“Injury to All” at Rutgers University

“Injury to All” at Rutgers University

A coalition of unions representing 20,000 workers is organizing to reject the university’s austerity response to the pandemic.


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This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at belabored@dissentmagazine.org. 

In mid-May, two months into the pandemic-induced crisis at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the unions representing 20,000 of the university’s workers came together and held a car caravan to the university president’s house to protest layoffs. Protest signs reading #WeRNotDisposable and calling on the university to “protect the most vulnerable” decorated car windows; inside the cars, union members and their supporters wore red and their face masks.

The coalition of unions includes AAUP-AFT, the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, AFSCME Local 888, and the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT; together, the unions have proposed a work-sharing program where some workers would accept furloughs, allowing them to replace their income with CARES-Act mandated expanded unemployment benefits, in order to prevent layoffs. But so far, the workers say, the university hasn’t listened.

Amy Higer is president of the PTL chapter of AAUP-AFT at Rutgers and has been teaching there since the late 1990s, yet she remains part-time, or PTL, as Rutgers calls adjunct professors. She’s already used to teaching online and noted that it takes a particular set of skills to teach online courses; it’s not simple to just toss an existing class onto the internet. And the process of moving in-person classes to remote teaching when the pandemic began was made harder, she said, when she got an email, “out of the blue” that the university was issuing a hiring freeze. “In that memo, it said: ALL PTLs. In capital letters: all. And we just panicked. Because what does that mean?”

Like most adjuncts, the PTLs are hired semester by semester. “We don’t get contracts at all, it’s always contingent on enrollment and finances. And at the same time, the same administrators were telling departments and programs to cut their PTL budgets by 20 to 25 percent. Then, we started seeing courses disappear. Those of us who had been teaching looked for our courses and they’re not there. There’s a lot of PTLs who have been teaching here for years and years that all of a sudden have nothing in the fall.”

They weren’t the only ones to feel the cut. Layoff notices have gone to more than a thousand workers at the university. Christine O’Connell, president of URA-AFT, represents over 2,700 administrative employees—everyone from administrative assistants to student counselors to nutrition educators to those in business operations. “We are integral in every aspect of this university,” O’Connell said. And many of her members were terrified: “There’s very little transparency of what’s happening. I think that they’re encouraging an environment of fear, as opposed to care.”

Last week, the university declared a “fiscal emergency,” allowing it to further squeeze workers, O’Connell said. “We respectfully disagree that there was actually a fiscal emergency due to the fact that they have over $600 million in unrestricted reserves,” she said. “They’re choosing to take any economic losses out on the backs of their workers. It’s unconscionable. You’re looking at people that make $30, $40, $50 thousand, and it’s really hurting them.”

The fiscal emergency has echoes for Rutgers workers; Donna Murch, a history professor at Rutgers and member of AAUP-AFT, pointed out that after the 2008 financial crisis, the university used a fiscal emergency to strip workers of their cost-of-living raises. “It really, really damaged the union.”

The workers being cut are the “most vulnerable” workers at Rutgers, and yet their layoffs will save very little. “The total savings for Rutgers from these mass layoffs is about $4 million,” wrote AAUP-AFT president Todd Wolfson in an op-ed. “This is maximum pain for minimum gain, and it is a downright insult considering that Rutgers will pay its head football coach that very amount in the first year of his eight-year, $32 million contract.”

They’ve laid off dining hall workers, said O’Connell, who tend to be paid very little. Yet those workers, most of the time, are considered “essential.” “Any time that there’s a weather emergency, if the rest of the university shuts down, they are still required to come. Somehow, during this pandemic, they are no longer essential.” Many of these workers are married to other Rutgers workers, she noted, meaning that they both might lose their jobs at the same time, and some have children who are taking advantage of tuition remission given to employees. “Those students, I believe, will be taking a hiatus from college. How many institutions at this time are going to provide loans to a family that’s unemployed? They’re really devastating families.”

Another group of workers facing cuts were nutrition educators, officially known as “community assistants.” “They work in the lowest-income cities here in the state of New Jersey, including Camden, Newark, Patterson. These people who were laid off are all women, all minority women, many of them are single mothers, some who have disabled children, and they’re being targeted while there is no reduction in funding in this program. There’s not even an economic reason for taking this sort of action.”

The unions aimed to protect those very workers from cuts. “The coalition had a common denominator: protect the most vulnerable in the university. No layoffs,” Higer said. Rutgers instead “could look for savings in the top administrator salaries, or the reserves, or in the athletics program, which has a ton of money, which, of course, wasn’t even being used.” The coalition also called for hardship funds for international and undocumented students and community members in Camden, Newark and New Brunswick, extended funding for graduate students, and hazard pay for frontline workers.

