“This Agreement Protects Jobs”: Four Unions at Rutgers University Reach Historic Deal to End Layoffs

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After a year of layoffs, cuts and austerity, the faculty and staff of four unions at Rutgers University have voted in support of an unusual and pioneering agreement to protect jobs and guarantee raises after the school declared a fiscal emergency as a result of the pandemic. A key part of the deal is an agreement by the professors to do “work share” and take a slight cut in hours for a few months in order to save the jobs of other lower-paid workers. “The historic nature of this agreement is that it encompasses all four unions,” says Christine O’Connell, president of the union representing Rutgers administrators. “This agreement protects jobs.” We also speak with Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers Union of graduate workers, faculty and postdocs, who says the unions’ core demand was stopping further layoffs. “That core demand was met, and there’s no layoffs through the calendar year and into next year.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report and The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

After a year of layoffs, cuts and austerity, the faculty and staff of four unions at Rutgers University — where our co-host Juan González is a professor of journalism and media studies — have voted in support of an unusual, pioneering agreement to protect jobs and guarantee raises, after the school declared fiscal emergency as a result of the pandemic. A key part of the deal is an agreement by the professors to do “work share” and take a slight cut in hours for a few months in order to save the jobs of other lower-paid workers.

This is journalist and Rutgers University professor Naomi Klein, speaking ahead of the vote at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Coalition of Rutgers Unions last week.

NAOMI KLEIN: This tentative agreement is the product of a year-long fight for a people-centered alternative in the pandemic crisis. When management turned to layoffs and austerity last spring, the 19 unions of the Coalition of Rutgers Unions came together to develop an alternative approach that saves jobs, protects the vulnerable and centers the university’s core mission of teaching, research and service.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as of last night, all four unions at Rutgers have now ratified the memorandum of agreement with the university by overwhelming rates, and it will be implemented affecting 10,000 workers across the university.

For more, we’re joined by two people who spearheaded the agreement: Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers faculty, grad workers and postdoc union, and Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-American Federation of Teachers, which represents 2,700 administrative staff at the university.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Todd Wolfson, let’s begin with you. Talk about what exactly was agreed to and the historic nature of this agreement.

TODD WOLFSON: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

So, what was agreed to was — our core demand was no layoffs of staff and stopping the layoffs that had begun. And so, that core demand was met, and there’s no layoffs through the end of the calendar year into next year. We also called on a fair and just reappointment process. About 20 to 25% of our adjunct faculty were laid off in the midst of this crisis, and we want them back to pre-pandemic numbers. And we have a process that will get them back to those numbers. We also made a demand that our doctoral students, who do much of the teaching and much of the critical research of the university — that our doctoral students, who are facing invisible layoffs, are given a one-year extension, funded. Now, we didn’t get that for all of our doctoral students, but the ones who are coming off funding will get that extension if their work has been impacted by the pandemic. And then we also won our raises back.

And in exchange for those things, we have agreed to a work share program. And the work share program is — it doesn’t mean we’re sharing work among workers, but rather that the federal and state government and the employer, Rutgers, share the cost of employees. So it takes some of the burden of the cost of employees off of Rutgers, and it’s part of the American Relief — the American Recovery Act. And some of that cost is then shared with the federal and state government, so that Rutgers sees some savings. So, we’re, in effect, furloughed at either 10 or 20% of our time through the end of June.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Todd, I wanted to ask you about the — when the university first voided all the contracts unilaterally by declaring a fiscal emergency in the midst of the pandemic, could you talk about the union’s effort to try to get the university to be more transparent about what the actual dollar figures were on the fiscal emergency that they were claiming?

TODD WOLFSON: Yeah. I mean —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The union had to go to court, didn’t it?

TODD WOLFSON: The union had to go to court on multiple occasions, but, in particular, what you’re referring to is we were trying to get information about a massive growth in the athletic subsidy in the university, a jump in numbers of $100 million over one fiscal year. And so, we were calling on them to give us the information. They stonewalled us, and so we took them to court. We won in court and got the majority of that information.

And I want to — I mean, the context here is that Rutgers is spending, you know, over the course of 10 years, $200 million to $300 million on their athletics program in subsidies to that athletics program, which is about the amount of — or probably more than what they’re facing in terms of economic problems due to the pandemic. And yet, in response to the pandemic, they’ve laid off a thousand workers, stolen raises, etc. And so, we wanted real transparency about that. So, that was a consistent battle to force Rutgers to be clear and transparent about where the money is coming from and where it’s going.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to what degree, Todd, do you think the new leadership at the university — Jonathan Holloway, the first African American president in Rutgers history, came in in the middle of this pandemic, on July 1. Did he have any kind of major impact on the ability of the union to reach a settlement?

TODD WOLFSON: We hope so. It’s not entirely clear, but we’re cautiously optimistic about President Holloway’s role in this. So, there has been a pivot under the new administration. We have been calling on what we call a people-centered alternative to the pandemic for a year now. And Jonathan Holloway came into office about nine months ago, so in the midst of this fight. The past president, Robert Barchi, ignored our calls. We said that we would furlough and work share in order to stop layoffs. We offered them $100 million in savings to stop layoffs across the university. And they still did those layoffs and ignored us. It’s taken us another nine months, under President Holloway, to get to this point, but we have gotten here. So, I mean, we could talk more about what actually — why this is so important, but we think that President Holloway has played an important role.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Christine O’Connell into the conversation, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-American Federation of Teachers. Your union voted last night. Explain exactly what you voted for. And also, can you talk about what happens with the staff, like the cleaning crews, the janitors? How have the support staff been impacted by this agreement?

CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: Thank you, Amy and Juan, for having me. Good morning.

The historic nature of this agreement is that it encompasses all four unions — right? — and impacts all of us differently, but jointly. I represent maintenance staff, in addition to administrative staff in every academic department. We’ve seen layoffs in academic departments. We’ve seen layoffs in libraries during the pandemic and at the largest research university in New Jersey.

And our maintenance staff, we’ve been advocating for health and safety protocols, transparency, and providing PPE and securing definitive protocols that they should follow, as well, to protect themselves, as well as protect others on campus.

So, this agreement protects jobs, right? We are using this as leverage, hopefully, to protect folks from losing their income, their health benefits and, for many in the staff unions, tuition remission for their dependent children, because that is a vital benefit for those who don’t earn a lot of money.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Christine, the ability of the four unions to negotiate together, how unusual is that? And how much of an impact did that have on the administration, that the various unions, even though they had different income levels and different types of jobs, managed to stay together at the bargaining table?

CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: I think that “solidarity” is a word that is used frequently, but we showed what it actually means in practice. Having multiple unions advocate for each other and understand each other’s needs is key. And management, I think, has a much better understanding that in order for Rutgers to work, Rutgers’ workers work. And I think that has been made clear.

And I do give credit to Jonathan Holloway, because he referenced the “beloved community.” We are the beloved community, all of us — staff, faculty, students. In every aspect of this university, we make up that beloved community.

AMY GOODMAN: And before we go, I wanted to ask either of you, Todd, Christine, even Juan, a Rutgers professor, about this latest news. Rutgers was the first of five U.S. colleges and universities that has announced plans to require students be fully vaccinated before they can come back to campus in the fall, with limited exceptions for underlying medical conditions and religious beliefs. How will this be enforced? And what are the thoughts of teachers and other staff on this?

TODD WOLFSON: I can jump in and then let Christine and Juan jump in. I mean, for us, we want — we think it’s great that the students are going to be vaccinated. We also think the workers should be vaccinated. The university did not reach out to us to talk about this. We think it’s important that — I certainly think that all my members should be vaccinated. We want a safe campus. We all want a safe campus.

Now, how they’re going to mandate this and how it’s going to work, honestly, there isn’t enough transparency between us and the university, so it’s hard to know. But from our vantage, faculty certainly skew older, and so we want a safe place, if we’re going to be in the classroom, for our teachers. And so, not only should the students be vaccinated, but we want our faculty to be vaccinated, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank —

CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: And —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Go ahead, Christine. We have a few seconds.

CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: Just to jump in, we also — we strongly encourage our members to be vaccinated. We are not in support of a mandate for faculty and staff, but we are strongly in support of — we all want a health and safety — a healthy and safe campus to return to, especially as we try to return to post-pandemic life.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-American Federation of Teachers, and Todd Wolfson, Rutgers union of grad workers, faculty and postdocs, thanks so much for being with us.

A Happy Birthday to Matt Ealy!

Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a senior news producer to join our team here in New York City. Check it out at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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