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Winning Rutgers Faculty Union Vows to Aid Part-Timers in Contract Battle

After agreeing a ‘historic’ contract, officials with the union representing thousands of full-time faculty and graduate employees say they will work for colleagues still at the bargaining table

Deepa Kumar
Deepa Kumar, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT union, speaking in New Brunswick Wednesday

Rutgers University’s full-time faculty union lit a fire under the negotiation table when it threatened a strike last week. The union subsequently won what it calls a “historic” contract agreement. Now, those professors and graduate assistants are picking up their signs again to stand in solidarity with part-time colleagues who are still in contract negotiations with the university.

“We have a reversal of the power dynamic here at Rutgers,” Sherry Wolf, a senior organizer with the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union said at a press conference in New Brunswick yesterday. “We are going to take the wind in the sails of the full-time faculty and grads and pivot everything we have and everything in our power to win a great contract for the part-time lecturers.”

The union (which represents nearly 5,000 full-time faculty and graduate employees) agreed a contract with the university administration late Tuesday night that secures their members pay equity between genders and campuses, pay raises for all faculty (with the biggest hikes going to the lowest-paid graduate employees), greater job security, a commitment to diversity, academic freedom, and more. That agreement — which the union still must ratify by ballot — was a milestone, according to Deepa Kumar, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT union, but the battle is far from over, she said.

The nearly 3,000 part-time lecturers (Rutgers’ term for adjunct faculty) operate under a different contract and must bargain separately, though many of the faces at their bargaining table were also at the full-time union talks, including David Hughes, vice president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union and Carla Katz, chapter president of the New Brunswick AAUP-AFT.

David Hughes
David Hughes, vice president of the AAUP-AFT and chair of its bargaining team

Part-time lecturers, or PTLs, along with other contingent faculty, make up 70 percent of the teaching staff at Rutgers and teach more than 30 percent of the courses — meaning most Rutgers students encounter these professors at some point during their college experience. Despite carrying much of the teaching weight, Hughes said, PTLs are only paid $5,178 per course which — even with a full course load of three classes per semester — comes out to little more than $31,000 a year. Hughes noted that the aggregate salary for all PTLs at Rutgers is $23 million. That’s about 0.8 percent of the total Rutgers budget, Hughes added.

No word of a strike

The PTLs are currently engaged in tense talks with the administration over pay raises to $7,250 per course, universal access to affordable healthcare benefits, and job security. NJ Spotlight reached out to PTL representatives, who would not comment on the ongoing negotiations nor on whether they also would be preparing to strike.

Gov. Phil Murphy offered a statement of support to the union and university on Wednesday. The deal just reached, he said, “is not only good news for students and faculty, but moves our state’s flagship university closer to being a true model for fairness, diversity, and pay equity.” Murphy added that he applauds “both sides for their willingness to push forward to a resolution and avoid disruption to the end of the semester. Although I recognize that Rutgers’ leadership continues to negotiate with additional collective bargaining units, the agreement struck last night shows the importance of measured dialogue and partnership in reaching our shared goals.”

Kumar mirrored his sentiments at the union press conference, offering thanks and appreciation for the Rutgers administration’s bargaining team’s willingness to compromise while at the same time recognizing there is still a way to go for faculty.

“We stood in solidarity with the other unions on this campus and some of them continue to fight for a good contract and we continue to stand with them,” Kumar said. “But at this moment, I want us to savor what a victory looks like.”

Although it has vowed to throw its full weight behind the PTLs as they continue to negotiate, the full-time faculty union still has to put its new agreement to the full membership in a few weeks.

Details of the ‘historic’ contract

If accepted by the full union, the new four-year contracts would apply retroactively to July 1, 2018 when the old contract expired. Employees would receive retroactive payments once the contract was ratified, Vivian Fernández, Rutgers’ senior vice president of human resources and organizational effectiveness, said in a statement.

The contract not only secures full-time and graduate employees equal pay for female faculty, faculty of color, and for faculty in the Newark and Camden campuses, it also creates a system that will hold the university accountable to maintain this equity in the future.

Fernandez said the agreement establishes “a pay equity review process that allows faculty to submit requests for salary adjustments where instances of inequity can be demonstrated, including based on gender, race or other factors.”

Faculty will be able to apply for equity correction through an “expanded out-of-cycle process, backed up with an appeal process and the University’s commitment to pay raises from central funds,” the union representatives said in a joint email. All faculty will be eligible to apply for an “equity correction” if anyone believes themselves to be earning less than their peers.

Pay raises

As for pay raises, the agreement notes that all faculty will receive the following salary increases: 3 percent in years one through three of the contract, with retroactive payments to July 1, 2018 and 2.5 percent across the board for year four of the contract. Teaching assistants and graduate assistants, who were among the lowest paid of the Rutgers faculty, will receive market salary adjustments of $2,600 over the first two years of the contract ($1,000 retroactively and $1,600 beginning on July 1, 2019), as Fernandez put it, “in order to attract and retain the highest quality graduate students and teaching assistants.” By the end of the contract period, their salaries will go from $25,969 to $30,162 for the academic year.

