Academic Workers at Rutgers University in New Jersey Are Poised to Strike

Bryan Sacks
Liana Katz

Unions representing grad workers, postdocs, and faculty at Rutgers University have been without a contract for almost nine months; earlier in March, they voted by 94% to authorize a strike. We talked to two workers about their contract fight.

A Rutgers AAUP-AFT demonstration. (Rutgers AAUP-AFT / Facebook)

Interview by
Sara Wexler

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, graduate student workers, postdocs, and faculty have been working without a contract since June 30 of last year. Workers say that the university is refusing to budge on their unions’ core demands, which include living wages, greater job security for adjuncts, and better health care coverage for adjuncts and certain categories of grad workers. On March 10, Rutgers American Association of University Professors–American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), representing grad workers, postdoctoral fellows, full-time faculty, and Educational Opportunity Fund counselors, and the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter (PTLFC) AAUP-AFT, representing adjuncts, announced that their members had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, with 80 percent of members turning out to vote, and 94 percent of them voting in favor. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke to worker-organizers from each union about their contract demands and why they say workers are ready to go on strike.

Sara Wexler

Can you tell me what led to this strike vote?

Bryan Sacks

My unit is the adjuncts’ union at Rutgers, the PTLFC. What led to the vote was a fairly long campaign that we undertook going back at least a couple of years. To be fair, we didn’t know it would lead to a strike authorization vote — but it did because of, broadly speaking, management’s intransigence, its delay tactics, and its unwillingness to seriously consider the core demands that we’re making as we negotiate a contract.

Our contract expired June 30, so we’ve been out of a contract around nine months. We’ve put forward a host of proposals, but the three central ones are demands for equal pay for equal work, for job security provisions that we currently lack, and for subsidized health care consistent with other employees at Rutgers.

Liana Katz

My unit is the full-time faculty and grad worker unit; we also represent postdocs as well as education opportunity fund counselors. Since our contract expired, we’ve been engaged in a massive push of grassroots organizing, in parallel with the bargaining that we’ve done at the table with the university administration.

This has involved a lot of different things. It has looked like actions on the ground and informational pickets at all of Rutgers’s campuses. It has looked like members going out and talking to other members, posting up in publicly accessible parts of campus just to be visible and build a community around the union. We’ve also had members leading trainings in phone banking, essentially doing a massive outreach push to folks who are already union members, as well as to those who had not yet joined the union to bring them into the fold.

We’ve been doing this work in parallel with Bryan’s union, with the adjuncts as well as with undergrad students and several community organizations in New Brunswick, which is where the largest Rutgers campus is located. We have a series of demands on the table right now that we refer to as our “bargaining for the common good” demands. These concern undergrad student issues, as well as community issues. So we’ve been organizing in tandem — not just with members in our own unit, but also community members and students.

Bryan Sacks

We’ve been organizing continuously for the last couple of years. We pride ourselves on being a democratic union. Our executive board, which is comprised of about fifteen people, prides ourselves on democratic unionism. We strive to stay in close communication with our members, because our theory of democratic unionism is that we’re only as strong as our members. We made very clear to our members all along here as we built up to this — this approach to “peak militancy” — that we can’t win anything ourselves. There’s fifteen of us. We can only do it with the eight hundred or 1,200 or 1,700 or hopefully as much as 2,600 or 2,700 PTLs [part-time lecturers] who teach in the course of a year at Rutgers. That’s where our power lies.

We all take that very seriously, and that’s played itself out in regular town-hall communications, various social events, happy hours, and such. Our organizing committee has worked on each of Rutgers’s campuses to reach out to rank-and-file members more or less on a continuous basis. What accounts more than anything else, I would say, for that 94 percent yes vote is folks who are engaged, who’ve been informed, and who’ve told us they want action.

Sara Wexler

Could you say a little bit more about the undergraduate and community involvement?

Liana Katz

We’ve been primarily organizing with a group of students who are part of an organization called Rutgers One on the New Brunswick campus, and with community groups Cosecha and New Labor, which are rooted in New Brunswick, and they’ve put forward and developed a series of demands. The primary one, I would say, is calling for a rent freeze in all the properties that Rutgers owns because rents have been skyrocketing in New Brunswick. It’s not only unaffordable for students.

