Solidarity wins at Rutgers

Faculty and graduate employees at Rutgers University have won a strong contract, reports Sherry Wolf, the lead organizer for the AAUP-AFT at the school.

Rutgers professors rally for a fair contract (Rutgers AAUP-AFT)Rutgers professors rally for a fair contract (Rutgers AAUP-AFT)

SOME 4,700 full-time faculty and graduate employees at Rutgers University overcame an intransigent management to win a tentative contract agreement that includes dramatic wage increases for those at the lowest ranks and a substantial modification of management's coveted "subject to" clause used to freeze wages in 2010.

"Membership activism provided the leverage our negotiating team needed to successfully revise management's 'subject to' clause in order to guarantee our raises cannot be frozen at whim. While we were not able to achieve all of our goals, on balance we think this is a good contract," wrote Professor Lisa Klein, president of the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professionals-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT).

Highlights of the agreement include a 43 percent increase in minimum wages for non-tenure track faculty, from $39,058 to $56,169 on July 1, 2017 and rising minimums for tenure-track assistant professors, from $44,839 to $61,786. All told, 60 percent of the faculty will receive increases greater than the 8.25 percent average over the life of the 46-month contract (backdated to September 2014).

Health care rates are capped, and graduate student employees who currently earn one of the highest incomes in the country for teaching and graduate assistants will get a Professional Development Fund starting at $525,000, and going up to $825,000 by 2018.

In the face of an administration with a "Let them eat cake" approach toward their 20,000 unionized workers at the State University of New Jersey, faculty mobilized for a contract campaign with staff union allies. Together, they formed a Reclaim Rutgers coalition that launched on May Day 2014.

While faculty have made gains, so far, management has refused to extend the same protections and proposals to other staff unions. A solidarity campaign with staff is escalating, with the AAUP-AFT Executive Council issuing a statement calling on management "to extend to our staff colleagues the exact same language in the 'subject to' clause and on health care that our union has procured," and "fair wages, raises, and job security terms." The statement concludes: "Rutgers works because we all do."

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MEMBERSHIP INVOLVEMENT was key to forcing management's hand at Rutgers. A grassroots, rank-and-file approach to organizing faculty in the contract campaign involved office visits, home calling and department resolutions, plus polls and petitions to educate members on the issues and get them talking among themselves.

A series of collective actions with staff union allies and student activists in the Reclaim Rutgers coalition culminated in a 1,200-worker, all-campus lunchtime walkout in October 2014. Noisy and creative protests outside faculty contract bargaining sessions gave confidence to members and put management's bargaining team on notice that faculty were angry and willing to act. Fall pickets of 40 people chanting for "fair contracts" grew in February to 100 faculty, students and staff chanting, "Strike!" while occupying the main administration building during bargaining.

The memory of a university-wide salary freeze in 2010--despite management bloat and a spending spree on athletics--stoked anger among many Rutgers' employees. The union exposed Rutgers' healthy cash flow and profits in an "Open the Books" event presented by the AAUP's Howard Bunsis in Spring 2014. Bunsis provided the financial facts: Rutgers not only had a $200 million profit after it froze salaries, but an additional $600 million in unrestricted funds (now up to $700 million).

Meanwhile, the 79 top administrators, each making more than $275,000 a year, preside over an increasingly corporatized and privatized institution. As the unions put it: "Rutgers doesn't have a budget crisis, it has a distribution crisis."

A Reclaim Rutgers media strategy raised the campaign's profile. It included op-eds and local TV news appearances by members; a video with prominent football player alums; online ads; and a solidarity statement signed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, another Rutgers alum, and local politicians--all punctuated by an skywritten message for "fair contracts" over a Big Ten game.

Rutgers' entry into the Big Ten, trumpeted as a boon to all, has come at a tremendous cost to the school's academic mission--44 percent of subsidies to athletics are drawn directly from academic funds and student fees. Cuts in staff and libraries, slashed course offerings--especially in some humanities--as well as growing contingency rates among faculty necessitated a more organized and combative approach than in past years.

But management indifference to faculty, staff and student governance has been confronted by unity among the unions representing most Rutgers employees and student activists, especially members of United Students Against Sweatshops and Students for Shared Governance. This solidarity will be necessary to win fair contracts for staff and push back against other management schemes in conflict with educational and labor needs.

In addition to the ongoing campaign for staff unions, nearly 2,000 part-time lecturers and post-docs in the AAUP-AFT now begin bargaining for their own contracts that expire in June 2015. The gains made in the full-timers' agreement, including the start of a department rep union structure, will be crucial for taking the next steps to Reclaim Rutgers.