When Rutgers University announced in March 2020 that it would shut down its campuses due to the coronavirus, we were in the middle of a busy season. A tenured faculty member and a graduate student, both in the history department at New Brunswick, we frantically scoured the library and our offices for anything we might need for the next several weeks. An online world would demand double-time labor just to meet basic obligations of teaching classes, giving exams, course scheduling, and more. In the early days of the pandemic, we were too overwhelmed by our workloads to see what was happening.
Later that spring, Rutgers administrators declared a “state of emergency” and unleashed a wave of freezes and cuts. Departmental budgets and research funds were frozen or slashed. Deans canceled new hires and contractually guaranteed raises. They laid off nearly 1,000 non-instructional staff and contingent instructors and refused to extend graduate student research funding.
The cuts and layoffs made little sense. Senior administrators were presiding over bulging “rainy day funds” of more than $500 million. They had access to unprecedented new federal funding. Rutgers alone took in $286 million in three COVID-19 relief packages. More than half of that money went to the university’s general operating budget, with few strings attached. And by the end of the summer, after sustained advocacy from Rutgers unions, the New Jersey state legislature announced that there would be no cuts to the state’s higher education budget after all.
There was nothing close to a financial crisis facing the university. But flush with cash and operating with near impunity thanks to the state of emergency, administrators used the opportunity to cut labor costs and hammer unions. They aimed to downsize the workforce while intensifying workloads. Today, workers are doing more while often receiving the same or less in return.
Rutgers administrators weren’t acting alone. In the first eleven months of the pandemic, college and university administrators across the country cut 650,000 jobs. Layoffs have been especially harsh on non-instructional workers and adjunct professors, two of the worst paid and least protected groups in the industry.
COVID-19 cuts were only the latest blow to the sector. Over the past thirty years, public funding for higher education has declined on average from 15 percent of state spending to 9 percent, with a 30 percent decline since 2001 in per-student spending. Meanwhile, the cost of attending a four-year college increased almost 200 percent between 1997 and 2017, and student debt has skyrocketed to over $1.6 trillion. Today only about one-quarter of faculty are full-time, tenure-track workers. Alongside the pivot to casualized labor, institutions have increasingly turned to private creditors to cover costs. As education scholar Eleni Schirmer has shown, these lenders push institutions to maximize so-called “creditworthiness,” a process that rewards spending on vanity projects, such as on athletics programs, flashy new buildings, and administrative salaries, and downgrades unionized workforces and investments in education and curricula.
Few in academia have taken the degradation lying down. A new wave of organizing that has taken place during the pandemic stands out for its emphasis on solidarity and coalition building. This organizing is grounded in specific places and systems, but workers have also used this moment to make connections around the country.
At our own institution, the Coalition of Rutgers Unions—which includes administrative workers, medical providers, grounds and service workers, graduate and library workers, adjunct, full-time, and medical faculty, and more, representing around 15,000 workers—sprung into action to oppose the new layoffs. Within the coalition, our union of full-time faculty, graduate workers, librarians, postdocs, and counselors, AAUP-AFT Local 6323, worked with other locals to assert worker and community needs. Together, these efforts led to innovative proposals for shared governance over COVID-19 funding, protections for international students, and extensions for graduate students who were out of funding and lost time due to the pandemic. These were hard-fought, partial wins. We did not undo all the layoffs, for example, and not every graduate worker has the new funding she needs. At every step, though, groups of workers found that solidarity and coalition building with other categories of workers were key to achieving concrete wins.
Now, organizers who have built power at the local level are beginning to unite nationally. Earlier in the pandemic, higher education workers had to struggle for survival mostly on their own. The battles, even when successful, took place in isolation; each group of workers in each separate institution, system, or state focused on its own specific setting, even though the problems are national phenomena demanding national solutions. In recent months, organizers have shifted their attention. They recognize that to reconstruct higher education as a public good—one that converts adjunct, outsourced, part-time, and precarious jobs into full-time, well-paid, dignified, stable positions at scale; one that ends the student and institutional debt crises; and one that rebuilds in the interests of students, workers, and communities—they must fight and win at a national scale.
Industrial-Style Organizing in Higher Education
COVID-19 may have helped to unite the fights for higher education jobs and broader systemic reform. Over the past eighteen months, we have seen many novel efforts to undertake mass organizing in higher education, across different job categories and across institutions and regions. Unions, faculty senates, and advocacy groups recognize that to win a future they can look forward to will require national collective action. The importance of higher education and its workers in today’s transformed economy has created new openings for those of us who want to bring together the fragmented higher education workforce into one movement.
