The pandemic hit colleges and universities with a one-two punch. The global health crisis threatened the lives of every member of our communities, and the austerity crisis that followed threatened to accelerate some of the most pernicious trends in higher education. Rutgers AAUP-AFT, our union of full-time faculty, graduate workers and counselors, had been gradually adopting a “bargaining for the common good” approach in recent years, emphasizing the needs of our most vulnerable members, the members of our university community, and our surrounding communities. Times of crisis can call these commitments to the common good into question as both societal and academic hierarchies combine to heighten the precarious situation for some, while others retain their relative comfort and security.
The pandemic tested our stated values and our ability to organize within and beyond our membership to live up to our commitments. After almost a year of negotiations, working in coalition with the broad set of unions at Rutgers, we finally reached a settlement with the university that addressed these disparities. The agreement we reached in March 2021 achieved a moratorium on layoffs, a resumption of adjunct hiring based on programmatic needs, and extended funding for graduate students.
Diverse unions, disparate impact
Rutgers is a public university that operates on three main campuses across the state of New Jersey, in Camden, New Brunswick and Newark. Each of these cities is working-class; New Brunswick is majority Latinx, with many undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families. Camden and Newark are primarily Black communities, each with a long history of underinvestment and complex racially-determined state and local policies that have cemented the structural disadvantages of their residents.
The university employs 30,000 workers, 20,000 of whom are unionized in around two dozen collective bargaining units. The unions at Rutgers represent workers from medical residents to dining hall staff, and from graduate workers to tenured faculty. Several international unions have multiple separate bargaining units within the university. Historically, these separate unions have had generally cooperative relationships but have not worked closely together. Most bargaining units have successfully aligned their contract expiration dates, but the university has generally patterned pay increases in all its contracts on the weak increases it has been able to impose on the least mobilized of the unionized workers.
With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the almost immediate layoff and furloughing of hundreds of Rutgers workers, the unions quickly came together. While the state of New Jersey was facing a potential financial catastrophe as the economic impact of the crisis became clear, it adopted a humane approach to its direct employees, furloughing workers rather than laying them off, and allowing them to retain their health insurance. In contrast, Rutgers took a hatchet to its workforce, laying off workers and leaving them without health insurance in a global pandemic.
Many of the laid-off workers, who were disproportionately Black, brown and immigrant, depended on their tuition remission benefit to put their children through college at Rutgers. Without this benefit, many of these students faced the very real prospect of being unable to complete their degrees. While university administrators claimed that without work in the dorms or dining halls, it was simply not possible to retain these workers (even on furlough), they applied no such logic to the highly paid coaches whose sports had been canceled by the pandemic.
The coalition jumps into action
The Coalition of Rutgers Unions (CRU) began to meet regularly in the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown in 2020. Most of these unions and their leaders didn’t know each other well. In recent years they’d had cordial and generally mutually supportive relations, but there was some residual mistrust from prior contract campaigns when the highly secure tenure track faculty had not acted with the interest of their staff colleagues in mind. The dynamic is complex, as some of the smaller bargaining units at Rutgers are part of large unions with significant membership among other public employees in New Jersey. Many of these unions, such as the Communication Workers of America and Health Professionals & Allied Employees, have a great deal of experience fighting layoffs, working in coalition with sibling unions, and navigating between bargaining and advocating with political allies. It was immediately clear that any workers without contractual protection from layoffs were facing layoffs. Adjunct faculty (known at Rutgers as part-time lecturers) were facing their own layoffs in the form of non-renewals as the university attempted to impose a hiring freeze and force academic units to cut their budgets.
The most similar previous crisis faced by Rutgers workers came in 2011, when raises were withheld as Governor Chris Christie and his appointees used every tool at their disposal to discipline public employees. Subsequently many of the coalition’s bargaining units had won improved language to ensure that negotiated pay raises were implemented.
Once the enormity of the pandemic and the attendant financial uncertainty became clear, it was obvious to all the coalition unions that the university would attempt to save money by invoking a fiscal emergency and withholding raises. While the Coalition did grieve this declaration, and begin the arbitration process, negotiating a settlement was always the goal. Arbitration would only provide a narrow ruling on whether pay increases would be withheld, but union members wanted to broaden the negotiations to fight for an end to layoffs, the rehire of adjunct faculty, and funding extensions for graduate workers whose progress had been massively disrupted by the pandemic. In January 2021 we returned to the bargaining table, resurrecting some of the proposals CRU had initially made in May 2020.
