03/20/2019

Rutgers faculty and grads vote to authorize strike

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Faculty and graduate employee members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have voted to authorize a strike if contract negotiations continue to flounder. If the union goes on strike, this would be the first strike of faculty and graduate workers in the 253-year history of New Jersey’s Rutgers University and the first strike of tenured faculty at a Big Ten university.

Rutgers gradsThe union has been in contract negotiations for a year, pushing for an increase in full-time faculty positions to improve faculty-to-student ratios; equitable pay for women and part-time lecturers; and raises for teaching assistants, who earn $26,000 a year and have not had a pay increase since 2013. Members are also seeking gender and race equity, including salary corrections; job security for graduate workers and nontenure-track faculty; academic freedom; affordable healthcare, including for graduate workers and part-time employees; and a freeze on tuition.

“The union wants to reach an agreement at the bargaining table,” says David Hughes, Rutgers AAUP-AFT vice-president and chair of the bargaining committee. “If this does not work, the union is prepared to go on strike.”

Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s situation underscores the fight for funding in so many states, where higher education is devalued and the academic mission pushed aside. The union wants the university to hire more full-time faculty, rather than rely so heavily on underpaid lecturers and adjuncts, and to create a path to longer-term appointments for part-timers. It is also advocating for librarians, whose positions are currently in jeopardy due to proposed budget cuts to the library system.

“In 1998, Rutgers employed 2,123 full-time tenure-track faculty to teach 35,705 undergraduate students,” says Rudy Bell, a distinguished professor of history at Rutgers. Twenty years later, he adds, Rutgers employs about the same number to teach 14,000 more students. The result is larger class sizes and nearly 3,000 part-time faculty to fill in the gap on the cheap. Among Big Ten universities, Rutgers has the highest number of underpaid part-time lecturers, and the university provides no health insurance for them.

As negotiations drag on, the union has had numerous actions, with crowds of demonstrators protesting the university’s claim that it cannot afford to pay faculty more. Union research paints a different picture: The university holds $804 million in unrestricted reserves, and it spent $99.2 million on athletics in 2016-2017. It is “No. 1 in management bloat” among Big Ten institutions, according to union fliers, with 247 administrators pulling in annual salaries exceeding $500,000.

"Our students are the top priority for us,” Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Deepa Kumar told the Daily Targum campus newspaper. “If we decide to strike, it’s because faculty and grads feel that there is a much greater harm being done to our students and our ability to continue to provide a quality education by not striking. Management's refusal to bargain over and resolve basic issues is what may force students to lose a few days of class.”

[Virginia Myers and Rutgers AAUP-AFT ]