“If You Struggle, You Can Win”
Rutgers faculty just won a historic contract by threatening to strike. That confidence came from years of organizing and fighting the corporate university.
- Interview by
- Ashley Smith
The AFT-AAUP local at Rutgers University represents more than eight thousand faculty and graduate workers at the New Jersey school. Those thousands of workers just won an unprecedented victory in a recent contract fight with their administration. It took several years of organizing and a threat of a strike for the union to force their bosses to settle. The tentative agreement, which awaits ratification in votes by the membership over the next week, grants faculty and graduate students groundbreaking gains on economic as well as gender and race demands.
Rutgers instructors were confident in leveraging a strike threat in part because of the teachers’ strike wave that began in 2018. “They had shown that strikes work and if you struggle you can win,” explained union president Deepa Kumar. “What we accomplished wasn’t simply because of our work and organizing philosophy but because our approach fit in with the mood among educators across the country.”
And that mood isn’t just about being ready to strike. Rutgers instructors were also inspired by models of “bargaining for the common good”: going beyond traditional contract demands to bring everything that affects workers and their communities to the table. This empowered the union to forcefully campaign on issues of racial justice, sexual harassment, and immigrant rights, rejecting the constriction of “appropriate” bargaining topics from above. This “everybody in, nobody out” approach pulled in broader layers of members to build a much more credible strike threat.
Here, Jacobin contributor Ashley Smith interviews Kumar about their successful struggle. Their conversation holds important lessons for higher education unions on how to re-engage a dormant membership, rejecting austerity, and projecting a vision of what public education should really look like.
Your union just scored a major victory in your battle with Rutgers University. What did you win in the contract fight?
My union is almost fifty years old, and this contract fight and our tentative agreement is historic. We not only won on class demands — higher pay raises for our least paid members and job security for graduate employees and non-tenure track (NTT) faculty — but also on gender and race demands.
We are a union that includes not only tenured and tenure track faculty, but also non-tenure track faculty and graduate employees (plus post-docs and Educational Opportunity Fund counselors). Our adjunct colleagues, or part-time lecturers as they are known here at Rutgers, have their own union, but we all work together. They are still fighting for a good contract and we have and will continue to stand by them.
Let me first talk about the class demands. We won job security for our NTT colleagues and for grad employees. In our last contract we fought for and won a 43 percent increase in the base wages of our NTT colleagues and a promotion process. This time, we won meaningful job security for NTTs who until now had few, if any, protections against arbitrary non-renewals.
An NTT faculty member cannot be re-appointed for a term shorter than her or his previous term. And after six years, she will receive a minimum three-year contract upon reappointment. Also, at any point, NTTs may be (re)appointed for a seven-year term. Now NTT colleagues may think of working at Rutgers as a career with a future and with significant protections.
Also, for the first time ever NTTs have a grievance procedure that empowers them to challenge non-reappointments and decisions not to promote. Finally, we forced the University to abandon its “no green card” policy. Rutgers may now sponsor NTT faculty for permanent residency in the United States, something that is a vital win in this era of discrimination against immigrants. NTTs will also see on average a 6 percent raise in the first year of contract.
We are a progressive union and focused on our least paid members getting higher raises than those who earn more. We took the pot of money that the university gave us for salary increases for faculty and turned it into a flat dollar amount ($3,642). For our over one thousand NTT faculty this will amount to a 5-6 percent raise in the first year, while for our highest paid faculty this first year will be a smaller raise.
For our teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate assistants (GAs), in the first two years of our contract, their salaries will increase by $2,600 (10 percent for academic year employees). By the end of this contract period, TAs and GAs will see close to a 16 percent raise. We won important protections against the conversion of TA-ships to adjunct positions as well.
Before candidacy, any PhD student who teaches must be employed as a teaching assistant. We also bargained contract provisions to ensure that all grads who are performing bargaining unit work are in TA or GA positions. This is important not least because the health care that our TAs and GAs get is the same as our faculty.
To give you a concrete example, one can get open heart surgery with our plan and pay only fifty dollars out of pocket. Incidentally, we are fighting to lower health care premiums and we expect another 1-2 percent more in people’s paychecks if we are successful (health care is bargained with the state and the CWA set a pattern that we are trying to win for our members as well).
As part of our focus on our more vulnerable members, we organized for academic freedom. For the first time in our history, academic freedom is recognized in our contract for all unit members and it expressly applies to social media. This freedom is important for us all but is particularly so for faculty without tenure protections and our graduate employees.
In addition to the gains for your more vulnerable members, graduate employees, and non-tenure track faculty, you made historic gains for women faculty and faculty of color. Can you tell us what you won?
