Rutgers forces 9,000 faculty, medical staffers to strike
Rutgers workers, forced to strike, gather on campus tp picket. | Rutgers AFT-AAUP, via Twitter

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.—After a year of management intransigence in bargaining, and despite mediation efforts by pro-worker Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, some 9,000 full-time and part-time faculty, including medical staffers, at Rutgers University were forced to strike, starting on the morning of April 10. The strike shut down all three campuses, in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden.

In an open letter to students, faculty, staff, and the communities, the three unions representing the workers emphasized they demand better pay and working conditions not just for themselves, but for Rutgers’s 67,000 students, too.

That includes a rent freeze on campus housing, for example.

“What we want is improvement for our most vulnerable members of our bargaining unit: The part-time adjuncts, the graduate student workers and the graduate student teachers who do one-third of the teaching” at Rutgers, veteran history professor Norman Markowitz said in a phone interview.

That’s not what they’re getting from Rutgers administration, even if it is, ironically, headed by labor historian Jonathan Holloway, whose public reputation is pro-civil rights. Holloway says he offers a 12% raise over two years to the full-time grad student workers. His offer to others is fuzzy.

The grad student workers make just over $30,000 a year, Markowitz counters, and Holloway is offering them a $3,000 raise. Holloway’s also threatening to seek a court order to force everyone back to work. The strike was approved by a 94%-6% margin. The faculty authorized strikes before, Markowitz said, but never actually were forced to walk, until now.

Meanwhile, Rutgers pays its varsity football coach $4 million a year, the highest figure for a public employee in the state, even as the overmatched football team consistently finishes near the bottom of the now-misnamed Big Ten. University administrators are well-paid too, he adds.

The three unions cover the 9,000 full-time and part-time faculty at Rutgers’ three campuses, including 1,400 full-timers at the medical school in New Brunswick. They’re jousting with the bosses over two new contracts to replace those that expired June 31.

The unions first asked for $49,000 in yearly pay, slightly above federal figures for a living wage for a family of three in New Jersey, but have since come down.

Key issues for the two unions for the full-timers include, but are not limited to, five years of guaranteed stipends for the medical school workers and the full-time grad student workers, child care subsidies, and more paths to tenure for themselves and librarians.

Key issues for the adjuncts include longer advance notice of contract decisions—renewals or turndowns–longer contracts, and health care for adjuncts whose course load is at least 50% of a full-timer’s load.

As for housing, Rutgers “froze the dollars they get,” said Markowitz, referring to the grad student workers and teachers, “but not their rents.” Thus, the demand for the rent freeze.

Markowitz and the unions say the workers have faced a year of stonewalling, and a continuing Holloway threat to go to court for an injunction to stop the strike. The president claims New Jersey public worker law, which bars strikes, covers Rutgers. He’s reinforced that by hiring David Cohen, a former top aide to anti-union ex-Gov. Chris Christie (R), as chief bargainer.

The unions respond there is no specific strike ban for educational institution workers in New Jersey law.

“There were high hopes for him [Holloway]” when he took the university presidency several years ago, says Markowitz. “He talked about ‘a beloved community,’ but he’s kept in place right-wing elements in labor negotiations.

“As a result, there’s been enormous alienation…It’s like a company town here,” adds the professor, whose history courses delve into imperialism, capitalism, and other exploitation of workers.

Rutgers “has engaged in the kind of strategy” against unions pioneered by Ronald Reagan long before he entered politics, Markowitz explains. In 1981—a decade after Markowitz joined the Rutgers faculty—Reagan, then U.S. president, broke the Air Traffic Controllers, giving a green light to the corporate class to confront and smash unions and workers.

A disappointed Rutgers AAUP-AFT President Rebecca Givan told Politico earlier this year that Holloway’s background should have produced “a win-win negotiation and an opportunity for a collaborative approach. But instead, it’s the Christie approach, which is to try to squash the unions.”

“After sitting at the bargaining table for 10 months trying to win what we believe to be fair and reasonable things, like fair pay, job security, and access to affordable health care, and getting virtually nowhere on these core demands, we had no choice but to vote to strike,” part-time lecturer Amy Higer, president of the Adjunct Faculty Union, said in a statement as the forced strike began.

The alienation Holloway produced on the campus has become a positive on the picket line, with massive student and community support, Markowitz says. New Jersey political and labor leaders have shown up to walk and talk with the workers, news reports say. “Community activist groups,” especially in New Brunswick, joined the picketers, too.

“They know the union has been fighting for a rent freeze, and against gentrification” in that city, he explains. The union also opposed a development project which wound up wrecking a high school mostly attended by students of color. The high school came down, but a replacement’s being built.

In a separate manuscript, Markowitz cited another reason: “Many voices among student activists especially laid the blame for the crisis the university faces on the capitalist system itself, which feeds on inequality and insecurity in basic human needs.”

We hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, please support great working-class and pro-people journalism by donating to People’s World.

We are not neutral. Our mission is to be a voice for truth, democracy, the environment, and socialism. We believe in people before profits. So, we take sides. Yours!

We are part of the pro-democracy media contesting the vast right-wing media propaganda ecosystem brainwashing tens of millions and putting democracy at risk.

Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader supported. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all.

But we need your help. It takes money—a lot of it—to produce and cover unique stories you see in our pages. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.