Striking Rutgers history professor: The administration thinks academic workers don’t matter

Rutgers University campuses went on strike on Monday, April 10, 2023, after its faculty and staff unions finally got fed up with working without a contract—a position we’ve been in since June 30, 2022. I have taught at Rutgers since 1971, and we were among the first universities in the country with a unionized faculty and staff. We’ve had strike votes before, but this is our first time to actually have to carry through with a strike, the first time we’ve had to withhold our labor.

I have walked many picket lines and listened to speeches at strike rallies, but the solidarity speeches on the first day of our strike were among the most inspiring I have ever heard. They came from faculty and staff members, graduate and especially undergraduate students, and community activists. They called for a “living wage” for part-time lecturers and graduate student teachers, who currently earn about 60% of what New Jersey considers a living wage. And they called for a rent freeze on university housing and on rents in New Brunswick, where gentrification continues to drive low-income people out of their homes.

And 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. As a historian, I thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous 1937 speech calling for policies to aid the “third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed” as speakers announced that one-third of graduate students face a growing housing/rent crisis. “Food insecurity” is a general university problem, and many students don’t have time to do their reading and other work because they are working 40-hour weeks to pay their tuition and room and board.

Meanwhile, the administration congratulates itself for its proclamations on behalf of “diversity and inclusion” while it, following the model of large corporations, raises the salaries and benefits of its upper managers and lays off workers to reduce labor costs. Perhaps this quote from the great Negro Leagues pitcher Sachel Paige sums up the Rutgers administration’s attitude toward faculty, staff, students, and the community: “It’s a question of mind over matter: We don’t mind, and you don’t matter.”

Why we’re on strike

Our union negotiators began to put forward our demands a year ago, but we got no response. And that pattern continued after the contract ran out more than nine months ago. After 94% of our members voted to authorize our leadership to go on strike if there was no settlement, the administration finally met with us. The chart below lists our demands and their responses.

After Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who has taken pro-labor stances, called our negotiators and the administration to Trenton in an attempt to jumpstart negotiations, the administration did make an offer on faculty salaries—an offer that was well below our demands. It’s an offer that would actually represent a pay cut when one factors in inflation. For graduate student workers, the university has offered nothing.

Murphy convinced Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway not to seek an injunction in the hope of accelerating negotiations. Holloway’s response, in his letter to faculty, staff, students, and community, Tuesday was to state that he may pursue an injunction if the strike continues and to contend falsely that the university continues to engage in business as usual as if the strike is having little effect (which would lead one to conclude logically that the university has no reason to seek an injunction).

The strike has the support of the local and state AFL-CIO, whose leaders joined us on the picket lines on Monday. We have the support of our state and national teachers’ union leaders who spoke at our Monday really, as did our local New Brunswick congressperson, Frank Pallone.  And we have gotten support from scholars and teachers across the country, especially historians (President Holloway is a historian). Our leadership answered his renewed threat to seek an injunction with this message:

“As an open letter signed by more than 1,300 leading scholars and academic workers across the country points out just how disappointing such threats are from a labor and civil rights historian. Rather than threatening us, we urge President Holloway to demand movement from his negotiators, who have repeatedly said no to our core proposals.

“Sadly, just when Governor Murphy had called on our unions and the Rutgers administration to come to Trenton to negotiate, President Holloway has again resorted to union-busting tactics and threats. We are in Trenton today and are bargaining in good faith there, as we have for nearly a year—with the hope that Governor Murphy will influence the Holloway administration to finally take bargaining seriously.”

ALSO READ: Rutgers forces 9,000 faculty, medical staffers to strike

As an update, the third day of the strike saw greater numbers joining the picket line and Governor Murphy saying publicly that New Jersey was a pro-union state. We believe that there has been progress on economic issues but not yet on non-economic issues.

On the picket line, around the country, and throughout history

Strikes among graduate student workers in the University of California system and at Temple University in Philadelphia have been fought and won in recent months. Fordham University professors threatened a strike in January, and that threat resulted in a settlement. University of Illinois (Chicago Campus) went on strike for a week before a contract was negotiated.

Right now, Rutgers is the major strike in the country—a strike with broad faculty, staff, student, and community support after a pandemic that for Rutgers and other universities resembled what the Great Depression was for workers in the 1930s.

A victory at Rutgers, we hope, may be like the 1937 UAW victory in the Flint General Motors Strike—a victory that will help transform the system of public higher education in the U.S., a system plagued by rising tuition and room and board costs for students, fewer full-time professors teaching courses, and deteriorating classroom, library, laboratory, and housing facilities.

Holloway, whose work as a historian has been progressive, began his administration with a call to create “a beloved community.” Since he has done little to change the policies of previous administrations who acted as if they were managers of private corporations accountable to no one—not even their investors—that phrase now creates cynicism among most Rutgers faculty and students.

What the coalition of Rutgers unions, students, and community groups are fighting for is a human and democratic community that will enrich New Brunswick and New Jersey and be enriched by and serve the city and the state. The unity, militancy, and optimism that the strike has so far shown make it a real possibility.

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Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.