For first time in our fifty-year history, our union has made it possible for women faculty and faculty of color to obtain pay equity. While gender and race are explicitly mentioned in our contract language in the section about pay equity, we won binding arbitration (which means enforceability) for all members of our unit who are covered under our newly expanded anti-discrimination article.
We expanded this article in our contract to include sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, national origin, and many other categories. In short, we won a process that makes real the principle of equal pay for equal work for all oppressed groups which is now backed up by binding arbitration.
We went from a system where such pay inequities were at the discretion of the dean to a much more robust process. Deans used to be able to refuse such equity corrections for all sorts of reasons including the lack of funds, and our female and POC colleagues had no recourse to protest such decisions. Now we have a process with many levels going up to the very top of the university. And if the result is still not favorable, women and people of color as well as other oppressed groups may file a grievance whose result will be enforceable.
This has consequences well beyond our current faculty. It will impact all those who join us in the years and decades to come. From what I understand, this is a historic first among higher education unions.
Too often, universities spout empty rhetoric in support of “diversity” and gender and race equity but never do very much to back it up. We won $20 million for diversity hiring and a committee co-chaired by a union representative and one from management to work on and make systematic change. This too is a first for us.
We also won fair promotion standards. It is well known that women and people of color take on disproportionate amounts of service work and are held back from promotion, particularly at Research One universities, because scholarship is the gold standard. Now, after ten years of being an associate professor, these colleagues can put themselves forward and have the care work and their excellent teaching count more towards their promotion (promotion comes with a 10 percent salary increase).
We have, for the first time in the history of our contract, a guarantee of a workplace free of sexual harassment and stalking, enforced with binding arbitration. This is particularly important in the #metoo era and it shows what unions can do to advance women’s equality. We also won lactation rooms (where birth mothers can express breast milk) which are vital for our PhD students with children who don’t have separate offices. This is also backed up by binding arbitration.
Our pay equity process applies to all faculty and not just women, people of color, our LGBTQ faculty, our faculty with disabilities, and other such categories of oppression.
Another systematic injustice was between salaries that are paid to our New Brunswick colleagues and those on the Newark and Camden campuses. In Camden our faculty are paid 20 percent less than their New Brunswick counterparts.
One colleague in Camden who had been fighting in vain to address pay inequity for years won the McArthur genius award. Suddenly, the Rutgers administration was willing to increase the person’s salary. It shouldn’t have to be so difficult and now we have a process to rectify that.
Best of all, all these equity raises will come from the central administration, which is very important because cash-strapped schools (under the “eat what you kill” budget model) could easily deny such pay increases. We struck a blow against this “Responsibility Centered Management” model, where schools receive funds based on what they earn through tuition dollars etc. rather than a global system that allocates funds where needed.
RCM creates artificial deficits and imposes austerity. Rutgers has close to $800 million in unrestricted reserves and there is no reason why the School of Arts and Sciences, for instance, should be in the red. This is a business model that turns each of us into entrepreneurs. We fought this corporate model and its misplaced priorities arguing that the university should value and fund research, teaching, and service. This is what a public university should be, not a center for profit generation.
This is a major victory that can hopefully reverse what is being done to workers in higher education. How did you organize for this?
First, I must acknowledge that we were working in an environment that the victorious K-12 strikes have created from West Virginia to Los Angeles. They had shown that strikes work and that if you struggle you can win. So, what we accomplished wasn’t simply because of our work and organizing philosophy but because our approach fit in with the mood among educators across the country.
The teachers’ strikes were covered very positively by the media and supported by the public, and we found the same with our struggle. 81 percent of the public in a poll conducted by a New Jersey newspaper supported our right to go on strike. Our undergraduate students supported us by forming a group called RU Student Solidarity Committee.
We have long fought alongside students to make an education at Rutgers affordable. As a result, the New Brunswick campus newspaper was 100 percent on our side. All this solidarity made a huge difference in our fight.
We even started to draw support from across the country. Towards the end of our contract campaign, Bernie Sanders tweeted in support of us as well. Not be left out, New Jersey senator Cory Booker also tweeted in support.
Our union began preparations for this contract battle by resisting the attacks from the Trump administration. Our first efforts to abandon the “service” model of unionism and to adopt a social justice model were to stand in solidarity with vulnerable populations under attack by Trump. Because we have long-time relationships with student activists (who meet weekly in our union office), we were at the center of pushing back against Trump’s Muslim ban.
We stood arm in arm with Muslim student groups and other organizations of people of color. Our union fought against the rescinding of DACA and when one of our students had a deportation hearing we mobilized faculty to stand in solidarity with her. Hundreds came out to a rally outside her interview — she was not deported and instead became a union activist.
