The usual calm of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA) faithful was gone last Thursday as students and supporters lifted picket signs, moved in circles and stated their message loudly, clearly and publicly.
Their mock strike, the group’s representatives said, was a sign of what will come if their demands of better pay, better training and better health care — all in the form of union recognition by Temple — are not met.
“We are TUGSA, hear us say: We will fight for decent pay,” demonstrators shouted. “We are TUGSA, hear us call: We want health care by the fall.”
Some picketers blew whistles. One wheeled a baby in a stroller in favor of holding a picket sign. One dressed as a chicken, at times clutching a crutch and writhing on the ground in an attempt to mock the state of grad student health care.
One picketer, Art Hochner, is president of the faculty union Temple Association of University Professionals, which has traditionally supported TUGSA’s efforts.
The group, which had picketed in various Main Campus locations during the day, fixed its attention on Conwell Hall at Broad and Montgomery Streets. The noon rally on the steps of the building attracted the attention of lunchtime passersby, who moved in and out of Conwell undisturbed as speakers used a bullhorn to address the modest but excited crowd of 30.
Linda Greenwood, a teaching assistant in the Mass Media and Communications program, pointed out that her roles of student and worker are not mutually exclusive, as Temple contends.
Grad students are tired of subpar compensation for genuine work, she said: “We have all of the responsibilities of employees, but none of the rights.”
Greenwood estimated that about 6,000 graduate students contribute 22,000 work hours per week to the university.
Better health care, one of TUGSA’s main goals, was clearly on most people’s minds.
“Our health care sucks,” a boisterous picketer shouted between speeches.
The demonstrator costumed as a chicken also carried a sign proclaiming “TA, heal thyself.”
Scrawled in yellow sidewalk chalk, one grad student sent a similar message to Temple: “Decent health care!”
Ted Kirsch, president of the local Philadelphia American Federation of Teachers and vice president of the National Federation of Teachers, which TUGSA is a member of, attended the mock strike. Kirsch, in a blue pinstriped suit among a sea of sweatshirts and jeans, looked a bit out of place as he lent support but was right in line with TUGSA thinking.
“What right does Temple have to say to you that you can’t have a union? None,” Kirsch said. “Temple is wrong.”
Kirsch cautioned the audience that their battle may be protracted, but pledged local and national AFT aid.
“It may be a long, hard struggle, but don’t give up the fight,” he said.
The Rev. Isaac Miller, pastor of the Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond Streets, spoke on behalf of some neighborhood groups allied with TUGSA.
“I want to offer my support and the symbolic support of the community which surrounds Temple,” Miller said. “There ought to be a conception of justice in the universities of this land.”
Sue Sierra, an organizer for the AFL-CIO, with which TUGSA is aligned, sported an orange armband that proclaimed her “picket captain.” She said that despite the busy point in the semester, the rally was well attended and well received.
“It’s hard this time of year, with finals and papers to grade,” Sierra said. “Still, the energy level is high and we’ll be here all day.”
Usually composed, founding TUGSA member Rob Callahan’s cool was nowhere to be found as he shouted to the crowd: “We, the teachers, the researchers: we are Temple University. The lawyers, the administrators: they are not Temple University.”
Just across Broad Street from the protesters, a knot of Temple administrators and university police stood on the corner, watching the TUGSA goings-on silently and vigilantly.
Other people watching from nearby vantage points usually paused for a minute, exchanged comments, then went about their business.
But the Temple higher-ups were firmly entrenched in their position on the corner. It was clear they weren’t moving.
In a statement released in response to the mock strike, Temple administrators took the position they have maintained since TUGSA formed: grad students are not employees, and therefore lack the right to organize.
Temple spokesman George Ingram said the university will continue to use legal channels to keep the grad students from achieving their goal: “TUGSA and their AFL colleagues are good at staging photo ops — like the one today in front of Conwell Hall — but Temple has chosen to follow the established legal process for resolution of the issue.”
According to a TUGSA statement, Temple so far has spent more than $150,000 on its legal skirmishes with the grad group.