Members of several Rutgers faculty unions say they are “fed up” and are threatening to strike over ongoing contract negotiations with the university which they claim have been arduous and opaque.
Several hundred part-time and full-time faculty members, graduate students, and Rutgers community members picketed Rutgers’ board of governors meeting on yesterday at Winants Hall in New Brunswick. Members of the student union Rutgers United Students Against Sweatshops Local 109 packed the room and sang Christmas carols, replacing the lyrics of “O Christmas Tree” to fault the university president Robert Barchi for not increasing faculty wages.
“Oh Bob Barchi, oh Bob Barchi, how stagnant are our wages,” they sang, interrupting the board meeting before handing out paper checks issuing “$15/hr” to the order of “Rutgers University employees” — and before being ushered out of the room.
Nearing the end of the meeting, several professors and graduate students were granted two-minute allotments to address the board about their criticisms of the negotiation process.
‘You cannot sit here forever behind this rope’
“This rope here which you so carefully put to keep us out, separates you guys, the seven-figure folks, from us the five- and sometimes four- and sometimes three-figure folks. And you don’t represent anybody,” David Hughes, an anthropology professor and chief negotiator with the AAUP-AFT union said as he stood behind the velvet rope that divided the room between the board and the public seating area. “I represent 7,000 people. You weren’t elected by anybody… you cannot sit here forever behind this rope making decisions behind closed doors and ignoring us.”
It’s been five months since the union’s contract expired on June 30 and nine months since bargaining first began, but Hughes said the bargaining process has been “almost nonexistent.”
“Negotiations have been extraordinarily slow,” Hughes said. He claimed that, as of next month, bargaining sessions will have occurred at the rate of eight hours per month — and “that really isn’t enough time for you to haggle over serious proposals.”
Hughes claimed the university has not responded to many of the union’s proposals that address topics including insurance policies, graduate student salary increases, healthcare, and academic freedom. In addition, Hughes said after the union presented its salary proposal in May, the university took until September 28 to respond with “a completely inadequate salary proposal” of a 1.5 percent increase in year one and then 2 percent, 2 percent, and 1.5 percent increases in years two, three and four in “merit pay.”
“That’s quite a bit lower than we wanted and doesn’t even keep pace with inflation,” Hughes said.
Rutgers says negotiations continue
Rutgers spokesperson Dory Devlin emailed a statement from the university during the meeting that noted negotiations are ongoing.
“The current collective negotiations agreements continue in effect until new agreements are negotiated. All issues related to employee contracts will be discussed at the negotiating table with the appropriate bargaining team representatives from the administration and the unions,” Devlin wrote.
Devlin said that agreements have been reached with five of Rutgers’ 24 labor unions including: Teamsters Local 97, the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, the police superiors union FOP Local 164 (which was merged with another police superior union), and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68.
According to Devlin, negotiations will continue with the other 19 labor unions at Rutgers. She wrote that the university has held 45 sessions with academic unions since March of this year and that several additional sessions are scheduled.
Rutgers AAUP-AFT union represents 7,700 members including full-time faculty (tenured, tenure-track and non tenure-track), teaching and graduate assistants, student workers, part-time lecturers (Rutgers’ word for adjuncts), postdoctoral associates, and winter/summer instructors among others. The union is working to negotiate a new contract for all its members. It has said it’s looking for greater job security, a cost-of-living salary adjustment and salary equity across the three Rutgers campuses, gender and race equity in salary and hiring, academic freedom, and affordable healthcare.
University wouldn’t agree to one contract for all
Initially, Hughes said, the intention was to negotiate one contract for all the members and to bargain jointly. However, he said the university management would not agree to those terms and the process has since been divided into distinct bargaining sessions and contract talks for part-time lecturers and separate discussions for other faculty members.
“Obviously we’re in close coordination and it matters an enormous amount to the tenure-track faculty that all the other categories of workers — not even just teaching workers — get equity and job security and dignity,” Hughes said.
Nicholas Belkin, a distinguished professor of library and information science, said he’s been with the university since 1985 and has never seen contract negotiations so delayed.
“This administration’s behavior is by far the worst that I’ve experienced in my career,” Belkin said.
“If there isn’t an adequate response that is a fair and just contract agreement by the beginning of spring semester, I’m going to propose that the faculty go on strike,” Belkin said at the board meeting. “It will really be a pity if it turns out that this is the only way you, President Barchi, and this administration will recognize how central we who teach, do research and provide service to the community are to the function of this university.”
Hughes said there will be “some intensive bargaining” to do over the holidays and the union will see how the university responds to the statements made at yesterday’s meeting.
“They got a very loud and clear message from 400 people that we’re getting fed up,” Hughes said. “Eventually faculty are going to be prepared to use the strongest weapon they have which is to withhold their labor.”