Another issue for students is that the condition of the dorms that they live in that Rutgers owns and maintains is incredibly poor — with issues from sewage leaks to mold in the showers — for the price that they’re paying now. The price is not reflected in the quality of the housing that they have access to.

But also, there’s this upward pressure on rents in New Brunswick because Rutgers is the largest landlord in that community. So when Rutgers raises its rents, it puts pressure on landlords to raise their rents as well, and it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable for community members to stay in place. So that’s a joint community and student demand.

Also, we’re looking at things like ending the punitive practices that the university has around fines and fees for undergrad students: they’re not able to access their transcripts or graduate if they have outstanding debt to the university. We’re trying to end that practice as well as create a fund for workers who were left out of the governmental COVID payments during earlier phases of the pandemic. New Brunswick has a large immigrant community, and some of its members, due to citizenship status issues, did not have access to those federal government payments.

Sara Wexler

What do you want to see in the new contract? What are your demands?

Bryan Sacks

There are dozens of individual demands, but the three core demands that the Rutgers adjunct union is making are for equal pay for equal work with our full-time nontenure-track teaching faculty colleagues, for longer-term appointments and work guarantees within those appointments — job security — and for subsidized health care, either in the form of participation in the state health benefits program, or through participation in the plan that’s offered to grad fellows at the university.

The first of those, equal pay for equal work, refers to the fact that, depending on how you determine what a fair, full-time equivalent is for the work that nontenure-track full-time faculty do, we’re paid by somewhere between 40 and 100 percent less. We’ve made demands to address that yawning gap, which opened up about ten years ago; before that our salaries were not identical but were more closely in alignment.

Our contention is that we do basically the same work as those nontenure-track teaching faculty. They strongly support our demands, by the way; they’re part of Liana’s unit as well. We are very happy, of course, that they achieved the salary gains that they did two cycles ago. But we want PTLs to be paid equally to what they’re paid, and we’ve proposed fractional appointments to address that — that PTLs would be paid a fraction of what NTTs [nontenure-track teaching faculty] are paid based on that full-time equivalent combined with their minimum yearly salaries. We put that across the table to the administration back in June. It took until December for us to get a counterproposal, and we’ve only had one exchange back and forth since.

That second demand, for job security provisions in the form of longer terms . . . Adjuncts at Rutgers work term to term, no matter how long they’ve been here. You can’t accrue any real security, no matter if you’ve taught for five years, ten years, or fifteen years in some cases. One person on our board has been here forty-two years, and she still works term to term. That means we have to reapply for our jobs every term. We need to get new appointment letters every term.

It’s a source of great frustration, and it’s undignified, of course. This is one of the things we hear most from our rank-and-file members. We want timely appointment letters, and we want longer appointments.

In some ways, health care is the hardest demand, because of the state’s involvement in the health benefit program — for example, there’s a need for litigation to get PTLs full participation in the state plan. But without getting far into the details, we do have a strategy around moving the ball significantly on health care.

Sara Wexler

What are the grad student workers’ demands?

Liana Katz

The demands are certainly overlapping in the sense that adjuncts and grad workers are some of the most vulnerable and some of the most taken-advantage-of workers at Rutgers. We’re fighting for basic provisions that we need to sustain ourselves, that you would think wouldn’t be this hard for us to achieve. But here we are.

We have several core demands for grad workers, the first of which is a salary that moves us closer to earning a living wage in the area of New Jersey where Rutgers is. Currently grad workers who are working as a TA [teaching assistant] or a GA [graduate assistant], which is a research assistant — if you’re on a nine-month contract, you earn just a little bit over $30,000 a year. We also have a category of grad workers who are on fellowship, who earn even less, usually around $25,000 a year; for a nine-month appointment, that can go even lower, to $20,000. There may be some grad workers who are earning even less than that.

What we’re asking for in terms of salary is for grad workers to be started at around $37,000 at the beginning of the contract, and then that would go up to around $41,000 at the end. Again, this is just a basic need that we have because we’re not earning enough to support ourselves, to support our families, while we’re trying to complete our degrees — at the same time as we’re doing an immense amount of work for Rutgers University itself.

A second crucial demand is that grad workers on fellowship be brought into the bargaining unit with TAs, GAs, and full-time faculty. Right now, they’re not part of our bargaining unit. They’re not considered workers by the university, even though in some cases, especially in STEM fields, they’re performing the same work over the course of their time at Rutgers whether they’re a research assistant or on fellowship. When you’re on fellowship, again, the pay is even worse than when you’re a TA or a GA, and you don’t have access to the state health insurance that TAs, GAs, and faculty members have access to.

