Rutgers Teetering on the Edge of Major Faculty Strike

Carly Sitrin | April 10, 2019 | Education, The Booker Beat
Students, faculty, union members, and national organizations come together in final show of solidarity outside Newark campus center

Protesting over pay and conditions at Rutgers-Newark in April
A major strike is looming for Rutgers faculty, unless a last-minute contract agreement can be reached in the next few days. And professors are preparing to walk out.

Months of picketing and rallying culminated in one last show of solidarity on Tuesday, as students, faculty, union members, and national organizations protested outside the Paul Robeson Campus Center in Newark.

“I’m here to deliver a warning,” said David Hughes, Rutgers AAUP-AFT vice president and anthropology professor, speaking inside the student center at the board of governors meeting. “The faculty reluctantly are tired of bargaining for 13 months and are prepared if necessary and soon to withdraw our labor from this university.”

David Hughes, vice president, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
If the union follows through on its threat, it would be the first strike of faculty and graduate workers in Rutgers’ 253-year history. It would also be the first strike of tenure-track faculty at a Big 10 university.

Union leaders have been engaged in a fierce tug of war with the Rutgers administration since March 2018, and members have been working without a contract since July of last year. They’re negotiating for salary increases; pay equity for adjunct professors, female faculty, and faculty in Newark and Camden; lower student-teacher ratios, and increased diversity — among other issues. Hughes said they’d seen little progress in discussions with the university until their vote to authorize a strike, when 88 percent of members said they would support their leadership.

And their attempts to raise the alarm have been getting nationwide attention as more teachers in higher education and K-12 have been walking out across the country.

Booker backs union

The union has secured support from U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), who tweeted “Educators at every level of our education system deserve better. I support the Rutgers AAUP-AFT in this fight for equality & dignity. Rutgers faculty are on the front lines every day for their students — we should all be united in the movement to support them.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) tweeted “I stand with AAUP-AFT Rutgers professors who are prepared to strike in order to defend affordable, quality higher education. When we organize and stand together, we win.”

According to Rutger’s spokesperson Dory Devlin, agreements have been reached with six of Rutgers’ 24 labor unions, who have received 3 percent raises in each of the next three years and a 2.5 percent increase in the final year. Devlin would not discuss any specific terms of the negotiations with the AFT-AAUP, but said they have had more than 35 negotiating sessions.

“We are continuing to negotiate in good faith and on a regular basis with the remaining unions. 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 said in a statement.

Rutgers president Robert Barchi has said publicly that he is “fully confident” that an agreement can be reached and a strike avoided, but that will largely depend on his administration’s ability to compromise with the union. And the clock is ticking.

“I think this can be stopped actually,” Hughes told the board of governors on Tuesday. “I think if you people in this room — the governors in this room — get involved, if you President Barchi get involved with your team, I think we can prevent that from happening and I think we can end up with a contract that makes everybody here and everybody in the state of New Jersey proud.”

However, as negotiations come down to the wire, Rutgers faculty are gathering resources to prepare for the worst.

Preparing to strike

Deepa Kumar, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT
Deepa Kumar, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT which represents more than 4,800 full-time faculty and graduate workers, as well as more than 3,000 part-time lecturers, 500-plus post-docs, and 25 counselors, who are covered under separate contracts, said now that a majority of their members have voted to authorize a strike, actions are being taken to brace for impact. She said a strike would mean shutting down all classes, with the exception of those dealing with sensitive scientific research and similar constraints. She added that professors would continue to provide student assistance, including writing recommendation letters and helping with grant proposals, which often have a deadline and can affect an individual’s future.

“You can’t just call a strike and expect everyone to know what to do,” Kumar said. “It’s a science.” She said faculty are extremely busy with teaching, advising, and attending to other aspects of their job, and that makes organizing difficult. In addition to her usual teaching responsibilities, Kumar said she had to edit a “strike manual”; help set up training and scheduling for picketing shifts; ensure that directions are distributed, signs are available and disposed of properly, and people are behaving safely — and much more.

But she also said she’s not forging the path alone. Kumar said the AFT and AAUP national unions have sent in several organizers to help equip faculty in the event of a strike.

“This is our last appeal to the board of governors,” Kumar said. “A few days of disruption is worth it in order to secure good public higher education.”

Strikes on the rise

According to data from the National Center for Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, strikes at colleges and universities in the country have been up in recent years. There were a total of 11 strikes in higher education in 2018, up from the five in 2017 and seven in 2016.

On average, the center data shows, strikes from 2013 to 2018 have lasted anywhere from one day to a week. The longest higher-education strikes have been 20 days at Harvard University, where dining-service workers walked out in 2016, and Wright State University faculty in Dayton, Ohio, who walked out in February of this year.

What’s more, the Rutgers faculty’s demands have much in common with those of professors and workers at Harvard and Wright State.

Protesting at Rutgers-Newark yesterday
Their top concerns going into the final bargaining sessions have been: salary increases across the board to keep up with the high cost of living in the state, as well as pay equity for women faculty, part-time lecturers (Rutgers’ term for adjunct professors), and faculty at Newark and Camden who on average, earn 90 percent and 80 percent of the salaries of their colleagues at New Brunswick, respectively.

The union is also seeking more hiring overall of both full-time faculty and teaching and graduate assistants and longer, more-secure contracts for nontenure-track faculty.

‘Piles of money’

“Thirty percent of our courses are taught by people making $5,200 … that is absolutely shameful,” Hughes said referring to the salaries of part-time lecturers. “This institution has piles of money and it certainly has enough for the educational mission. Part-time lecturers need a massive increase now.”

To be sure, over the past few months, gains have been made. Rutgers recently announced $20 million in additional funding for its “Faculty Diversity Hiring Initiative,” which Devlin said “would support a continued effort to hire, mentor, and retain faculty from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.” The university has also postponed a full rollout of the online Infosilem course-scheduling platform. Some faculty have complained that the platform creates “unworkable classroom schedules” because the algorithmic nature of the program does not take into account advising time, family-care accommodations, and research demands.

“You’re welcome,” protesters interrupted at the board meeting as each of those announcements was made, noting that they were some of the union’s core bargaining requests. “You’re very welcome.”

But as the meeting turned to resolutions celebrating the athletic achievements of two students on the wrestling team, protestors shouted questions that have been at the heart of the contract negotiations for more than a year.

“What about the academics? This is a top-tier research university. What about the students? What about a living wage? What about the women faculty? What about faculty of color?” they called out. “You’re failing the students.”

“Look to the future,” Hughes urged the board after delivering his final strike warning. “Find the resources, which we have, and apply them for the good of this institution.”