The world of higher education has been turned upside down by the unprecedented health and economic crises of 2020. For our unions at Rutgers University — united in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, which represent 20,000 members across 19 unions — the moment presents challenges but has also given us an opportunity to model our vision of the public university of the 21st century.

The scale of the assault on workers in higher education means that we must stick together to win. Our union coalition — which includes faculty and graduate workers, administrative staff, health care professionals, dining and student services, and building maintenance and operations — has focused on unity and solidarity throughout the pandemic for a very practical reason: the administration’s attacks crossed job categories and couldn’t be fought successfully any other way. But this collaborative work has also given us a glimpse of the kind of deep organizing that will be needed to achieve our longer-term goals.

 

Their Instinct: Layoffs and Cuts

The Rutgers administration’s immediate response to the pandemic was exactly what we expected from former President Robert Barchi and his top managers: measures that made the most vulnerable bear the brunt of the crisis. At the start of April, after faculty had put in many unpaid hours to move their classes online, adjuncts at Rutgers were rewarded with a management memo ordering department chairs and program directors to drop around twenty percent of contingent faculty for the fall semester.

Like everywhere in higher ed, adjuncts at Rutgers endure some of the most precarious conditions among campus workers, even as they’ve become the backbone of classroom instruction, teaching one-third of all undergraduate classes. Part-Time Lecturers (PTLs), as they’re known at Rutgers, make as little as $5,500 for teaching a semester-long course, so laying off twenty percent of them was barely a drop in the bucket compared to the deficit the administration was predicting (inaccurately, it later turned out). Incredibly, one year’s salary of the new head football coach at Rutgers ($4 million) would pay for all the laid-off PTLs to teach their full load of regular courses.

This “maximum pain for minimal gain” pattern continued with a slew of other layoffs — more than 1,000 in all. Essential dining workers who directly serve students were laid off, many of them after twenty years at Rutgers. So were paraprofessionals who work for Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), a USDA funded grant where nutrition educators teach in under-resourced communities across the state helping families stretch limited dollars and create healthy meals. One recent round hit a health care workers’ union in our coalition: some sixty mental health professionals who provide emergency support for children and families in crisis lost their jobs at an agency managed by Rutgers. The workforce is overwhelmingly people of color, as is the clientele they served.

More layoff threats continued at the end of September — even as it became clear that there was barely any decline in enrollment and even after the New Jersey legislature fully restored nearly $100 million in threatened funding cuts for Rutgers. Administrators in the university’s largest school revealed that they were seeking to get rid of fifteen-to-twenty members of the Union of Rutgers Administrators and AFSCME as part of a reorganization of the staff admins, the linchpins who keep departments and programs operating. 

Adjunct faculty were dealt another blow when the administration directed the Rutgers Writing Program to lay off all of its PTLs for the spring semester, affecting as many as one hundred adjuncts. Job cuts on this scale not only affect the lives of the fired instructors; class sizes will swell to absurd numbers, making learning difficult for students and teaching almost impossible for the instructors left behind. 

But as drastic as the actions of the administration have been, it is important to remember that the pandemic has only intensified longer-term trends of continuing disinvestment and tightening autocratic control in higher education. Public financial support for higher ed has been sliced in half in the past 30 years. Starved of financial resources, the managers of public universities have relied on hiking tuition — up 260 percent over the past four decades — resulting in an overwhelming debt burden for students. The other side of the coin is the hollowing out of higher ed for anyone who works there: reduced autonomy for faculty, growing reliance on adjunct instructors, and intensifying pressure on all campus staff to do more for less.

Three-quarters of the top 312 managers at Rutgers aren’t faculty members at all. The public university is mostly run by accountants, lawyers, and human relations bureaucrats who follow the golden rule of the corporation: whatever’s best for the bottom line. They don’t see students, staff, or community members as human beings with needs and aspirations. They see income, assets, expenses, and deficits. 

We already knew before COVID that any hope for a new direction for our public university would start with a resistance that centered people — all people — even if that meant concentrating organizing resources and waging struggles that aren’t usually viewed as “union issues.” 

 

Our Response: Unite and Fight

The Coalition of Rutgers Unions came together in 2014 to challenge a provision in all of our contracts that allowed the university to freeze salaries just by declaring, without proof, a fiscal emergency. Our inter-union coordination developed through the last contract battle, which started in 2018. Crucially, the Coalition succeeded in lining up our contract expiration dates, significantly increasing our power.

When the pandemic hit, the unions worked together to develop an alternative to management’s attacks. The centerpiece was our proposal for a work-sharing program that depended on the federal supplemental unemployment benefit passed in the CARES Act in March. We calculated that, until the CARES Act ran out at the end of July, our members could accept furloughs for between 20 and 60 percent of their time and fully make up the loss in income through a combination of state jobless benefits and the federal unemployment booster. 

Basically, the Coalition did management’s math homework for them. We found as much as $140 million in savings — without any loss in income for our members — if they had accepted our proposal right away. But they didn’t. When the administration did propose furloughs, the CARES Act had nearly run out, leaving furloughed workers unprotected from losing income.