I’ve had two years on fellowship and two years as a TA, and I’m switching back and forth between not only earning different amounts of money, but also between different health insurance plans. I think this is an issue that affects a lot of grad workers who are on fellowship. If you have serious health concerns or are just trying to stay on top of your health needs, it’s extremely challenging to go back and forth between the one plan that’s pretty good and another plan that’s really not adequate. We want to bring fellows into our bargaining unit so that they can receive the same pay and the same health insurance as teaching assistants and research assistants.

Our other two demands are around access to funding. The first one is a demand for five years of guaranteed funding for grad workers who are pursuing a PhD. Funding packages are extremely uneven across the university. In my department, we have access to four years of guaranteed funding, but there are other departments where you might only have two or one. It depends on the financial situation of your department and what it can offer you when you’re admitted.

In most cases, even in the departments where you have a more generous funding package, it’s often not enough to successfully complete your degree and to do the work that you set out to do when you began your graduate education. So we’re asking for a guaranteed five years for those who need it. We’re also asking for a one-year funding extension for people whose research was delayed by the pandemic. Many of us were forced to completely stop our research during that time or had very limited access to our labs or our field sites. For many grad workers who are trying to finish up their degrees now, their timelines have been severely delayed. Departments have done what they can to support their grad students, but we need the university to step up in this moment and provide extra funding for those of us who need it.

Sara Wexler

Have there been any updates from the university since the strike authorization vote?

Bryan Sacks

On Friday, the presidents of our two unions were sent letters by the special counsel at Rutgers, who’s also the head of the Office of University Labor Relations. He leads bargaining for the university’s side, and the letter, which referred to a potential work stoppage, was meant to intimidate. I think that’s a fair assessment of it. It referred to communications that union leadership was making to its members and concern that some of those communications might not be fully informing our members as to the consequences of a work stoppage or strike, which, as they were told, is plainly illegal.

Now, in New Jersey, there’s no statute that prohibits public employees or public university employees from going on strike. There’s a case-law environment that is open to interpretation for sure. But this was expected. The university wants us to think that it’s going to take the strongest possible actions against any action that we take, in an effort to scare members or to intimidate us. I’m not going to be intimidated. I’m going to listen to what my members say, and I’m going to communicate with those members what the situation is and allow for the best decisions to be made on their behalf.

Sara Wexler

How do you feel about the prospect of going on strike?

Liana Katz

Something that has happened since we have taken that strike authorization vote is that we’ve started doing picket line trainings so that if we end up going out on strike, we can do so safely and effectively. Last I was told, we’ve already had 250 people sign up for those trainings. Those are people who are interested in leading and organizing their own picket line, which I think is a strong showing that we are ready and that our members are ready for this, should we decide that we need to take this step.

Bryan Sacks

Members of my unit took that training today, which they reported back was very well attended, and it’s still in early days for sign-ups. The sign-ups are happening every day. So we are encouraged by that.

At the same time, of course, we want a good, fair, negotiated settlement that meets our demands. That’s what we want. You take a strike authorization vote for a variety of reasons, and one of them is to signal to the university that you’re prepared to take the strongest actions if it continues to not be satisfactorily responsive to what you’ve been proposing. I take that responsibility very seriously. Nobody who’s in a position of elected leadership should expose their memberships to any undue risk — but the key word is undue. The administration needs to show our members that it has heard us. To date, it has not.

Sara Wexler

How has the contract fight affected the academic community at Rutgers?

Bryan Sacks

One thing that’s been very heartening for my unit, the adjuncts’ unit, is that we’ve been brought in and made part of a coalition of Rutgers unions that coalesced around the beginning of the pandemic. I’m talking now about nineteen unions at Rutgers that have more than twenty thousand members total in them. We formed a coalition to respond to the various impacts that the pandemic was bringing to bear. So we’ve been working with one another since that time on a variety of issues that have cropped up, related to the impact of the pandemic health and safety issues, remote work, telework — things like this that affect a lot of different units.

