Union officials representing Rutgers faculty at three campuses decided Sunday night that they would strike indefinitely starting Monday morning, after reaching a stalemate in contract negotiations with Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway’s administration that had dragged on since July, Howard Swerdloff, secretary of the adjunct faculty union, told NorthJersey.com.
The move will shut down classes for the first time in the state university’s 256-year history.
The three unions representing educators, researchers, and clinicians will start their strike Monday at 9 a.m. “We ask you to join the picket lines and refuse to conduct teaching, research, and other business as usual at Rutgers,” said an official email from union leadership sent to over 8,000 faculty members.
Some 94% of faculty members belonging to three unions voted to authorize a strike last month, effectively warning the university that they were serious about carrying out their intentions after negotiations failed to produce substantive counterproposals addressing their core demands — to raise wages for graduate workers and secure longer contracts with benefits for part-time professors.
Holloway has indicated that he will seek a court order to stop the strike. The university “would have no choice” other than seeking legal methods to “ensure that any job action does not affect our students’ academic progress,” Holloway said in a letter to students last week.
Holloway also told students that strikes by public employees are “unlawful,” to which dismayed faculty members responded by saying that there is no statute or law making it illegal for public workers to strike. Union leaders sent out information expressing their disappointment that Holloway, a fellow professor, “chose to misinform” the community. A strike would be illegal only if a court order is issued forbidding them from stopping work, they said.
Mediators from the Public Employment Relations Commission joined the negotiating groups Saturday, in what appeared to be a last-minute move from the Murphy administration, which has been mostly silent about its position other than an official statement saying that “the governor firmly believes the hardworking educators of Rutgers deserve a seat at the table.”
“A governor who takes pride in calling himself a champion of labor has a role to play here, in helping to come up with a fair and just settlement,” said Tim Raphael, a professor and union representative for the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers-Newark. “The two people who could step in and have an impact are the president of Rutgers and the governor — and neither of them have done that.”
More:Rutgers University faculty votes to strike, threatening to shut down classes
The mediation went on till midnight Saturday and was scheduled to continue Sunday, said Swerdloff, a part-time lecturer in the New Brunswick campus’s writing program. “Very little was accomplished,” he said, with mediators trying to speed up the process by breaking them into small groups to try to resolve more issues that way.
An enraged union leader wrote to faculty members Sunday morning that he was even more resolved to strike after seeing “the sheer disrespect from management” after 12 hours of negotiations with mediators, at a meeting where most university representatives remained in their offices or on Zoom, and not face to face in the room with union members who arrived to bargain.
“I am writing on the eve of the first strike at Rutgers in 35 years, and the first strike of all faculty, grads, postdocs, medical researchers, medical doctors and EOF counselors in the history of this university,” said AAUP-AFT General President Todd Wolfson in an email titled “shake this university to the ground,” sent Sunday morning to faculty members.
The university offered graduate workers a raise “for the first time in 10 months” as a final deal to try to avert the strike, Wolfson said, but “it was clearly about making appearances,” he said.
“Holloway claimed in the press that the university had cleared their calendar to get a deal, yet on Saturday we had 20 people at THEIR offices and they had 2 people and a few more on Zoom,” the email said. “Some of the critical people they needed to make decisions had already made weekend plans. There were mediators with us and we did a bit of negotiations over 12 hours, but not much, and it was clearly about keeping up appearances.”
The strike brings all classes to a halt for the first time in the university’s history on all three campuses, in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, and at the university’s medical school.
Negotiations between the union and the university’s top management have reached a stalemate, with union leaders saying management does not indicate that it takes their demands seriously, prompting the call to strike.
What the unions want
The two main Rutgers unions, the AAUP-AFT and the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, have asked for equity-driven changes that would give part-time lecturers long-term and more predictable contracts, with salaries calculated based on full-time non-tenured faculty.
Swerdloff, the lecturer in the writing program, said there are 26 other part-time lecturers, or adjuncts, in the program, and that all of the nearly 150 teachers in the department are not on a tenure track. “There was a tiny sliver of accommodation” on Friday, in which adjunct faculty working two consecutive years could have gotten a one-year contract, he said, but the union’s goal is to have them on par with non-tenure-track full-timers, and the offer wasn’t realistic, he said.
The unions also seek higher wages for the university’s graduate workers, who often teach classes in exchange for stipends, which at Rutgers are still below those at other major universities in the tri-state area.
Faculty members voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike a month ago by secret ballot.
Focus on ‘most vulnerable workforce’
“No one wants to have a strike as their first resort. Strikes are always a response to employers’ unwillingness to address the demands of workers,” said Donna Murch, a tenured assistant professor of history at Rutgers-New Brunswick.
“Our union campaign is focused on the most vulnerable workforce, where you have tenure-track faculty who are really fighting for graduate students and adjuncts to get living wages,” Murch said. “And so it’s another example of how out of touch the administration seems.
“They’re not addressing our core demands and are trying to reduce this as simply a struggle over wage increases for everyone,” Murch said. “But this is really a union struggle that is about equity and protecting the most vulnerable in the context of a global pandemic and surging cost of living.”
Public sector strikes illegal?
Faculty members have criticized Holloway for saying in emailed letters to faculty and undergraduates that public sector strikes in New Jersey are illegal.
“He, in our opinion, provided real misinformation, which is that he wrote to say public sector strikes in New Jersey are illegal. This is how it was phrased,” said Murch. “And therefore people participating in them could be fined or even arrested and jailed.” What the law really says is that a strike becomes illegal only if employers challenge it by asking for an injunction and the courts grant one.
The union said it hoped there would not be a court order, but asked Holloway in a public message to follow the steps of former university President Edward Bloustein if he went ahead and sought a legal injunction. Bloustein, according to union leaders, did not seek a court order to stop a 1987 strike but to control locations of picket lines.
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