For the first time in its 256-year history, classes at Rutgers University’s three campuses could be halted for its 67,620 students as faculty members gave their union leaders the authority to call a strike a week from now.
Faculty members at the New Brunswick, Newark and Camden campuses overwhelmingly voted yes to a strike in a secret ballot Friday afternoon.
Management has been given one week – spring break – to meet the union’s demands for fair contracts or signal a change in its approach to negotiations on expired contracts that have lasted since July.
About 94% of Rutgers educators, including full-time tenured and non-tenured faculty, graduate workers, and part-time or adjunct lecturers voted yes in a 10-day email that ballot, the AAUP-AFT Union said Friday.
In the ballot, union leadership asked its members for permission to call a strike for new labor agreements. Overall, 80% of the combined membership of the two unions, AAUP-AFT and the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty union participated in the ballot vote.
The university is accepting salary increases “seriously,” even “on a tight budget,” Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway said in a public letter March 6. He wrote that he has asked his central units of administratively cut their budgets by 9.5%, and said he was “grateful” that union leaders “didn’t want the situation to turn into a strike.”
A fair contract would mean respect and job security for the first time in 23 years, said Adjunct Faculty Union President Amy Higer, also a political science lecturer in New Brunswick’s Division of Global Affairs.
Adjuncts like her renew their contracts each semester and are paid less per course than full-time non-tenured faculty, Higer said.
Adjunct faculty demand equal pay calculated based on what full-timers are paid, access to health care, and long-term contracts beyond one semester.
“We’re asking what other universities have given their adjuncts, which is a way to plan their lives, and tell their students what to teach. And we’re asking them to give us access to the affordable health care plans they give all other workers,” Higer said.
Another big demand is to raise the salaries of graduate workers and bring them closer to “a living wage,” said Liana Katz, a Ph.D. student in geography and vice-president of the AAUP-AFT union representing tenured, full-time and graduate faculty.
“We don’t fund our graduate students to an alarming level,” said Tim Raphael, a tenured professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers-Newark. “Not only do we pay a living wage to our doctoral students. We pay a very low rate compared to many other schools and especially being a research university with graduate programs that compete with the best, ” he says.
Graduate and teaching assistants, Katz said, earn about $30,000 a year, “which is not enough for most of us to support ourselves.” The unions are asking Rutgers to raise that to a minimum of about $37,000 a year, which they say is closer but still not on par with Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State.
Adjunct lecturers are likely to suffer from severe furloughs and faculty lay-offs initiated by Rutgers in the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Nearly 3,000 part-time lecturers were affected by the hiring freeze in April 2020, according to a timeline on the adjunct faculty union website.
Union members were unhappy with the raises offered last week, saying in a statement that the university’s offer “of a 2.5 to 3 percent increase per year over four years amounts to a pay cut” because at a high rate of inflation. Holloway informed Rutgers students and faculty that his administration has offered the union a “new” compensation proposal that represents “an increase of 10.75% over four years.”
But faculty members criticized Rutgers for “taking advantage” of the pressures of the pandemic.
“My feeling is that Rutgers has used the pandemic to practice a kind of catastrophic capitalism that you know is trying to take advantage of that crisis by squeezing its workforce…and creating, you know, a bigger force that they can hire and fire as you please,” said Raphael.
Part-time lecturer Higer has applied for a new contract every semester since he began teaching political science at Rutgers in 1998. The exception was a two-year contract in 2014. “It’s the best job there is. me,” he said of those. two years. “I finally had an office. I can tell my students that I’m going to be there and what I’m going to teach.”
Rutgers did not renew the contract. Higer received a financial settlement from the university after he filed a grievance through his union, he said, but the university also immediately invited him to teach the same courses “at a fraction of the cost.” He has applied for a new contract every term since then.
Holloway recognized the problem of “adjunctification” in higher education, Higer said, of hiring highly qualified part-timers to teach courses at lower wages and without longer contracts that end up saving costs for to colleges but unfair to educators and their students.
Rutgers is “kind of unique because they make us reapply every semester. That’s a really, really old system,” Higer said. Instead, the university should be “leading the way” he said.
“We did it reluctantly,” Higer said of allowing a strike call, “but we really didn’t see any other way to put pressure on Rutgers. They just drag their feet. They want to take this into the summer,” when students and faculty are not on campus.
“No one wants to interfere with students’ academic progress and we are committed to working as hard as possible,” said a university spokesperson, adding that he was “hopeful” that agreements would be reached quickly. reach
“Rutgers employees deserve to have a say in aspects of their work,” said Christi Peace, deputy press secretary for Gov. Phil Murphy, who commented on Rutgers’ obligation as the state’s flagship university, to its faculty. Open dialogue between both parties is key, but “the governor firmly believes that hard-working Rutgers educators deserve a seat at the table,” he said.
Union members say there is more momentum and unity among teachers now than in years past when they were close to striking work.
“I think it’s finally gotten to the point where we have a strong enough union and where the faculty at Rutgers have gotten fed up enough with this particular form of non-negotiation,” Raphael said.