In New Jersey, as in many states throughout the formerly industrial areas of the United States, the largest employers are in academic healthcare and education. Rutgers and its healthcare network, RWJBarnabas, a sprawling system with a footprint in every county, employ nearly 60,000 workers alone. The other colleges and universities in New Jersey employee at least another 65,000 workers. Of the state’s seventy-one acute care hospitals, forty-three are teaching hospitals associated with the state’s five medical schools, which employ over half of New Jersey’s 130,000 hospital workers. New Jersey’s “eds and meds” model is representative of a national trend. As the historian Gabriel Winant has documented, the country’s transformation to a postindustrial economy has brought with it spectacular growth in health and education services, the core of the modern care economy. Universities and university-linked healthcare systems are the single largest employers in more than ten states. (Throw in non-university healthcare, and it’s more than twenty states.) Together eds and meds comprised approximately 15 percent of all employment in the U.S. economy in 2020. Workers can leverage the growing significance of this sector into substantial reforms while strengthening the social basis for a broader political realignment around education and care.
While Rutgers workers are organized, many other eds and meds workers are not. Universities and their medical systems have developed unevenly as a patchwork of public and private nonprofit and for-profit institutions. The sector is fractured by differences in governance, financing, and employment types, not to mention the kind of labor workers perform. Public university healthcare systems, for example, can wiggle their way out of public employment organizing laws. Pennsylvania’s single largest employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has avoided worker organizing by hiding behind a parent-subsidiary divide, despite relying on its public institutional ties and academic bona fides to operate.
Across the higher education and university-linked healthcare systems, workers undertake countless different types of jobs, face wildly different conditions, and operate under distinct labor rules. These differences present challenges for organizers. A relatively well-off research worker, for example, might not see herself as sharing interests with the workers who clean dormitories and offices, tend to patients in the middle of the night, or keep campus and hospital buildings running. These divisions are exacerbated by race and gender inequalities. People of color and women of all races disproportionately work in lower-wage positions with fewer protections. Among the tenured professoriate, for example, white men dominate, while the ranks of adjuncts are far more diverse.
The relatively recent and uneven development of healthcare and public-sector bargaining rights also poses challenges to the project of building a sustainable labor movement. Public unions won collective bargaining rights only after workers in the private sector could organize. And today, in many right-to-work states, public-sector workers face enormous barriers to unionizing and bargaining. Their private-sector counterparts face serious challenges as well. And then there are the many divisions among the national unions that currently represent workers in instruction, research, and healthcare in higher education. No fewer than ten national unions currently have higher education members. Only three of these are solely devoted to the education sector, with most instead combining members who do different kinds of work.
Structural, cultural, and organizational challenges need not strangle the movement, however, and there are many examples of ambitious organizing happening in locals across the country. Unions at Rutgers, for example, bargained for and won an ambitious work-share program that used the mechanism of the state unemployment program to rotate workers onto unemployment for short periods in order to avoid permanent or temporary layoffs. In town halls and committees, workers across job categories came together, bargained for, and won this deal. In the process, some of the highest-paid members of the union risked wages to ensure lower-paid members could keep their jobs and receive full pay. This innovation saved staff and instructional positions and saved the university over $100 million.
Union members in the Sunbelt and the South have pioneered another approach for coalitional organizing. In Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and other states, higher education workers are organizing wall-to-wall locals, meaning the union represents the whole range of workers in a college or university, from custodial staff to researchers to instructors, full- or part-time. Such groups have fought for and won concessions on wages, benefits, and other working conditions. At public universities in Kentucky and Tennessee, for example, members in United Campus Workers organizations (part of the Communications Workers of America) organized successfully to raise the wage floor for all workers to $15 an hour.
These experiments show there is promise in the higher education labor movement. Next, it will be critical to bridge the gaps between efforts across the public and private, nonprofit parts of the sector. Graduate students and service workers are paving the way for this coalition, with the United Auto Workers (UAW) organizing graduate students, for example, at both the University of California and Columbia University. But faculty, especially full-time, tenured, and tenure-track faculty, will be especially important for this next step of public-private organizing. Though tenured faculty also face austerity-induced precarity, their relative job security and prestige lends more power in organizing and negotiations, power that will be needed to face down administrative challenges across institutions. At Rutgers, faculty workers’ commitment to broad-based organizing was crucial to winning concessions for all workers. And it primed the Rutgers faculty to be ready and open for the coalitional organizing that will be required to bridge the gaps between public and private institutions.
