Transcript (lightly edited for length and clarity) of interview with Matt Ward, TUGSA Union, Temple University, Philadelphia PA, February 15th 2023.
*Note: Another walkout is scheduled for *today* February 28th, 2023.
The TUGSA strike at Temple is ongoing.
Please contribute to their strike fund here:
CA: I was hoping to run this interview in a sort of roughly chronological manner, if that’s ok with you?
MW: Sure. Whatever you’re gonna do.
CA: What were the circumstances of TUGSA’s founding and how is it presently structured?
MW: Oh, wow, ok. So TUGSA was founded in 1997. Basically, the pay was really bad. There was some stuff going on in the University, especially with the president with priorities of administration. [Read more about TUGSA’S history here: https://www.tugsa.org/history]
So, ’97, they [TUGSA] fought for four years to get recognition. They finally got it in 2001, in 2002 they got their first CBA[collective bargaining agreement]. We’ve been negotiating contracts ever since. This will be our sixth contract, when the negotiations are finished.
MW: Oh, and when you say structure, what did you mean by that?
CA: I meant—TA’s and RA’s are represented in TUGSA, but I have a friend who is tutor who is also represented. So are things structured by role?
MW: So it’s built around the work you do. The reason it’s built around the work you do rather than the job title you have is because that prevents the university from just changing a person’s job title to get them out of the BU [bargaining unit]. Know what I mean?
CA: I didn’t know that was even a thing they COULD do.
MW: They can’t, really, but the reason is because of this, basically.
MW: So that’s where that comes in. Yeah. The work is defined by people who are TAs and RAs that are matriculating grad students at Temple. So your friend’s work is tutoring, that falls under the category of teaching assistant, basically.
CA: That makes sense.
CA:So, just in case people haven’t heard (somehow) about this strike already (entering it’s third week), could you set the scene immediately before TUGSA struck? There was about a years worth of negotiation with Temple that went south, if I’m not mistaken.
MW: Yes, we were negotiating for a year. Not a lot of movement from admin. We had an authorization vote in the fall. Had a few more sessions, still not enough movement, not enough substantial for us to be ok with it. So we called the strike on Jan. 31st. Seemed like a lot of obstinacy from them at the table, including like disrespect and all that other stuff—that’s not the reason you go on strike, but it kinda pisses you off—there was a lot of that too. Dismissiveness. Condescension.
CA: Certainly nothing one would do if one was trying to reach negotiation.
MW: Certainly not.
CA: At this point, everyone from Bernie Sanders, the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia City Council has come out in support of TUGSA and/or condemned Temple’s retaliatory antics[Cutting insurance for striking workers, ending tuition remission and threatening workers with visas with deportation]. Do you think this is having an effect on Temple in terms of forcing conciliation or have they doubled down?
MW: I think it has an effect, for sure. The message yesterday (Feb.14th) from provost Mandel was encouraging in the sense that they seem to be taking it seriously. You know, I don’t really buy it as anything sincere, it’s more strategic and saving face for them but whatever. I do think that it’s having a positive effect for sure, there is no doubt in my mind that it is. It’s really challenging the way Temple chooses to run things, the corporatization of higher ed that Temple is at the forefront of right now, playing a key role in drawing attention to that fact and drawing the necessary condemnation that it deserves.
CA: Can you talk about the level of support you’ve received across the Temple Campus?
MW: We’ve gotten a ton of it. It’s been great. Undergrads, faculty. Obviously you can’t please everyone with an action like this, but the level of support has been really encouraging. It’s been really great.
CA: Is today the start of the official student walkouts or have they been doing this since the strike began?
MW: There hasn’t been anything going since the strike began. Hard for me to say since we’ve not really been involved in organizing it. The undergrads have organized all this themselves. I know details, like that the rally and stuff is today, but other than that, no. TUGSA hasn’t had anything to do with it besides people saying “hey what do you think of this?” and we’re like “cool, we love having support of people.”
CA: Gotta love the spontaneous organization.
MW: Yep. I think there are a bunch of organizers behind it, but those organizers are separate from us.
CA: Gotcha. Separate but parallel.
CA: Last question, I swear. If you were to give suggestions to other graduate student unions (or people looking to start their own) what advice would you give knowing what you know now?
MW: I guess I’d say: stick with it. It can be hard, it can be difficult, it can feel like an uphill battle. Organizing can be difficult in higher ed because we have so many different departments and disciplines and colleges to work within a single university. You have people from all over the world, it can be hard sometimes at first to forge that solidarity that is the job of the organizer to forge. But it is possible and it is doable with persistence and a coherent detailed strategy you’re willing to stick to for as long as it takes. I guess I would tell people you want to have discipline to the cause of what you’re trying to do and the greater strategy, you want to be humble too. Humble in the face of people not getting it right away, things not going your way, things taking longer than you’d like. it’s really important to understand that doing this work is necessary, it can often be thankless, but it is always necessary.
CA: Thanks for speaking with me.
Interviewers note: Shortly after conducting this interview on the 15th of February, over a thousand people composed of Temple students, TUGSA members, and allies held a mass rally and march at Temple that shut down North Broad street and sections of campus for hours, culminating with a bullhorn open-mic outside the Administrative building.
A half hour before the march began, Temple Administration’s Ken Kaiser sent out a frantic email begging students not to attend the rally claiming: “We support Temple community members’ rights to free expression, but we ask that everyone proceed responsibly and fulfill the obligations of their role at the university…”
This exercise in bureaucratic doublespeak was ignored by the students and rightly so. More days of action are planned and it is hoped that this action of a thousand will be the smallest of them.
Temple University at the end of last week extended a contract to TUGSA that was wildly insufficient (22k—a mere 3k more than their present wages a year, no medical benefits for dependents, etc.) and thus it was roundly rejected by the graduate workers this week in a vote.
The strike continues.
Additional sources on the TUGSA strike: