Faculty Are Fighting Neoliberalism at a New Jersey Community College

At Middlesex College in New Jersey, faculty have been working without a contract for nearly three years. Their contract battle is a window into the fight over higher ed’s future erupting across the US — including at less-discussed community colleges.

Middlesex College’s Perth Amboy Center. (Middlesex College)

American campuses are roiling. At some of the country’s biggest and most prestigious institutions of higher education, from Temple, Duke, and Princeton Universities to the University of California system, academic workers are organizing and going on strike in historic numbers. The UC strike was the largest job action at an American university ever and the biggest strike of 2022 in any sector. Meanwhile, after eight months without a contract, three unions representing nine thousand workers at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, just went on strike for the first time in the institution’s 257-year history.

But while big schools have gotten the lion’s share of attention, struggles on a more modest front have been overlooked. Just five miles away from Rutgers’ main campus lies Middlesex College, the flagship two-year college of the New Jersey county for which it is named. At Middlesex, the full-time faculty have been working without a contract for nearly three years.

Because they work for a less richly endowed institution, their demands are necessarily humbler than their counterparts’ at Rutgers. Whereas the latter’s full-time faculty demanded annual raises of 5 percent, Middlesex College faculty are asking for raises of 3.5 percent. And while every one of the college’s full-time faculty, which includes librarians and counselors as well as professors, is a member of Local 1940 AFT (American Federation of Teachers), at 140 strong, their bargaining power is limited relative to that of the thousands organizing at large research universities.

With its operations coming under less scrutiny and its workforce commanding a less impressive display of numbers, the college seems to feel a diminished sense of urgency in acknowledging its faculty’s appeals. Little wonder that the college faculty’s morale is low. Patricia Payne, president of Local 1940 AFT, said she has rarely seen worse days in her thirty-odd years of teaching and organizing at Middlesex College.

The dispute over the contract is on one level about fair compensation, but it is also about respect. Many faculty have said that they love their work. It is the college’s undervaluing their devotion to teaching, counseling, and otherwise fostering the students of Middlesex County that they say threatens to do the school the most harm.

A Drawn-Out Contract Fight

In July 2020, a four-year agreement between the college and the full-time faculty expired. Negotiations to settle a new one had begun earlier that year, only for the onset of COVID-19 to disrupt the bargaining process. The old contract saw the faculty earn a 2.5 percent salary increase each year; rather than draw up a new one amid the pandemic, Local 1940 AFT proposed it be extended. The administration agreed to do so if faculty would accept a halt in their raises, which they wouldn’t agree to.

Back at the bargaining table, the union asked that a new contract include annual raises of 3.5 percent among other conditions. The college countered with a 0 percent increase in the first year, followed by increases of 2.5 percent in year two and of 2.25 percent in years three and four. (The college president made a display of forgoing a scheduled $5,000 increase to his own six-figure salary, but he doubly recouped it the following year.)

With the proposed year-one increase of 0 percent proving a sticking point, negotiations reached an impasse, and both parties filed for mediation with the Public Employees Relations Committee. Meanwhile, as inflation reached a forty-year high and the cost of living rose to extreme heights, the administration paid Weiner Law Group LLP as much as $952,779.89 (as of February 2023) for “labor services” and “labor matters” — in other words, to help fight the union.

Yet a contract that recognizes the value of the school’s faculty is far from fiscally impossible. The next county over, for instance, at Brookdale Community College, full-time faculty got more or less what Middlesex College’s faculty have been asking for, and on a smaller budget to boot. (Brookdale also far surpasses Middlesex College in the rankings of New Jersey’s two-year colleges.) On the other hand, while salaries for Middlesex’s faculty have suffered a $3 million (20 percent) loss over the last decade, pay for administrators has increased by $1.4 million (14 percent).

The atmosphere at Middlesex soured further last fall, when Local 1940 AFT members allegedly initiated a “sickout,” which saw rolling tranches of faculty call in sick over the course of four days. The college (represented by Weiner Law Group) sued, and an injunction was filed against Payne. As union president, she said she was forced to pledge not to take similar measures in the future. According to Payne, this dealt a deflating blow to the faculty’s spirits.

Students and the Neoliberal College

The college’s stinginess toward the faculty seems to have little to do with improving opportunities for Middlesex students. Of the college’s roughly ten thousand students, less than a third are white, and many of my classmates are the first in their families to go to college. Many also have one, often two part-time jobs — in retail, for example, or as delivery drivers for UPS or Amazon. Nearly half of the student body receives need-based aid, and more than a quarter comes from households earning an annual income of less than $30,000.

The administration has sought both to suppress unflattering details of the dispute and to limit solidarity between students and the faculty. Since I began my studies at the college last September, I have been covering developments in the contract negotiations for Quo Vadis, the campus newspaper. Far from encouraging my efforts, the college president has said they threaten to “lead to an erosion of credibility” at the paper, and last semester I met twice with college administrators concerned about my reporting.

