The two largest unions at Rutgers University, representing full-time and adjunct faculty, graduate workers, and others, began voting on whether to authorize a strike if the administration fails to renegotiate contracts that expired eight months ago.
The start of the strike authorization vote coincides with a Day of People’s Protest and Education on the Rutgers-Newark campus, where the Board of Governors, which oversees the 70,000-student university system, was expected to meet before they decided to hold an online meeting, citing “weather complications.”
Unions sponsors, undeterred by the shift, rallied outside Paul Robeson Campus Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., with featured speakers Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, along with leaders of the many unions representing Rutgers workers.
Earlier in the day, members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union—which together represent some 8,000 full-time and adjunct faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and counselors—received email ballots asking them if they will authorize the two unions’ leadership bodies to call a strike if necessary to get new contracts. Balloting will continue through March 10.
Altogether, some 15,000 faculty, staff, clinicians, and other union workers at Rutgers have been without contracts since last summer.
Union leaders say the university administration has been dragging out bargaining with delay tactics and inadequate proposals—“when they make proposals at all,” said Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Rebecca Givan.
“We’ve gone eight months without a raise at a time of high inflation,” Givan said. “Our proposals to lift grad workers and adjunct faculty to a living wage are gathering dust. We’re still waiting for a response on some proposals we put on the table last spring. The people who run Rutgers are making it crystal clear that they’ll drag things out as long as possible.”
“This vote will make it clear that the people who do the teaching and research at Rutgers are fed up with delays—and they’re ready to go on strike if that’s what’s necessary to get the administration’s attention,” said Givan.
Amy Higer, president of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, which represents so-called Part-Time Lecturers at Rutgers, said adjuncts face a constant struggle to get by on shamefully low wages—and the university could change that with a fair contract.
“The 2,700 adjunct faculty who teach at Rutgers are seeking things all workers should have: equal pay for equal work, job security, and access to affordable health care,” said Higer, a professor in the Political Science department. “These are reasonable demands and would greatly improve the quality of education at Rutgers. We’ve been waiting for a serious response to our proposals since the summer. We don’t want to strike, but how long do we have to wait for a fair contract?”
There is also a lot at stake for graduate workers, whose work as teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and grad fellows is unsung but vital to the university, said Liana Katz, the vice president for graduate workers in Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
The current salary for grad workers leaves them far below a livable wage in one of the most expensive areas of the country.
“Grad workers are demanding a living wage and funding security that will make it possible for us to continue to carry out our research and teaching activities,” Katz said. “Our work is essential to Rutgers’ academic mission, and we deserve to be recognized for all that we do.”
“No one wants to go on strike,” said Givan, an associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. “We want to be in the classroom with our students. But the administration is forcing us into taking action by failing so dismally to bargain new contracts. If they want to avoid a strike, they need to take bargaining seriously. Otherwise, we’ll fight for a better Rutgers for our students, our communities, and ourselves.”
The unions say Rutgers’ strong financial position coming out of the pandemic makes it possible to meet their demands for new contracts:
- As Givan and Higer pointed out in a recent op-ed article, in the last two school and fiscal years, Rutgers officials predicted the worst-ever operating deficits in their budgets at the start of the year—and ended up with record operating surpluses at the end of the year.
- The unions estimate their proposal for a first-year salary increase for graduate workers of over 20 percent—not out of keeping with large increases in salaries and stipends at other regional and peer institutions—would cost Rutgers around $14 million. Rutgers Athletics pays just its coaches twice that much.
- The proposal to pay adjunct professors at the same rate per credit hour as non-tenure-track faculty members making the minimum salary—in other words, equal pay for equal work—would cost an additional $20 million a year, according to union estimates. That’s a tiny fraction of the administration’s unrestricted financial reserves, which hit a record high of $818.6 million, according to Rutgers’ most recent financial report.
“Something needs to change,” said Higer. “Athletic coaches get multiyear contracts and multimillion-dollar salaries. Adjunct faculty, who teach over 30 percent of Rutgers undergraduate courses, have to reapply for their jobs every semester and earn less than $6,000 per course. Why is the administration shortchanging students by devaluing and disrespecting their professors?”