Such activism under the slogan, “an injury to one, is an injury to all,” also made our faculty see the union in new ways. We went from open rates for our emails in the 20-30 percent range to 75 percent or higher. People were paying attention. We became an openly social justice union and that made a difference.
Our philosophy around building for our contract fight was that we would look at everything that was wrong with the corporate university and lay out a vision of what we want to change.
Our faculty and grads spent two years doing research and writing various position papers. We also designed and conducted various surveys of our faculty members, including a climate survey. Our climate survey designed to determine work conditions for women and POCs had the highest participation of any survey the union had conducted in the last two decades. We then brought together a team of people to work on a gender and race equity report that informed our bargaining demands. We also worked on job security and contingency, academic freedom, and other issues. All this laid the basis for our agenda for radical change at the university, summarized in the slogan “Equity, Security, Dignity.”
We also adopted the “bargaining for the common good” approach and organized a conference with our labor department colleagues to learn from other unions that had success in such campaigns. We put this all together in a series of actions and panels putting forth our social justice demands that we shared in videos with our members and the broader university community.
Some labor experts told us that we were asking for “pie-in-the-sky” and that we were raising expectations too high. Indeed, we did raise expectations sky-high because we believed that the only way for unions to survive in the post-Janus era was to go on the offensive. Rather than bargain a defensive contract which holds on to previously agreed upon contract language and over “bread-and-butter” issues, we went on the offensive and expanded the terms of our fight.
Right from the start we targeted the corporate university and its misplaced priorities. We did the research and held meetings to educate our faculty and grads that Rutgers was not a poor university. In fact, it has more than enough to meet our demands. As we got into strike mode, seventy distinguished professors threw their weight behind the union and signed on to a full-page union ad blasting the administration for its warped spending priorities.
For instance, since 2012 the university has spent $193 million on a mismanaged athletics program. And 244 managers earn more than $250,000 a year while our adjunct faculty, who teach more than 30 percent of our classes, are less than 1 percent of the budget. We raged against a corporate university that does not prioritize teaching, research, and service.
However, all our great videos, educational meetings, and rallies were not enough to get us where we wanted. In the fall of 2018, we organized several informational pickets, which were very well attended. Hundreds of faculty and grads who had never before attended a union action came to these actions. However, we saw little progress at bargaining. Management had dug in its heels and all the good media coverage and rallies and pickets weren’t going to move them.
Clearly the threat of strike was necessary to force Rutgers to concede. How did you organize the union so it was ready to walk out?
In December 2018 we began to talk about striking. Two distinguished professors spoke out at a Board of Governors meeting and stated that if a fair and just contract was not reached by spring semester, our union would have no choice but to go on strike. By the time spring started we didn’t have a contract, and so we began strike preparations.
We conducted a job action survey to determine what our members were willing to do and found that 90 percent supported taking a strike authorization vote. We then held a strike authorization vote in which 88 percent voted in favor of a strike. We were delighted because we weren’t sure we would have the numbers.
I have been on the executive council of my union since 2010 and it has not been easy to organize our members. If we got a hundred to a rally we were thrilled. I remember in 2008 when a philosophy colleague and I put forward a resolution to have regular chapter meetings to our leadership body and won, we thought we were on a path to increased activism. Sadly, when we organized our first chapter meeting only four people came to it (we have more than 5,500 in our unit). So, we had a huge uphill battle to fight.
Our 2010 contract was not good. We agreed to wage freezes and a bunch of other things that put the union on a weak footing. Some of us argued that the only way to win a better a contract was to organize our members.
We hired several top-notch organizers to help build up a shop-steward or what we call a department-rep structure. We slowly won more faculty and grads to become active, but many more did so after 2016 when we turned to social justice unionism. We recruited many more women and faculty of color in that turn to our leadership body, the executive council.
It is this organizing work that put us on a path to building a credible strike threat. Our tone and messaging to our members both on email and in social media took a militant stance and thousands of our members began paying attention. It took a tremendous amount of work though to get strike ready.
We had about ten people from the AFT and the AAUP who came in to help us. We began a process of collecting strike pledge forms where members were asked to sign up for picket duty. We trained picket captains and we held one last picket outside the board of governors meeting that we called “Final Warning: Contract or Strike.”
The threat of a work stoppage and our readiness to follow through on it was key to our victory. After we issued our final warning, management started to take us seriously. They bargained with us round the clock. A hundred hours later, we settled a historic contract without having to go on strike. We did not win the entire pie-in-the-sky, but we won a big enough slice that we strengthened our union and put ourselves on a path to win even more in the future.