In return for achieving these things, the coalition unions were willing to accept a deferral of the contractual pay increases, and proposed an innovative work-share furlough program (something we had proposed since May 2020). We had begun to promote work sharing after reading about the agreement at the Los Angeles Times and learning that New Jersey was one of the states in which these programs can be implemented.
Through the work-share program, employees would furlough either 10% or 20% of their work week for ten weeks. The reduction in Rutgers pay would be fully covered by state and federal benefits for all but the highest-paid workers. The $300 weekly supplement to unemployment insurance made it possible for most workers to be kept whole through this program. Rutgers was able to save millions of dollars in payroll costs, and in return for tangling with the state’s unemployment insurance bureaucracy, most employees would retain their entire income; for lower paid workers, this $300 weekly supplement amounted to an income increase.
Negotiations continued on and off from May 2020 to late March 2021, creating ample opportunity for members to build trust and solidarity. Coalition unions organized in-person protests, including a car caravan early in the pandemic demanding sufficient PPE and an end to layoffs, and a march to support Latinx New Brunswick families whose school was facing demolition because of real estate development by the Rutgers medical behemoth. Each of these actions broadened and deepened the relationships among CRU leaders and members. About a hundred union members from across CRU participated in the online Strike School program offered by Jane McAlevey and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
The AAUP-AFT organized a virtual Freedom School, which provided a forum for political education on issues ranging from the Rutgers budget model to the racial politics of the 2020 election.
CRU held joint membership town halls to give updates on negotiations and address health and safety and other issues. We organized “labor council” style meetings for co-workers in various units, like the libraries, to come together across bargaining units and discuss shared concerns.
Strength in solidarity
Remaining united through these negotiations was essential, and could have tested the solidarity of the coalition. It became clear that teaching faculty would not be able to furlough for more than one half-day per week without cutting back on teaching hours, while staff were proposing to take a whole day a week of furlough time. Union leadership had to work hard with their reps and members to explain the rationale for this difference, and to provide assurances that this proposal was the most likely path to an agreement.
Although most employees were kept whole in the work-sharing program, some of the highest paid faculty (those making around $200,000 per year, of which there are several hundred) stood to lose income. Longstanding administrative employees were receiving layoff notices as the negotiations dragged on. The unions were willing to stand together and hold out for improved hiring language for adjunct faculty (who were not technically a party to the negotiation as their contract does not provide for continuous employment or mid-contract raises) and funding extensions for graduate workers.
The commitment of all workers to the well-being of graduate workers was extraordinary. Staff who had worked at Rutgers for decades and hoped to see out their career at the university took a stand for graduate workers, most of whom will spend only a few years at the university. At one town hall, an administrative staff member, spoke passionately about the suffering of graduate workers in his department, whose academic progress had been so disrupted by the pandemic. The entire process was intensive and required a high level of trust and communication, both between the unions who were technically part of the settlement negotiations, and the sibling unions who were not part of the negotiations but still understood the power the coalition was attempting to build and wield.
The settlement that was achieved was remarkable. The unions agreed to the deferral of raises and the work-share program, and gained graduate funding extensions, a moratorium on layoffs, and the lifting of the restrictions on adjunct faculty rehiring. While the coalition did not win everything it might have liked, the final agreement massively expanded the scope of de facto negotiable issues and demonstrated that unity across multiple unions and bargaining units can build formidable strength. The coalition remained united and fought for the protection of the university’s most vulnerable employees.
“I negotiated hundreds of agreements as a labor leader and I have never seen anything like the CRU,” said Hetty Rosenstein, longtime CWA leader and New Jersey state director. “We negotiated multiple agreements at the same time and people shared their power for the greater good. Together with our common attorney, Steve Weissman, we managed the three-dimensional chess game with the university. We stuck it out in solidarity, and we all came out stronger. It was nothing less than remarkable.” The relationships forged in this crisis will provide a strong foundation for the next contract campaign.