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Rutgers on Strike: Meet One of Thousands of Profs & Grad Workers Demanding Better Pay, Job Security

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Image Credit: Twitter: @_ericblanc

Faculty at the state-run Rutgers University in New Jersey have entered their fifth day of a historic strike — the first faculty strike in the school’s 257-year history. Organizers of three unions, representing more than 9,000 professors, lecturers and graduate assistants, are demanding increased pay and better job security, especially for poorly paid graduate workers and adjunct faculty. We get an update from Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and New Brunswick chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, one of the academic workers’ unions on strike.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Rutgers strikers singing to the tune of “Hey! Baby!” by Bruce Channel. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We go now to New Jersey, where faculty at the state-run Rutgers University have entered their fifth day of a strike. This is the first faculty strike in Rutgers’ 257-year history. It’s being organized by three unions that represent more than 9,000 professors, lecturers, graduate assistants and researchers at Rutgers’ three campuses, in New Brunswick, Newark and Camden. They’re demanding increased pay and better job security, especially for poorly paid graduate workers and adjunct faculty.

We’re joined now by Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and New Brunswick chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, one of the academic workers’ unions on strike.

Professor Murch, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you lay out what exactly is at issue here? And also, when you go to the Rutgers website, it says it’s business as usual; people should go to class. Yet this is the first strike in 257 years, involving — and it involves thousands and thousands of workers there.

DONNA MURCH: Thank you so much, Amy. It’s a pleasure to be here and to talk about what’s going on at Rutgers, which is very exciting.

So, I would say the core issues that brought the union coalition together, they are very connected to what happened to the university during the pandemic. So, Rutgers’ response to the pandemic was to lay off 5% of its workforce. And when it laid them off, they lost their health insurance and their tuition benefits, at a time when COVID was hitting New Jersey and New York like a storm. That necessitated that the unions come together and begin to bargain and to think of themselves as really a wall-to-wall coalition. So, that history is very important, and it’s brought us to this point in which three unions have gone on strike.

And the core issues are, number one, the way in which upward — the central administration, upper, upper management, has been growing and growing and really siphoning money off of the core needs of the university. So, what we are calling for, in this moment of runaway inflation, is for the Rutgers management to come to the table and really think about what the university is for — teaching, research and service to our communities.

So, the core demands are, one, a living wage, equal pay for equal work for adjunct workers. So, you have adjuncts who are being paid starvation wages, many of whom are on Medicaid, who can’t afford rent and food and all the essentials of life. And this — at the heart of this strike is really trying to change a university which is dependent on sweated, informal labor, where they have to apply for their contracts every six months and have to teach at multiple institutions just to cobble together the bare minimum — so, a fight to think about adjuncts, postdocs, graduate workers, EOF counselors, contingent, nontenure-track full-time faculty, as well as tenure stream. And I mention all those job categories because this industrial vision is about holding up the different job categories, figuring out how they come together, and they work in solidarity.

In terms of Rutgers saying on its website business as usual, well, that is not true. Our estimates are that 70% of the classes are shut down. And because of the broad, wall-to-wall nature of this strike, even construction workers on campus have walked off the job, so as not to violate the picket lines. So, I think one of the things that has been also really profound is the outpouring of support and participation by the undergraduates. There have been thousands and thousands of people out in the street, and significant numbers are undergraduates, graduate workers, as well as other people from the three unions. So, I’ve taught at Rutgers for 20 years, and this is the biggest popular gathering that I’ve seen. And there were so many people on Monday after we had a rally. It was on Tuesday that they led a march that shut down George Street, which is the main drag in New Brunswick.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Donna, I wanted to ask you — this has become almost the spring of academic revolts around the country. We’ve seen strikes at University of California. We’ve seen University of Illinois at Chicago. And right now there are three other universities in the Chicago area that are on strike — Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois and Governor State University — and with thousands of faculty there. And yet many of these universities, like Rutgers, are experiencing record — they don’t call it profits, they call it surpluses or reserves, over the past few years. How do you explain this, the universities being flush with cash yet telling their faculty and their employees that there’s not enough money to give them adequate raises?

DONNA MURCH: Yeah, thank you so much for that, Juan. We miss you at Rutgers. It’s good to be here with you.

