- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
After enduring layoffs by an austerity-driven administration, a coalition of unions at Rutgers University has voted in favor of a new agreement with the school. The agreement includes a work-sharing program through which some workers will agree to furlough for a portion of each week, with lost income made up for through unemployment insurance, in exchange for the university agreeing not to lay off workers. The agreement covers around ten thousand people who are members of AAUP-AFT, HPAE Locals 5094 and 5089, URA-AFT, and CWA Local 1031.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Todd Wolfson, AAUP-AFT’s president, and Donna Murch, AAUP-AFT executive council member and head of the union’s BIPOC committee. This discussed work-sharing, how to build solidarity across a highly stratified workforce, and the future of higher education. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the state of things at Rutgers before you reached this agreement?
Rutgers, like every other major university in the country, has been subject to neoliberalism and driven by austerity for a long time. There’s a larger context of state and federal disinvestment, which has led to new leaders emerging at universities: managers, lawyers, bureaucrats, accountants. Those people are not coming out of the faculty, staff, or communities where the university sits.
Those changes in leadership have led to drastic changes in how universities are run: less faculty governance; less staff and student control over the university; and a spread in adjunctification, which falls on both adjuncts and graduate workers. Precarity in the university is coupled with the massive growth of administrative staff who are making over $300,000 — there are three hundred of them at Rutgers, double what it was ten years ago. Finally, there’s a massive bet on athletics to be a financial and reputational fix for the university. Over the last decade, they’ve subsidized athletics to the tune of $200 to $300 million.
During the pandemic, Rutgers undertook draconian austerity strategies. They went after low-wage workers, predominantly women and people of color. They fired a thousand dining staff and dorm staff, and then they went after adjuncts. They called for a 20-25 percent rollback of adjunct teaching, which saves them $4.5 million in a fiscal year, which is about what they pay the head football coach. We call it maximum pain for minimum gain. We’d said that we can work-share at a mass scale under the CARES Act, save the university $100-150 million, and keep everyone safe, and they rejected it. That was the terrain going into these negotiations.
Let’s get into the details of the agreement. The most unique element in it is work-sharing.
Work-share comes from Germany. Some people think it means that people share work, but it actually means that the state and the employer share the cost of an employee during a crisis. The federal government pays some of the costs of the employee and in doing so, there’s a savings for the institution, which then stops the institution from laying people off. This is possible with the federal boosts of unemployment, which make it something that keeps people whole.
In our work-share program, the faculty work-share 10 percent of their time, for twelve weeks. So, it’s a half day a week. The staff are doing it for 20 percent of their time — so one full day a week — for ten weeks. The goal is to keep as many people whole through this program. It’s a furlough, but it’s a furlough where the federal government pays a part of your salary to keep you whole.
What are the precedents for work-sharing agreements? This was a little more common in the Depression era.
We came up with the idea after seeing an article about the Los Angeles Times doing a work-share program. There was already a work-share bill in New Jersey and we worked with a state senator to update that bill. But this is the largest higher education work-share program in the country, and the second-largest work-share program in general.
The only bigger program with respect to the current crisis is in Michigan. Our program sets a precedent in creatively imagining a way through a crisis that protects the most vulnerable. We did this to save staff and adjunct jobs. The university could not make the faculty furlough, but we said we’d do it to create solidarity, to protect staff and adjuncts.
Higher education famously has some bad blood between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts or graduate workers. The root of that tension is that, too often, more secure faculty don’t look out for those with less security. How did you build solidarity to the point where faculty is willing to act to protect other workers?
Work-share gave us leverage in negotiating with the administration, and it gave people a concrete way for people to work together and create solidarity, not just in the abstract, in discourse and rhetoric, but concretely. It was being done in a time of crisis, when the pandemic was devastating New Jersey and New York. There was an opportunity in that people were paying attention to one another. We held town halls that had people from the different unions, and that made legible to people throughout the university what the experience of all different kinds of workers were.
In one of our early work-share town halls, we had a dining hall worker who has worked at Rutgers for twenty or twenty-five years. He had cancer, his wife was also sick, and they were going to lose their health insurance. We also had interviews with the children of dining hall workers and staff, who were going to lose their tuition remission. So work-share was a bargaining tool to win concessions and protections around employment, but inside our unions, it gave us something really specific to work with. That’s the thing about solidarity: it has to be lived and it has to be built.
It was hard to create trust and incorporate the needs of the different unions’ different types of workers. You’re always navigating different and sometimes conflicting needs. At one level, you’re dealing with a recalcitrant administration. At another level, we were trying to hold a complicated union, one that includes tenure-track faculty, non-tenure-track faculty, and grad workers, who are all very differently situated within the academic hierarchy. So we centered the needs of grad workers and then, additionally, focused on the needs of adjuncts and staff.
The crisis offered an opportunity to do that. We said that we can create a people-centered vision that focuses on the most vulnerable. In the middle of a health crisis, our membership were primed to hear that message. But it’s true that holding a coalition that has such a diverse group of workers, and then holding a union that in and of itself has a diverse group of workers and needs, was complicated. It’s about hearing everyone’s needs and creating a flexible program that responds to those needs but has a core mission. Our core mission from the beginning was to protect the most vulnerable, to stop layoffs of staff, and to protect our grad workers and adjuncts.