When asked if such pay raises would trigger tuition increases, Hughes said Rutgers should have enough in its annual surplus of $40 million to cover the costs. He estimated the total cost of the new contract to come to around $17 million per year — the $20 million in already announced diversity funds spread out over four years, plus the $12 million per year in wage increases.

“They may try to [raise tuition] but they have no reason to,” Hughes said. “If you hear this administration say 'oh, now we have to raise tuition to pay for the increases that faculty and other workers have won,’ it's a lie. If they raise tuition they’re doing it because they can, not because they need to.”

Job security

For full-time non-tenure track (NTT) faculty members, job security was a huge concern. Rutgers has the fourth-highest percentage of NTT faculty among their peers in the Big Ten, reflecting a larger national trend of hiring more contingent and part-time faculty and fewer permanent tenure-track professors. Many of these NTT educators have been with Rutgers for years and hold advanced degrees but lack the academic freedom, job security, and professional development opportunities of their tenure-track colleagues, Hughes said.

Under the new contract, an NTT faculty member could not be reappointed for a shorter term than her or his previous term. What’s more, after six years, that faculty member will receive a minimum three-year contract upon reappointment. At any point, NTTs will be eligible for appointment for a seven-year term. “For the first time ever,” the union representatives noted, NTTs will have a grievance procedure that “empowers them to challenge non-reappointments and decisions not to promote.” Finally, the contract would allow Rutgers to sponsor NTT faculty for permanent residency in the United States, ending the university’s “no green-card” policy, as the union put it.

The contract also formalized a “ten-year rule” for associate professors as an alternative route to promotion. This means that increased consideration and weight for career advancement opportunities will be given to faculty with ten years in rank.

The union also got agreement mandating lactation spaces be provided for all faculty and staff —something that is already required by law. It notes that this is especially vital for the many graduate students at Rutgers who are parents. The availability of lactation space will be enforceable through the new contract.

Greater diversity

Increasing faculty diversity was also a goal, not just for the union, but for the Murphy administration and the state Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis as well. Earlier this month, Rutgers announced it was committing $20 million to extending the Rutgers Faculty Diversity Hiring Initiative through June 2024.

The agreement codifies and expands the university's diversity hiring program which Hughes said was a direct result of the union’s strike threat. Since the launch of the diversity hiring initiative in 2016, according to Fernandez, nearly $22 million has gone to hiring 79 new faculty members in Camden, New Brunswick Piscataway, and Newark, while also supporting the mentoring and retention of current faculty from diverse backgrounds.

Rutgers also agreed to host a “diversity committee” charged with planning systematic changes in the university’s approach to gender, race and diversity, according to the union. That committee would be composed equally of union members and members of management.

The contract also includes a guarantee of a workplace free of harassment and stalking, enforced with binding arbitration as well as protected academic freedom for faculty in their classrooms and on social media.

Academic freedom

The academic-freedom clause is important, Hughes said, because it guards faculty against unfair retribution from the university in the event they share personal opinions in the classroom or on social media. He cited the case of Steven Salaita, whose faculty position offer was revoked by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign after he posted several harsh critical tweets about Israel on his personal feed.

“A faculty member is entitled to express her professional opinion in her area of expertise inside the classroom and outside the classroom without the interference of an employer,” Hughes said. “It's absolutely critical if you are carrying out research and if you're teaching that you be able to speak from your expertise and to say things that challenge assumptions to innovate and expand the boundaries of conversational knowledge about an issue.”

He added, and a Rutgers spokesperson confirmed, that the administration has investigated more than one faculty member for statements they've made on social media.

Unfinished business

But even with the achievement of an extensive agreement, Hughes said the union still has some unfinished business. The union asked for an increase in student-worker minimum wages to $15 an hour that Hughes said was ignored.

“The administration walked out of the room when we raised that issue a number of months ago.”

It also did not achieve its ambitious “EOF+6” plan that proposed giving a six-year all-expenses paid Ph.D fellowship to any Educational Opportunity Fund grant-program graduate who is admitted to Rutgers. EOF funding comes from the state and is earmarked for students from “educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds” so, such a program, Hughes said, could not only open more doors for minority students, but also fill a pool of diverse and qualified future teaching staff.

“They refused to touch that,” Hughes said. “We’re going to continue to fight for that and we’ll be talking to the state about that as well.”

Regarding ongoing complaints about the university’s online INFOSILEM scheduling system which some faculty said creates “unworkable classroom schedules,” both parties agreed to a "side letter" allowing the faculty union to continue to bargain over the system in the future.

As the union counts the remaining items on its to-do list for the future weeks, months, and years, Hughes said it will continue to stand with other Rutgers employees. Hughes estimated that more than 10,000 employees are still working without a contract at Rutgers; that includes the PTLs along with many faculty in the dental and health science schools. Those faculty are also bargaining for family leave, job security, and gender equity in pay.

“A lot of the same wins that the AAUP-AFT got today we’re looking to push those on the health science side so there’s a lot of work that still remains to be done,” said Diomedes Tsitouras, executive director of the AAUP – Biomedical and Health Sciences union, which represents faculty in the medical school, dental school, and school of public health. “There is a lot of work that remains to be done.”

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