Part-time lecturers at Rutgers University just landed what union officials are calling a “revolutionary” contract agreement but some rank and file adjuncts are poised to vote it down.
When leaders of the adjunct chapter of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) union announced their agreement with university officials last week, they admitted they did not attain all of their goals.
After more than a year of bargaining for a salary of $7,250 per course (a significant increase from the current salary of $5,178 per course), access to healthcare, and more job security for some of the most vulnerable professors at Rutgers, they came out with a tiered part-time lecturer (PTL) system that would offer a 33 percent raise to $7,234 per course over the length of the four-year contract for only a subset of the PTLs who had been working at Rutgers the longest and no deal on healthcare.
They also won multi-semester appointments, a more substantial fund for professional development, and other gains. That tentative agreement must be put to the full union membership for a vote before the raises can be initiated.
For many union members who had picketed and organized under the union’s promises, the reality that those who would be categorized as the lowest level of PTL would receive what amounts to a $155 raise for a three-credit course in their first year was disappointing at best.
“The people at the top got what they wanted but the rest of us didn’t,” Lauren Barbato a PTL and founder of a new Rank-and-File Caucus said. She and several others are now organizing adjuncts outside of the AAUP-AFT to protest the labor agreement. They’ve begun mobilizing on social media under the hashtag and handle, “RUExploited.”
“We’re hoping people will vote ‘no,’” she said, but noted that killing the contract would not be an attempt to undermine their union leaders. “We don’t want to make an internal fight, we’re not anti-union and we’re not against our own leadership, but we feel like we need to be very aggressive with the [Rutgers] administration.”
Union leadership emphasizes the positive
Union leaders, however, are adamant that while their negotiation goals were ambitious, the agreement would benefit every PTL.
“This is a 33 percent raise for hundreds of employees,” Teresa Politano, president of the part-time faculty union said. “It’s an opportunity for advancement for everyone and that didn’t exist before. It would completely upend the structure for adjuncts at Rutgers and professionalize the workforce.”
Politano added that leadership will try to put the agreement to a vote within the next two weeks and they are “confident that it will be ratified overwhelmingly.”
“We need to get it ratified so people can get their raises,” Politano said. “What happens immediately [once the agreement is ratified] is every single PTL is eligible for essentially a 6 percent raise. Three percent is retroactive, meaning that’s the immediate gain for every single person.”
But Barbato contends those gains are not enough. She calculated for a three-credit course for PTLs in the lowest tier of the new system, raises would amount to $155 for the first year; $160 for the second year; $165 for the third year; and $141 for the fourth year. Under the agreement, she said, most adjuncts will not get to $6,000 per course, let alone the promised $7,250.
“What union leaders have billed as “A Path to Career Advancement” amounts instead to a stratified system of dividing adjuncts into separate job categories, with different levels of compensation, none of which is guaranteed. Most of Rutgers 3,000 PTLs will get very little by way of increased pay. The paltry raises do not cover the rise in cost of living expenses,” she wrote in a statement.
Getting an accurate census count of adjuncts can be difficult, Barbato said, which makes it hard to determine how many would fall into the lower PTL levels under the new agreement. She estimates most of the rank and file would be in this category.
To make ends meet, many PTLs jump from school to school, teaching courses across the state with barely enough time in their schedules to plan curriculums, teach, grade assignments, write letters of recommendation, hold office hours (without a designated office space), advise students, and in some cases, work in their actual career field, all of which makes getting an accurate picture of the PTL group challenging. Union data shows there are approximately 3,000 PTLs in total at Rutgers and contingent faculty make up 70 percent of the teaching staff, teaching 30 percent of all courses. But Barbato said those numbers could be an underestimate.
“Rutgers doesn’t publish the numbers of adjuncts,” she said. “We are really in a tough position and it’s hard for us to even fact check our own numbers to know how many of us there really are.”
One such PTL, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from union leaders and other members said the feeling among union members now is at odds with the picture painted by union leadership.
“I’m disappointed and I am angry,” she said. “There’s palpable anger among the rank and file.”
This PTL had been an organizer with the union, tasked with recruiting other adjuncts to join its ranks by sharing their bargaining demands. “Every person I talked to when I was recruiting for the union said $7,000 [per course] would be life-changing,” she said. But now that she’s seen the language of the agreement, she’s having second thoughts. “[The level system] divides the adjuncts into different groups; it’s not equal pay for equal work … I’m hoping that most adjuncts will see this is not a good deal. We still can hold out for more. We can vote no. People calling this ‘revolutionary,’ that’s just spin.”
If the majority of union members vote down the agreement, the administration would have to go back to the bargaining table with union leadership to come up with another deal. Barbato said there is a chance that a rejection of the agreement could backfire, however.
“Would this ruin negotiations going forward? It’s tough to say,” she cautioned. But she noted that in the long run, going back to the bargaining table may be worth it if it sets an expectation that adjuncts will not settle for earning what they say is less than a living wage. “The adjunctification of American universities is a long time coming and is only going to get worse if we don’t mobilize from the ground up … you have to listen to the people who are struggling.”
Union leaders, however, said going back to the bargaining table would be devastating.
“This has been a difficult and long process and things like this always are. That’s how progress works. You don’t win everything right away,” Politano said. “I don’t know what happens if the contract is not ratified. I would guess we would have to start over at zero.”
Despite the unrest, Politano said she understands where the opposition is coming from and is hopeful the union can continue to build on what she said is the foundational success of the tentative contract agreement.
“This is a frustrating situation and finally people are becoming aware of that, which is great news for fixing it,” Politano said. “I welcome this energy from this group. Adjuncts in general deserve fair pay.”