Why the Rutgers Strike Is Different

Solidarity and unity among all academic workers with egos checked at the door

Rutgers academic workers in Newark walk off the job April 11, 2023. (author photo)

This semester, Rutgers University is the ninth institution of higher learning where I’ve taught over a span of 16 years since the mid-1980s.

After 10 months of working without a contract and no signs from the administration that they would entertain substantial contract reforms, three Rutgers unions representing academic workers realized they were left with no choice but to withhold our labor.

Members overwhelmingly — 94 percent — voted yes to authorize a strike the first week of March. A month later — starting on April 10 — we formed pickets lines at all three campuses: New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden in what has become its teachers’ first strike in its 257 years.

Rutgers is the third such place where I’ve worked that part-time lecturers (PTL), referred to elsewhere as adjunct instructors or contingent faculty, have made noise about obtaining fair pay and better working conditions. But this time it’s different.

There’s true solidarity and respect from our far better-paid full-time tenured (FTT) colleagues, who at Rutgers comprise 70 percent of the faculty, which runs against the national trend, where the percentage is usually flipped in favor of adjuncts. Every place else I’ve worked the full-timers viewed us with disdain, as if we were only there to take their jobs or teach the large intro classes.

But at Rutgers, the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) unions representing full-time professors representing not only PTLs but also and graduate students who teach or work as teaching assistants, as well as medical professionals. They joined forces as a united front with the knowledge that there is strength in numbers. It’s also a moral stroke.

Last year, I worked with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leadership at Mercy College to help win a fair contract. But the full-time professors, who are not unionized, were silent, on the matter. That was certainly a missed opportunity that likely would have improved their own compensation.

At New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where I was on the faculty for a decade until this past December and received the 2021 Presidential Award for Excellence in Part-Time Teaching, it took two years before they allowed me and a colleague to join their union. By the AAUP chapter’s own admission, there was nothing in the contract for adjuncts. After a year clamoring to be let in, the union relented, perhaps realizing that to continue to deny us only would strengthen our complaint of an unfair labor practice at the National Labor Relations Board.

The national AAUP’s claim of “One Faculty One Union” representing the interests of all instructors in the classroom was and is a farce at NYIT. Then the pandemic hit, and NYIT conveniently pleaded poverty about losses of $30 million due to low enrollment, substantially reducing its adjunct labor force, which taught two-thirds of the classes. Adjuncts received a slight raise in the fall of 2021, but my course-load per semester was reduced from three classes to one. My department, Communication Arts, then was killed, among others including hospitality and the business school undergraduate program. Well done, NYIT, that’s one way to defuse a union-organizing effort.

When the Covid lockdown began in April 2020, all faculty were told by our collective administrations to jump, and we were expected to ask, “How high?” In the interim, they pared down their reliance on adjuncts, a readily available, cheap labor workforce who come a dime a dozen. Instead of addressing post-pandemic inequity among its ranks, for this latest contract negotiation, Rutgers & Co. has offered nominal compensation increases. Yet most higher education institutions — including Rutgers — enjoy the tax-free benefits of being a non-profit organization, and receiving $20 million annually from New Jersey, makes its hard line even more insidious.

Another major difference between the “public” Rutgers and my union experiences at NYIT and Mercy, both private institutions, is that Rutgers, apparently is flush with cash, both from balance sheet and endowment perspectives.

Colleges and universities have long deployed a divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting its employees against each other, paying part-time faculty roughly a quarter of what full-timers get for the same work. At Marywood University in Scranton, Penn., last year I taught remotely a sports reporting class that paid me after taxes a total of $1,758 for four months of work. Thankfully, Rutgers pays triple that amount under the old contract, but it’s still not enough.

Equal pay for equal work has been a main demand from the Rutgers unions, as well as increased job security, so we won’t have to apply for the same positions semester to semester. The unions realized during last week’s negotiations that the university wasn’t going to budge on that issue and others, leaving us with no choice but to strike.

Around 8:35 p.m. on Easter, union leaders told its members via Zoom we’re striking the next morning.

Bryan Sachs, vice president of Rutgers’ part-time lecturer union and chair of its bargaining committee, reported he endured more than 10 months of sitting opposite “an obstinate” and “uncaring” administration. When its negotiators would return a union ask on the behalf of contingent faculty, grad workers and post-docs, Sachs said they typically “just strike through the entirety of the proposal.” After spending so much time in their presence, he believed “they’re simply not interested in achieving a deal.”

Several hours into the first day of our strike on the three campuses, Governor Phil Murphy finally managed to get both sides to Trenton to hammer out their differences with mediation help.

Update: The week-long walkout worked. Major strides were made for all academic workers. On April 16, a framework was reached by the unions and administration. We returned to our classrooms on April 18. The deal was overwhelmingly (93 percent) ratified on May 8 by all three unions’ 600 members.

My own salary as now a “Lecturer” jumped from $5,800 per course under the old contract to $7,530, a30 percent increase, as well as a retroactive lump sum for the first year of the contract because the last collective bargaining agreement expired on June 30 2022. PTL per course compensation increases for Year Two to $7,775, Year Three to $8,331 by Year Four.

While adjuncts didn’t achieve everything we sought (e.g., health insurance and exact “equal pay for equal work,” meaning the same as full-time professors), we made substantial strides in terms of job security, such as appointments based on seniority, although that doesn’t cover last-minute class cancellations for low enrollment.

Regarding health insurance, the adjunct union is now lobbying the New Jersey legislature to finally provide such benefits. Wish us luck.

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Lsjaffee (Writer, Educator, Over-Thinker)

Marching to the beat of a different drummer. Non-binary human. No tolerance for racism, injustice & the patriarchy. lsjaffee@gmail.com https://larryjaffee.com