Does New Rutgers President Mean New Day for Dealings with University Unions?

Sheila Noonan | July 6, 2020 | Education
Union leaders hope for a labor/management reset with a new executive at the helm of the state university
Credit: NJTV News
Jonathan Holloway speaking at Rutgers University on Jan. 21 when his appointment was announced

The relationship between Rutgers University’s labor unions and past president Robert Barchi was thorny, with an unprecedented threat of a faculty strike in 2019 and disagreements over athletics spending, tuition and fees, part-time lecturers and, most recently, managing the university’s coronavirus-related fiscal woes.

The July 1 arrival of Jonathan Holloway marks a new chapter in administration-union relations at Rutgers. While a university spokesperson said Holloway would not comment on Rutgers matters before becoming president, the Rutgers unions are optimistic about a Holloway-led administration.

”We are absolutely very hopeful about … Jonathan Holloway’s tenure,” said Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers. ”A new day is here.”

Already, Wolfson said, he has spoken with Holloway multiple times, while never once during the year he’s been union president did he have a conversation with Barchi, whom he described as “quite antagonistic and dismissive toward organized labor.” In addition to improved communication, Holloway’s academic background in the arts and sciences and his public statements on race have been positive indicators for the Rutgers unions.

Pandemic crisis is top agenda item

The composition of Holloway’s cabinet of advisers will be very important to the unions. While Barchi surrounded himself primarily with lawyers, accountants and political operatives, Wolfson said, he is hopeful a “broad range of faculty voices will be at the center of Holloway’s administration.”

The unions could get a sense of Holloway’s decision-making direction within the first few days of his presidency.

On June 8, Rutgers notified several unions the university was in a pandemic-related fiscal emergency that could jeopardize the negotiated 3% raises set to go into effect July 1. Wolfson said the unions, which have offered their own recommendations to ease the university’s financial problems, urged the Barchi administration to collaborate and try to find a solution before Holloway’s arrival.

As it stands, that has not happened. If the university moves forward with withholding the raises, the unions would file a grievance and move toward binding arbitration, but a different course of action is possible. “We’d prefer that … Holloway will sit down and talk with us,” said Wolfson.

Unionization attempt at Northwestern

It won’t be the first time Holloway has taken a new job where unions and management weren’t on the same page.

When he took the provost’s position at Northwestern University in August 2017, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was attempting to unionize about 700 non-tenure eligible faculty at six of the private university’s schools. A vote was taken before his arrival, and SEIU disputed 25 ballots, claiming some were cast by ineligible faculty. In turn, Northwestern asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene, and the board determined the votes should be counted. The final tally in the June 2016 election, including the disputed votes, was 242-231 against unionization.

After the vote, according to the Daily Northwestern student newspaper, members of the non-tenure eligible organizing committee stated: “We are disappointed that Northwestern University administrators chose to hide behind tricky legal tactics and the highly-politicized Trump labor board, rather than work with us to make campus a better place to learn and work.” Other faculty said they believed that the vote effort was complicated because SEIU didn’t include all non-tenure eligible professors and that a different approach might have succeeded.

Holloway, in an earlier memo, commented, “We have strong working relationships with unions that represent a number of Northwestern employees.”

After the vote, he wrote, “The university has been and remains committed to cultivating its relationship with its non-tenure-track faculty and improving the work environment for all faculty members, including non-tenure-eligible faculty.”

Building better relationships at Rutgers

With Rutgers unions, Holloway has the challenge of changing the union-management dialogue. A functional and healthy labor-management relationship, said one higher education labor expert, requires dialogue, respect and understanding.

“A change in higher education leadership is an opportunity to reset the labor-management relationship, which can be accomplished through deeds and honest conversations about the needs of faculty, staff and students as well as the educational mission of the university,” said William A. Herbert, distinguished lecturer and executive director at the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at CUNY’s Hunter College.

It’s “vitally important,” he noted, to have an “understanding of all points of views, as well as … of the consequences, intended or unintended, of any particular decision or act.”

Under normal conditions, these trust-building conversations might occur over several weeks and months, but during a pandemic, they have a new urgency and perhaps a different direction.

“A new leadership team should be prepared to truly listen to the faculty and staff with a mindset that they are part of the solution, not the problem,” said John W. Budd, professor of work and organizations at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.

“Building trust with university faculty and staff can also include not making centralized decisions at all,” he added. “There might be some issues that faculty can have significant leeway to decide themselves, and other issues that are best addressed in flexible ways by individual units with significant faculty/staff participation.”

Some of the answers to Holloway’s union challenges might even be home-grown.

“A new Rutgers administration only needs to look to its own faculty experts on labor-management collaboration for how to build this partnership,” said Budd.