“They said no to our deal,” O’Connell said, which would have saved the university an estimated $100 million. “At the same time, they said, ‘we’re willing to hold negotiations moving forward,’ but then declared the fiscal emergency. So we will be going into negotiations over that shortly.” At the same time, too, she noted, the university president is leaving at the end of the month, and a new president stepping in, leaving something of a leadership vacuum. And then there’s the anti-union law firm, Jackson Lewis. “Based on public records, we have learned that [Rutgers] paid them over $1.8 million to train their attorneys on how to be anti-union.” Such spending, she said, gives the impression that management has no interest in cooperating with its workers. “I will not dispute that this is not business as usual time. But this is not the time to push people out, because you have options.”

The coalition has taken inspiration from other Bargaining for the Common Good efforts, arguing that “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” As Murch said, “The center of bargaining for the common good is that the most vulnerable should be protected and the least vulnerable should bear the greatest burden. I always understood from the beginning that this was both practical and it was right.”

It is practical, because it breaks down potential resentments of the most powerful workers, and good because it is not based in pity: “Pity never helps people organize,” she said. Instead, according to Murch, tenured faculty should look at the power they have as another form of academic freedom: the freedom to be involved in struggle. Murch herself is heavily involved in the movement against state violence, documenting and studying it in the period around the Ferguson uprising, and considers that an example for other scholars.

“One of the challenges for tenured faculty is that the delayed gratification of economic security means that academics sometimes can be very cautious,” Murch continued. “The structure of the university is one in which you are rewarded often for alliances that are above you, not below you.” Through this coalition, however, tenured faculty are doing the opposite.

The situation at Rutgers, O’Connell pointed out, mirrors the situation in the country more broadly. “The messaging can be ‘we’re all in this together,’ until you slough off people as if they were disposable,” she said. The pandemic has highlighted the way society treats lower-wage workers, even as it is learning that their labor is crucial to provide some semblance of normalcy. The decision to prioritize athletics over the custodial and dining workers was a demonstration of these skewed priorities, she said:

Laying off four hundred custodial, maintenance, utility, and security people, during a time when the things that they do are irreplaceable—we can’t bring folks back during a pandemic and have the bathrooms not clean. I really don’t think that there’s a great need for a baseball coach or a softball coach at this moment, and if you’re telling me there’s more need to keep those people on, and less need for someone to come and clean bathrooms? I’m going to say you’re wrong.

Figuring out ways to organize online while still social distancing has been difficult, but the protests thus far have been carefully designed, Higer said. “I’m always thinking, you know, how can you make a visible and public protest in a time when you can’t be together? The caravan was a nice way to do that. The second one, we had a radio broadcast throughout it, and that was great, because we could talk to each other, you know, hear our voices on the radio. Innovative things that are coming out of the COVID necessity.”

While the fight remains hard, the Rutgers workers are heartened by the size and strength of their coalition. “Before this, we just were disparate, separate unions,” Higer said. “Our union has a shaky relationship sometimes with the full-time staff. But I feel like we’ve built trust between us now. [Still], it’s tenuous. We want to see that our interests are not going to be abandoned at the table.” The lecturers and the full-time faculty have a symbiotic relationship, she noted: the PTLs take on a lot of the teaching responsibilities that free tenured and tenure-track faculty to do research. But during the last contract, the PTLs felt that their interests were not included. “I feel better this time,” Higer said. “We’ll see. Trust is an interesting thing: hard to build, and easy to break.”

But even if Rutgers rejects their proposal, she said, “We come out ahead, because even interpersonally, I’ve met dozens of people at Rutgers that I never would have known before. Even organizing for a strike that doesn’t happen creates interpersonal connections with people that never would have met before, and now we know each other, and we’re starting to trust each other, and we like each other, and that’s power.”

The fight matters, Murch said, because they are fighting to protect a public institution of higher education that they do truly care about. “Rutgers is a true public institution: overwhelmingly first-generation college attendees, working class, and immigrant.” Most important to her, she said, is making sure people can keep their jobs and their health insurance, but she also sees it as a fight against austerity broadly:

What we’re facing, and have been facing for decades, is the gutting of public institutions and the utter dissolution of the redistributive state. Rutgers is giving me an opportunity to challenge this in ways I’ve never had the chance before, because of the size of the union and now this coalition that’s been built. This is a way to fight something that often feels abstract, which is this politics of corporatization, privatization, de-unionization with real people that you know and that you see in regular meetings.

What they are building at Rutgers, which is the second-largest employer in New Jersey, feels to her like “21st century industrial unionism—a model for viewing a university not as an ivory tower, but as a worksite that influences regional economies and that this can be an anchor point. I’d always thought of the university as a kind of philosophical and ideological anchor point because of its politics, but now it is becoming a physical anchor point.”

Ultimately, the coalition is holding to the oldest principle of unionism, O’Connell said: “An injury to one is an injury to all, right?”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.