I’m on Strike at Rutgers to Fight the Uberification of Higher Education

I’m a lecturer at Rutgers University, and yesterday, I joined my fellow academic workers in striking for the first time in the university’s 250-year history. Our fight against precarious working conditions affects the entire working class.

Rutgers employees on strike, April 10, 2023. (Norah MacKendrick / Twitter)

The faculty unions at Rutgers University have been on strike since 9:00 a.m. yesterday. On Sunday night, I posted announcements on the course websites of both of my Rutgers classes letting students know that grading, new assignments, and meetings with students are on hold until my union announces that the strike is over.

As a part-time lecturer (PTL) with no job security, it’s hard not to feel some apprehension — especially with the Rutgers administration intimidating strikers with the threat of legal action. But this is a vital fight against the Uberification of higher education, and we have to win.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

I’ve taught at Rutgers on and off since January 2016. For three years, I lived in New Jersey, and being a PTL was my only job. Today, I’m living on the West Coast and doing several other things, but the online classes I teach for Rutgers are still the source of a large part of my income. (I regret to inform you that podcasting and freelance writing are not routes to great wealth.)

I’m just a rank-and-file member now, but I held a seat on the elected board of the PTL union from 2017 until I left New Jersey in 2019. Many of the issues at stake in the contract negotiations that just broke down are the same ones we spent those years fighting the administration on — with no meaningful progress in the intervening years.

I’ll just give one example, since it’s a crucial sticking point that touches on trends not just at Rutgers but at universities across the country. We want equal pay for equal work.

The ever-diminishing percentage of instructors with tenure-track positions are required to serve on committees, publish research, and so on, and the administration can argue that the gap between their salaries and ours reflects this extra workload. Fine. But what about the pay gap between PTLs and “NTTs” — non-tenure-track faculty members with pure teaching positions?

During the years I spent in New Jersey, like so many other PTLs, I was always assigned either three classes in the fall or two in the spring, or two in the spring and three in the fall. The reason is that if I was teaching six classes a year instead of five — not counting classes taught over the summer or during the winter mini-session — the university would be contractually required to reclassify me as a full-time employee. That would have meant giving me health insurance and dramatically increasing my pay.

This is obscene. A PTL who teaches five-sixths of the course load of a full-time NTT should get five-sixths of their salary. And they should get to see a doctor when they get sick.

The university has been willing to offer PTLs pay hikes within the two-tiered framework, but it has been totally unwilling to budge on the core issue of principle. It likes things the way they are now — with a precarious workforce that’s increasingly the academic equivalent not of traditional taxi drivers with full-time wages and benefits, but Uber drivers who can simply be removed from the app at the boss’s whim.

Rutgers’s Legal Intimidation

The last time it looked like there was going to be a faculty strike, I was still teaching in person in New Jersey. My students would often ask me what would happen to our classes if there was a strike, and I would always name-check my mother in my reply. “Kathy Burgis didn’t raise any scabs.”

The phrasing was lighthearted, but I was deadly serious. I grew up in mid-Michigan — a part of the country where it was hard to forget what solidarity had achieved for generations of working people. My parents and other relatives would have been disgusted if I’d crossed a picket line. And I’m not going to do that now, even if the “picket line” for my online classes is intangible.

In the lead-up to the current strike, the Rutgers administration issued legal threats. It claimed that it’s illegal for public sector workers in New Jersey to walk off the job. Our unions’ lawyers disagree — and there’s no statute on the books in the state banning such strikes.

Sometimes New Jersey judges have issued injunctions against public sector strikes based on their interpretations of common law, but sometimes they haven’t, and even when they have, striking workers have often won significant gains by the time they returned to work. Everything that’s happened so far has been in strict accordance with the law, and if Rutgers does seek an injunction, we’d fight any such suppression of our fundamental right to organize and withhold our labor.

It’s also worth noting that strikes that actually are illegal are often successful. Many of the red-state teachers’ strikes in 2018 erupted in the face of exactly that kind of anti-worker legislation. Nor was there any legal permission for the sit-down strikes in the 1930s that gave birth to the United Auto Workers and gave generations of people in the community I grew up in relative material comfort and security.

Workers, Not “Professionals”

People who teach at universities, no matter how low their pay or nonexistent their benefits, tend to be acculturated to think of themselves not like autoworkers or even high school teachers but as members of a distinct “professional” layer of the population. It’s obvious how this serves the interests of administrators who don’t want to deal with an educational workforce that trades in individual meritocratic striving for collective troublemaking.

On the Left, we sometimes use the term “professional-managerial class” to talk about anyone with a job that requires an advanced degree. And this can be a useful (albeit imprecise) shorthand that tells us something important about how many such people are taught to see themselves and why they’re often attracted to a form of liberalism that prioritizes technocratic “problem-solving” — and the removal of arbitrary barriers to individual advancement — over collective struggle for better material conditions.

But we shouldn’t forget that being a “professional” doesn’t necessarily mean that you have any managerial authority. And the more people in this category think of themselves as workers and act on that understanding, the better things will be not just for them but for the working class as a whole.

The United States in 2023 is rife with precarity and financial stress. The balance of power between people who work for a living and their bosses is wildly tilted in the bosses’ direction, and most everything else that’s wrong with our society is downstream from that. To reverse things, we’re going to need everyone to stand up for better conditions. That means the people who teach Intro to Philosophy classes at Rutgers no less than the people who serve coffee at Starbucks no less than the people who drive for Uber.

One difference between a university setting and other settings, however, is that leaders and staffers at academic worker unions are a lot more likely to allude to classical literature. In the strike announcement email I received Sunday night, the three unions issuing the statement quoted a line from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly — one that should be burned into the minds of workers in every sector of the economy thinking about what they can do together on the job:

“We are many — they are few.”