Management’s rejection of work-sharing was unsurprising. To accept our proposal would mean acknowledging the power of our coalition and the validity of our people-centered approach, which is something the corporatized management of Rutgers wasn’t going to do willingly.

Nevertheless, our coalition is stronger for trying. All the unions worked collaboratively on the work-sharing plan. And we strengthened ties among our memberships by showing that the most powerful and privileged among us — full-time faculty — were willing to accept furloughs to protect the most vulnerable from outright layoffs. 

We’re now battling over the university’s irresponsible reopening plan. Teaching is almost entirely remote for the fall semester, but members of staff unions have been told to go back to their workplaces, and the administration’s preparations for reopening are inept at best and hazardous at worst. Because we worked together through the summer, we got management to negotiate impact bargaining with the Coalition as a whole, winning some concessions on reopening policy and setting an important precedent for the future. 

Achieving this kind of unity takes conscientious work. Faculty are used to thinking about themselves alone when they call for shared governance of the university, disregarding staff as colleagues whose support they need. On the other side, members of staff unions have their suspicions about working with faculty and instructors, given past inattention to their concerns and elitism of some tenured faculty. 

Our two unions are among the largest and most powerful in the Coalition: Rutgers AAUP-AFT represents 5,000 members, primarily full-time faculty and graduate workers, and the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT represents 2,500 administrative and professional staff on the three Rutgers campuses. But, if we don’t want to fall victim to management’s divide-and-conquer tactics, we have to work with unions whose membership is smaller and based outside of academic departments. More than work with them — they have to be full partners in our coalition.

 

Bargaining for the Common Good

Our methods for working together in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions flow from the idea of “bargaining for the common good,” which we’ve embraced as a coalition, but it goes back to a much older slogan of the labor movement: an injury to one is an injury to all. 

We use the same approach in our relationship with communities beyond campus. Rutgers’ main campuses are in three majority Black and brown cities.The university is one of the largest employers in the region, so the economic fortunes of many more people than employees and their families are affected by what happens there.

We apply the logic of bargaining for the common good inclusively. We want and need the wider community to have a seat at the table. That means developing relationships with community organizations long active in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden — not just to ask them to support us but to ask how we can support them. 

In the lead-up to the last contract campaign, we conducted a study with an organization representing immigrant workers in New Brunswick and Newark to learn about residents’ key concerns and whether they were connected to those of Rutgers students. Lo and behold, the primary concerns for both were the same: low-wage work, housing, and health care. 

We began planning strategies to bring university and community members together around shared goals. For example, our coalition got involved in an important struggle where Rutgers has played a particularly awful role: the fight to save Lincoln Annex, a predominantly Latinx middle school in the heart of New Brunswick, from being demolished to make room for a new medical facility. The university’s plan, in partnership with Robert Wood Johnson Hospital and a shady local developer called DEVCO, is to ship the school’s overwhelmingly Latinx students off to learn in an empty industrial warehouse until a new school is built.

Our involvement gave us a way of confronting one of management’s pet projects: the consolidation of numerous hospitals, health care facilities, and medical schools under the grip of the university in alliance with the massive Robert Wood Johnson health care system. The administration sees this as a major source of revenue and power, and it has been particularly aggressive toward the unions in our coalition that represent health care workers.

By connecting the resistance of Rutgers workers and students to another power grab by the university with a powerful grassroots struggle to save a local middle school, we’ve strengthened existing alliances and forged new ones. This summer, the latest activism around Lincoln Annex was aided by the initiative of medical students at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School — doctors-to-be who recognize from personal experience that they need to unite with colleagues and the community to realize their aspirations as physicians.

So when we in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions and in our community talk about shared governance of Rutgers University, we really mean shared. The public university of the 21st century needs to listen to and include everyone’s voices. 

We know the lawyers and accountants who have run our university to date don’t listen, much less act on the basis of what they hear. Instead, the faculty, staff, students, and community of Rutgers need to put their collective wisdom and experience to work. The vision some of us are talking about is of a Rutgers worker council that governs the university. No such thing exists anywhere in higher ed in the United States. But universities in South and Central America (and Europe, to some degree) are governed by such councils, which represent all workers and students and make all the critical decisions about the university — from who is president to how the budget is administered. We believe forming such a worker council is critical for the future of Rutgers because, at present, unions only govern work contracts. By contrast, worker councils have the ability to govern on a much broader array of issues, giving us a true voice in the future of the university.

We’ve taken some steps in this direction at the Newark and New Brunswick campuses by asking the administration to meet with our entire coalition to bargain over a set of specific, shared issues. Obviously, there’s a long way to go, but this is the vision we want to work toward: one that values and involves full-time faculty, adjuncts, students, administrative and dining staff, groundskeepers, building staff, and more. It is this vision that can build the power necessary to challenge the neoliberal university and offer a different path for the future of higher education.

As we face the many challenges ahead, our organizing can be a model of that vision — allowing us to better imagine what the future of the academy can look like.



 

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