Another student that the president has disparaged is Thomas Emens, a first-generation degree earner and the son of a working single mother. Last year, after receiving a rare full-ride transfer scholarship, Emens went on to study at Princeton, where he is majoring in political science. He also successfully ran for local office on the Democratic ticket, becoming, at twenty years old, the New Jersey town of Jamesburg’s youngest and first openly gay councilmember.

On the campaign trail in October, Emens appeared at a Local 1940 AFT rally to give a speech in support of the union. The following day, college president Mark McCormick told me he “respects” Emens but thinks he is “misled,” suggesting the faculty were spoon-feeding him pro-union talking points. The Middlesex County Democratic Organization saw fit to discipline Emens, banning him from attending party functions and insisting he apologize for speaking out against the college administration — which he has refused to do.

Jersey Democrats’ problem with public sector organizing reaches beyond the college. Days after the rally at Middlesex College, the New Jersey chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (or AFSCME, which represents workers at psychiatric hospitals, veterans homes, and other state-run facilities) sued Democratic governor Phil Murphy for discrimination on the basis of gender and race, alleging the state gave generous pandemic-era pay hikes to correctional officers (who are half men and four-fifths white) but not its members (who are two-thirds women and four-fifths people of color).

Murphy appeared at Middlesex College last November, when he joined McCormick as well as a handful of state, county, and municipal officials in cutting the red tape on a plan to dramatically expand the college’s Edison campus. Neither faculty nor students were consulted on the plan or even invited to attend the ceremony; they only found out about the governor’s appearance the next day from the local news.

It is hard to say who stands to benefit from the expansion, which consists of an open-air stadium, a conference center, a new park, a new student center, sixteen tennis courts, fourteen synthetic fields, a cricket field, water features, various art installations, and a second magnet school — all on the college’s two-hundred acres, currently populated by thirty-six modest buildings. Of the college’s ten trustees (who approved the plan, and who themselves appoint the president), eight are appointed by the county and two by the governor himself. No timeline was proposed for the $100 million expansion, a cause that seems to have united the college with local and state Democrats in putting their own interests above those of workers and students.

Who Is the College For?

While college and state administrators have been busy dreaming up their top-down vision of the institution’s future, those who study and work on campus have been left to manage as best they can. Professors at Middlesex College juggle a variety of balls besides teaching. English professor Celia Winchester said that, as a vocal nonbinary, transmasculine member of the faculty, they frequently bear the burden of representing queer people on campus — hounding the administration to allow trans students to change their names on their IDs, for example, and leading the charge for gender-neutral bathrooms.

Winchester said they also act as both confidant and advocate for students whose families refuse to accept their queerness. These students frequently deal with abuse, financial strain, poor mental health, difficulties finding housing, and insufficient access to medicine and therapy — only to face ignorance, not to say indifference, at school. “Every week I have at least two students in my office crying,” Winchester said, noting the counseling services the school provides, though competent, are overtaxed. The same can be said of Winchester and many others whose work extends well beyond the classroom.

Given the differences in class and racial makeup between the administration (mostly white and comfortably situated) and the rest of the college (majority-minority, striving for upward mobility), it is perhaps unsurprising the administration should appear so out of touch. If its leadership were more intimately acquainted with the needs of its faculty and students, the college might see its teachers paid and its pupils’ needs addressed before building stadiums and tennis courts.

Yet a similar dynamic has been playing out at colleges and universities across the country. As Todd Wolfson, vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, recently told Jacobin, the crisis in higher education has boiled over only after fifty years of simmering discontent. Massive public divestment, the casualization of teaching, the commodification of education, and the offloading of costs onto student debtors had all been weighing on American higher ed for decades — only for it to buckle during the pandemic.

According to Donna Murch, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s New Brunswick chapter, attending a public college in the United States was mostly a fee-free proposition (as it is today in many rich countries). But at the close of the “long” 1960s, in the wake of broadening enrollment and growing student radicalism, tuition fees were instated as a “political attack on working-class, black, and brown students” — the very populations now bearing an overwhelming share of the country’s $1.8 trillion in student debt.

Moreover, Wolfson points out, college administrations have long used “divide-and-conquer strategies” to segment workers on campuses according to the type of work they do, staving off the possibility of their organizing against their employers under wall-to-wall unions. In the meantime, as corporate profits have soared and inequality has reached new heights, access to college remains out of reach for many.

None of this is inevitable: it is the result of policymaking decisions made by corporate and managerial elites both within and beyond the university. The same neoliberal tendency can be observed in the tack taken over the last three years by the administration at Middlesex College. Where students and employees might have participated democratically in making fundamental decisions about the future of their institution, instead there have been closed-door dealings and directives from on high. Where there might have been a chance to recognize faculty for the work they do on behalf of the college community, instead there is ongoing antagonism and recourse to costly intimidation tactics. And where the college might serve as a vehicle for closing the inequality gap, instead it risks becoming a microcosm of broader disparities.

At two-year and four-year colleges, both public and private, these circumstances are becoming more and more apparent to the students and workers who make up the heart of American higher ed. We are beginning to see what their struggles can achieve in making the academy a fairer, more democratic institution.