different sides of the world.

And the strike was about exposing and pushing back against the shameful hiring practices of today’s universities. To try to break the strike, Temple hired subpar, underqualified, and in some cases dangerous instructors—people who have been fired from other institutions because of sexual harassment and charges of racism. As other workers withheld their labor, some of these scabs taught as many as nine courses, a clearly impossible arrangement in which true teaching and learning cannot occur. Courses were moved online to accommodate scabs, and in many cases the courses themselves were completely altered so that scabs could more easily take them over, meaning that students sometimes woke up to find themselves in entirely different courses than the ones they signed up for.

But none of this changed the structural crisis that the strike forced Temple to confront. Scab labor can cover the gap only so much. Next school year, there must be an adequate number of graduate students to teach courses, and Temple ultimately has no competitive stance for why people should attend it rather than any other university. As student debt has become a fact of life for two generations of Americans, can Temple justify its existence and tuition costs if the quality of education provided is vastly lower than other universities? On this question Temple revealed its most cynical attitude: if educational credentialing is now essential for the job market, then educational quality means nothing, and students will continue to go to Temple—if only to get the diploma that can lead to a moderate white-collar job. By this logic, keeping the shell of the institution afloat is more important than ensuring that it can do anything more than take in students and churn out degrees in order to keep generating money. But such cynicism can only succeed as long as those who do the labor of teaching allow it to. If instructors across the country loudly pushed back against the administrative order, universities would have no choice but to structurally change for the better.

History abounds in continuities. On February 22, in the middle of the TUGSA strike, the Republican-controlled Indiana House of Representatives voted to strip the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana of state funding. The Kinsey Institute is one of the premier centers for the study of sex, gender, and reproduction, and has one of the largest research libraries and archival collections dedicated to these topics in the world. The Indiana House Republicans would be more than happy to cut to the chase and burn the Kinsey Institute’s archive, Institut für Sexualwissenschaft–style, if they thought they could get away with it. For now, they will settle for austerity and higher education shakeups in lieu of fire. In Florida, Ron DeSantis has taken this Republican vision to its final conclusion: thousands of books removed and entire topics censored from teaching upon the threat of penalties and firings, part of a project to suppress the history that goes against American fascist pieties, with the aim of the destruction of public education at large. The Kinsey Institute is not necessarily doomed—it could gain private funding to make up the difference—but the example illustrates an external threat to higher education in the US: as higher education is squeezed by private equity on one side, and direct fascist malevolence of the DeSantis variety on the other, vital areas of study and research face censorship and indeed wholesale destruction.

It must be recognized that DeSantis and the Temple University administration and Board are two wings of the same movement against higher education. While the political mechanisms and cultural valences through which they occur are different, they aim for the same result: the decimation of higher education as we know it, with the traditional humanities fields hollowed out and the system oriented around profit generation and second-order job training.

Some—including the Temple administration—have argued that Morgan and his appointees are in fact engaged in saving higher education from the likes of DeSantis: that painful changes, including austerity and educational shock therapy, are unavoidable and necessary to keep universities competitive and afloat. But what separates such a vision—in which higher ed becomes merely an automated credentialing system, driven by market demands, stripped of unprofitable humanities programs—from the DeSantis vision of a “useful education,” free from ideological concerns, in which uncomfortable history is erased from the curriculum and education is farmed out to private interests? These are among academia’s most pressing questions: who gets to write and analyze the past? Whose history gets told and whose does not? Based on how it operates its budget, the Temple University administration seems to prefer that these questions are not asked at all. In this sense, Temple University is Florida in Philadelphia, representing an extreme and violent attack on higher education, including both its workers and students.

The central administrative building of Temple is Sullivan Hall, which also houses the Blockson Collection, a major archive of African American history and one of the largest of its kind in the country. The kinds of educational training and enquiry for which the Blockson Collection is used—humanistic reckoning with American history and race—is exactly the kind that is under threat nationally right now. If historians of Black America aren’t being trained and educated, if the subject of history itself and the humanities at large are under attack, then who can be expected to conduct research at the Blockson Collection? It is under threat of collecting dust in perpetuity, as the intellectual enquiry for which it exists implodes under the weight of the crisis of higher education. This can only be halted through militant labor action among academic workers nationally.

On April 12 we took a train ride across the Delaware River to stand in solidarity with striking Rutgers academic workers at their Camden campus. Multiple people on the picket lines wore TUGSA shirts, printed by graduate workers at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple. As we marched outside the Paul Robeson Library, we reflected on the clarity that strikes bring.  Robeson himself put it best:

Every artist, every scientist, must decide now where he stands. He has no alternative. There is no standing above the conflict on Olympian heights. There are no impartial observers. Through the destruction, in certain countries, of the greatest of man’s literary heritage, through the propagation of false ideas of racial and national superiority, the artist, the scientist, the writer is challenged. The struggle invades the formerly cloistered halls of our universities and other seats of learning. The battlefront is everywhere. There is no sheltered rear.


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