That is extremely important. And I can talk about, through the lens of Rutgers, how this links to this national movement. So, the Rutgers administration has been crying broke, and their justification for not responding to demands is that they simply don’t have the money. And our union hired a forensic accountant to go through all of the public records. Because Rutgers is a public university, it is subject to transparency requirements. And Howard Bunsis, his research demonstrates very clearly that the university has the largest unrestricted reserves in its history. It’s up to $886 million. And these are the rainy day funds that are being used — that are normally used in times of, you know, downturn or to meet the essential needs of its workers.

The way I explain this is that — it’s where I started. The neoliberal university, which has been — literally, the upper-level administration is metastasizing. They’ve doubled in size over the past 10 years. And they’re constantly hiring different vice presidents of this, vice presidents of that, largely accountants and MBAs who have no experience in higher education. And I really think it is a question of distribution. It is true that in the last 30 years there has been a defunding of higher education from the federal government and from state government. But at Rutgers, we’ve been able to win really important concessions, including our lobbying, the lobbying of the union, which won back a significant portion of Rutgers’ funding in 2020. But there’s really no correspondence, that I can see, between them having large unrestricted reserves and their labor policies. I think that it grows out of an idea that they want labor to be as cheap as possible, and that it’s really the people at the very top who benefit from the university.

So I think that, at its core, this is a political and an economic struggle, to say tuition — the students are largely funding the university — their needs matter; that the faculty, the graduate students, the graduate workers, the many different categories of workers that come together to make the university possible, they matter. We make Rutgers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also, the current president of Rutgers, Jonathan Holloway, was a respected scholar in history, in African American studies. He always talks about having a beloved community. But he’s been threatening to go to court to get an — to seek an injunction against the strike?

DONNA MURCH: Yeah, thank you. This is such an important piece. And I’ll just say we’re going through incredibly intense negotiations right now. A lot of us have been up all night working on this, figuring out what to do. And we are under injunction threat. And I’ll talk a little bit more later about what’s going on in Trenton today and how you can help.

But we started bargaining — our contract was up at the end of June 2022. And we had started bargaining in May. Many times, the university did not come to the table at all. They did not bargain in earnest. They refused to respond to our counterproposals. I think the most shocking one of those is that the grads submitted their proposal for a living wage, and they failed to respond to that for seven, eight months. We’re only now beginning to have even a substantive discussion about moving grads to livable wages. So, these resistance tactics have been going on all along.

When it became clear that bargaining was not going well and was breaking down and that the union was mobilizing, Jonathan Holloway sent a letter to all of the different parts of our bargaining unit, through Rutgers email, and all of the undergraduates, saying that public sector strikes in New Jersey are illegal, and that those that participate in them are subject to fines, not only of the individual union but individual fines, and facing threat of arrest. And there was another email sent several weeks later doubling down on this. And he was sending a clear message that “We will go to the courts to criminalize the strike.”

I want to say something about the technicalities of this, because it’s extremely important. Public sector strikes are not illegal in New Jersey. If you go on strike, the police do not arrest you. The only way criminalization happens is that the employer goes to a court, they have one hearing, they ask for an injunction, usually entails a cease-and-desist order, and then they go back to the workers and see if they’re willing to cease and desist, and if not, then they go back. So, Jonathan Holloway will go back to the courts to seek penalties, and he will ask for specific penalties, and there will be a hearing. These have been granted, but they have not been granted in all cases. So, that’s very important, the mechanisms of the injunction, that it has to be sought by the employer, which is a clear sign that Jonathan Holloway, you know, at a time where we’ve seen the largest protest in American history around issues of criminalization, is willing to criminalize a strike in a deep blue state like New Jersey.

So this has enormous consequences for labor. And that helps to explain the incredible coalition that’s come together. There are thousands of people there, all the people that I talked about, the undergraduates, but also people coming from labor unions all over the country, the New Jersey AFL-CIO, central labor councils from all over New Jersey, because everyone is recognizing that we have a Democratic governor, and Rutgers is one of the largest employers, and the threat to break the strike is really a threat not only to all of us at Rutgers, but to New Jersey and the rest of the country, at this moment when we’re seeing this incredible surge in higher educational organizing.

And I have to give a shoutout to grad organizing all over the country. I, too, was a UC grad in the 1990s, when we organized the union. And I think the graduate students have shown us what’s possible. I’ll stop there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Donna Murch, we want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of history at Rutgers University and New Brunswick chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, one of the academic workers’ unions now on strike. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, who’s taught at Rutgers for the past seven years.

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