How do conversations with your coworkers about the work-share agreement go? How do you move people into that solidarity?
Last summer was a time of enormous energy and we built some of the things that we’re now benefiting from. For example, we started a media committee, and grad students took the initiative and created videos that helped explain work-share. We were doing town halls. Then, in the spring and summer, during the protests, we participated in the scholars strike.
Shortly after that, I created a freedom school, modeled on Highlander and the tradition of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and the Black Panthers. We found that the best-attended sessions were on Rutgers itself; people want a critical assessment of the place where they work. And it feels like movement-building. We’re a union, so we’re involved in contract enforcement and protection, but our vision is of social justice unionism. I call it intersectional unionism. That has to do with the variety of the unions and job categories but also the social relations of power. So we spent a lot of time over the past year working on that and trying to build unity within our own union.
In the fall, we sent sixty or seventy people to strike school with Jane McAlevey — about seven of the locals in the nineteen-union Coalition of Rutgers Unions sent people. Then, we read her book, No Shortcuts. People saw the union as a political home. Harnessing that energy through the political education Donna is talking about and through training people to be better organizers created a more stable and powerful infrastructure for our steward structure, which we call the department structure. Those folks got more militant, better trained, and brought the idea of the work-share program to their departments.
Strike school was a watershed. We’d already been using structure tests but the school was movement-building. There were six thousand workers from around the world, including people from Nigeria and the Philippines who face real danger doing labor organizing. That was profound. And McAlevey educated us about why we should strike and taught us not to do things like third-partying the union, meaning talking about it as a separate entity, which I definitely used to do.
So what did Rutgers give you in exchange for the work-sharing program?
When they declared a fiscal emergency earlier in the pandemic, it allowed them to mess with our raises. So, we got our 2020 raise back, though not until July 2021. Then a second raise we should’ve gotten in July, we’ll get in March 2022. The key piece was to stop them from laying off more staff. We got a contractual agreement to no more layoffs for the staff unions in the agreement through January 1, 2022. We got them to roll back some restrictions on hiring adjuncts.
And then there’s the grad-extension program. We wanted what they have at Brown, where all doctoral students in their third, fourth, and fifth year impacted by COVID-19 can get an extension. What we ended up getting is not quite that, but still the first of its kind for a public university: Any doctoral student who is a candidate and coming off funding next year can get an extension. It’s a major step forward, but we’re going to keep fighting on it, and we’re going to win.
Job losses in higher education are startling. The Department of Labor numbers show that around six hundred fifty thousand people lost their jobs in higher education in 2020. That’s 13 percent of the workforce. What does higher ed’s future look like, not only at Rutgers but across the country?
It’s bleak. This is not necessarily new — there weren’t nearly enough jobs in the years when I was a graduate student at Berkeley — but without a pivot, higher education is going to be decimated. I’m especially concerned about the second- and third-tier private and public schools that are going to go belly up. It’s a huge loss not just for the workers, but for the surrounding communities.
I grew up in western Pennsylvania and we have a lot of small, Catholic universities. I used to go to those places all the time as a kid, as they were a key part of the limited common spaces and infrastructure we had. It also will have a political impact. Those were the places for progressive thought and ideas in very conservative parts of the country.
I’m involved in Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We don’t see a future without more federal and state funding and having strings attached to that funding (i.e., if you take the money, you need to create more tenure-track jobs, stop layoffs, and so on). That’s the way forward. Will we get that? I hope so, but we have to fight for it.
One reason I’ve put so much time into the union this year is that I see increased unionization as our only way forward. The struggle at Rutgers has shown how much the university is a site of low-wage and precarious employment. In the past, they’ve fired custodial and dining hall workers who were union and then rehired them through subcontractors who are not. These concrete expressions of neoliberalism and austerity in our own universities are very politicizing. And the union fight is the foundational fight not only because it’s important to provide leverage, but because it’s one of the best ways to change attitudes, which is what we’ve done.
It’s a bleak terrain, but we at Rutgers turned this crisis into an opportunity to build solidarity and change the terrain. I think higher education, and public higher education in particular, is in a similar moment. We need to fight over the commons and the public and what is shared. Public universities, and especially land-grant universities, are critical sites for that struggle alongside K-12. These universities are the intersection of the health care system — which is so critical to our future, and is localized and can’t be off-shored — and play an anchoring role in many communities.
The fight over the future of public education offers the opportunity to reframe what the public university could be at its best. At the core of that is building coalitions that go beyond just faculty. It’s a vision of all of us together running our institutions in the interests of the students, the people who work at the universities, and the communities that we’re in. That’s why land-grant institutions are so important, because that is embedded in the model. I don’t think there’s a way forward without that. And we must say that the people who run the schools now can’t run them, because they’re running them in the interests of a bottom line, and growing their endowments and their reserves, as opposed to the interests of the communities and students and the workers.
What we’ll be calling for in the months and years to come is a Rutgers worker and student council. The Board of Governors is not who should be making decisions. It’s the staff person, the faculty, the dining-facilities worker, the students, and the community we’re in who should be making decisions. So within a bleak terrain, there’s an opportunity, and that’s combined with fighting at the national level for more investment.