The history of inclusive industrial organizing offers some inspiration for today. In the 1930s, both established and new unions showed how to organize across difference. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union, especially in New York City, is remembered for organizing a multiethnic rank and file of Jewish, Italian, Black, Puerto Rican, and Chinese workers that crafted a broad social unionism vision and won major concessions from manufacturers in the United States and abroad. Unions like the UAW modeled mass organizing across job categories and types in the extremely regimented and hierarchical heavy industries. In the 1960s and ’70s, as historian Lane Windham has shown, industrial unions organized across ethnic, racial, and gender lines to build labor and political power in a wave of private- and public-sector union organizing drives that sought to challenge deindustrialization.
These historic examples of solidarity and collaboration will be indispensable as workers fight austerity in eds and meds. In higher education, we must bring together all workers to challenge the many forms of casualization, outsourcing, and speedups that they are experiencing. If we can build enough power, we can push to democratize the sector’s governance and finance structures, cancel student and medical debt, and ensure a system of universal public education to which all people have full access.
From Labor Movement to National Political Movement
The New Deal didn’t derive its ideas or its political muscle solely from FDR and his brain trust of reformers, but also from a vibrant and powerful labor movement. Generations of scholarship have shown how a decade of mass working-class organizing, militancy, and political action forged the New Deal coalition. This labor movement helped birth a policy regime that, in uneven and unequal ways, began to regulate industrial society, expand social welfare, and secure protections for workers. The COVID-19 crisis may create the conditions for a new realignment not just in the national politics of higher education but in the wider political economy.
The renewed organizing we’re seeing in higher education offers new hope for political reform at the national level, in particular for free college. Just three months into the Biden administration and under a Democrat-controlled Congress, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal launched a new version of the College for All bill. The proposal is best known for promoting free tuition for two- and four-year colleges and universities. But Sanders and Jayapal consulted with labor activists in higher education to add language for labor protections, and the final bill included a new requirement for federal funding of free tuition: moving from the current 25 percent of instruction on the tenure track to 75 percent. It also created a recruiting pipeline for those tenure-track jobs from the ranks of contingent faculty who wish to move to permanent positions, and it included guaranteed benefits for all instructional employment.
Labor activists recognized an opportunity to wed new organizing to the national political process and moved quickly on the bill. The recently formed Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education led a national sign-on in support of the bill, and many state and local unions launched their own campaigns. These groups tied labor protections to the case for equitable and accessible higher education, mapping out a path forward for reform that encompasses worker, student, and community demands.
Following this burst of cooperation on College for All, many higher education unions and their allies began planning for a long-term national movement for reform. Over three days in July, a group of over seventy-five union locals and state federations representing over 340,000 higher education workers from all parts of the sector—student workers, instructional workers, and staff workers—came together to agree on a program at the first Higher Education Labor Summit. They were joined by allied progressive groups active in higher education issues like the Debt Collective and Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. They emerged with a national platform and a political and organizing agenda to build a national labor organization called Higher Ed Labor United, which as of September 2021 has 450,000 members. The new organization’s goal is to make public colleges and universities truly public goods—and they are beginning by organizing across campuses to fight for labor protections and robust, universal free college in the federal budget process.
Like so many labor activists of the past, today’s eds and meds workers are forging not only a set of specific workplace demands, and imagining the reinvention of their sector, but also a political agenda for democratic revitalization of the public good. Their goal is to transform universities into places where students can learn and grow without the burden of unpayable debt, where staff have steady and decently paid work and paths for advancement, and where instructors and researchers can earn living wages and do the teaching and research for which they trained.
If the higher education reform movement can make college work for all, it also might play a role in leading a wider shift in labor power and a national political realignment. Grounded in care work, a united higher education labor movement could help anchor a new political coalition that models and fights for governance and politics rooted in democracy, collective action, and the public good.
Ian Gavigan is a graduate student in the Department of History at Rutgers, where he is writing a dissertation on the history of the socialist movement in the twentieth century. He is an Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and organizes with Higher Education Labor United and Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.
Jennifer Mittelstadt is Professor of History at Rutgers University, where she studies the history of politics, movements, and the state in the United States. She is a member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and a founder of Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education.