We’ve made great progress in getting the administration to deal with us collectively. Prior to the time I’m referring to, the administration had no interest in being at the same table or even being in the same room to negotiate impacts, say, for something like the pandemic. But we’ve won the ability to do that. We are currently bargaining over several provisions together — not all nineteen of us, of course, because not all nineteen unions are up for a contract. But that has been critical, that there is both an actual coalition and a coalition mindset among various unions.

You referenced the strike authorization vote that was taken by Liana’s unit and my unit; also the medical faculty recently completed their own vote. Being in such close alignment with the other faculty locals has been extremely heartening for my unit, adjuncts, who for a variety of reasons often feel like we’re out there by ourselves at the university, invisible, forgotten, and often as a result of that, the first to be disposed with when the administration can get away with it.

Liana Katz

There is a narrative out there, which the university administration is also pushing a little bit, that union organizing and a strike would be harmful to students: if their professors and their TAs are not holding class, they’re going to be missing out on their vital education that they’ve come to Rutgers for. Something that’s been exciting for me is seeing the close organizing between our unions and also our undergrads, because they’ve done a lot of work to do outreach to their peers — going to classrooms, for example, and doing class reps, educating folks about the bargaining situation, educating folks about what union and labor organizing means, what it looks like, what it has looked like on Rutgers campuses in the past, and what it looks like in the present.

It’s been great to work with the undergrad activists and see this close collaboration between students, faculty, and grad workers across the board, because we are the ones who make Rutgers what it is. We’re the ones who do the work, and we are the ones who create the community there. It’s deepened our relationships across all of these different communities that make up the university.

This coming Friday, there is going to be a punk show that is a fundraiser for our joint full-time and adjunct unit strike funds. There’s a storied punk community in New Brunswick that has these famous house shows — this was an idea that originated there, with students and community members who wanted to do something in solidarity and to mobilize the local bands, mobilize their communities in support of the potential strike and our union organizing.

Sara Wexler

How do you imagine the new contract changing things for students, faculty, and postdocs at Rutgers?

Liana Katz

For grad students, these demands have the potential to be extremely transformational. If we’re able to attain what we have put across the table now, or close to that, it’ll get grad students much closer to a living wage, which would allow folks to take care of themselves and their families much more effectively. It would also allow us stability as we pursue our degrees and perform work on campus. And I think these demands have the potential to make pursuing a PhD more accessible to a wider category of folks who might not be able to do so because of how much you get paid when you’re doing grad work.

What’s equally exciting is that all the organizing that we’ve done, the fact that we’ve put these bold demands on the table . . . I think it sets us up nicely to continue to do this work, to continue to grow our movement, and to have the power to ask for even more next time.

Bryan Sacks

From the perspective of PTLs: if we’re able to achieve these demands, it’ll put a real dent in the degree of contingency and the precarity that we live in at Rutgers and have been forced to live in our entire careers. It will allow PTLs to do things like plan their lives for more than a few months out. To know that we’ll actually have an appointment that might go on for a year or two years or three years will allow us to feel part of departments — to feel that we’re not just, in the very fitting word, an adjunct, who’s there to do a job as little as possible and more or less be invisible.

And it’s going to be a benefit for students, for us to win our demands. We can’t tell students that we’ll be around to mentor them next term. We can’t even tell them a lot of times what classes we’re teaching. When they ask us, “Professor, I’d like to take another course with you, what are you teaching?”, we can’t even tell them that. A lot of times, we can’t meet them in our offices, because we don’t have offices. Sometimes between semesters, the university shuts down our email accounts because we’re no longer employees and we haven’t been hired for the next term, and students are trying to communicate with us. We only learn afterward. Who knows how many times we never learned this, because they don’t ever see us or hear from us again?

This kind of thing is outrageous at a university that’s supposed to prioritize student experience. As bad as precarity is for adjuncts, it’s also terrible for students. So we anticipate, to the degree that we can win these demands, that we can change the relationship between adjuncts and the university, and therefore also change the relationship of a lot of students with their university.

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Bryan Sacks is the vice president of the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter AAUP-AFT Local 6324, the Rutgers adjuncts’ union. He has been an adjunct instructor at multiple universities for most of the last thirty years.

Liana Katz is the vice president for graduate workers with the Rutgers AAUP-AFT. She is a fourth-year PhD candidate in geography at Rutgers New Brunswick.

Sara Wexler is a member of UAW Local 2710 and a PhD student at Columbia University.

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