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Rutgers community protests variety of issues at U.

Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Assistant Professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and Department of History Lilia Fernández said the Lincoln Annex School is an important institution for New Brunswick's immigrant community. – Photo by Tarana Parekh

Members of the Rutgers community, including students, faculty, staff and New Brunswick residents, held a protest on Saturday calling on the University to reverse layoffs, implement tuition reductions amid the pandemic, stop the sale of the Lincoln Annex School and do more to promote racial and climate justice at Rutgers. 

Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), said the Coalition of Rutgers Unions (CRU) originally discussed planning a protest to address the layoffs, but realized that students and community members were making important demands about a variety of issues as the semester began.

This led to a collaboration between the unions and multiple other organizations for planning the event.

“These are simple things that a progressive state University must stand for,” he said. “The students, faculty, staff and the community are aligned on it, and we are going to show (University) President (Jonathan) Holloway, we’re going to show the leadership of the University and we're going to show our brothers and sisters throughout the University and the community what we stand for, and we're going to ask them to join us.”

Wolfson said organizers had six planning meetings and other logistical meetings to prepare for the event, which required masks and social distancing. He said approximately 50 people attended the initial planning meeting and approximately 30 organizations were involved in the process. 

CRU, which consists of 19 unions representing more than 20,000 employees, brought attention to the ongoing layoffs at the University. Approximately 1,000 people were laid off since the start of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Wolfson said.

The majority of these layoffs affected workers in Dining Services, in addition to a number of part-time lecturers and workers in other sectors around the University.

Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators — American Federation of Teachers said her union lost workers in Dining Services and from the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP).

She said dining hall workers are normally viewed as essential workers and have to come in throughout various crises at the University.

“Any bad weather, they're here to keep the dining halls open to serve our students,” she said. “And at first opportunity, they were all of a sudden not that essential anymore.”

Justin O’Hea and Ryan Novosielski, co-presidents of Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) Local 5094, said the union represents a variety of groups in healthcare and other sectors of the University.

Novosielski said the majority of layoffs within their union affected Children's Mobile Response and Stabilization Services, which provides mental health services and crisis intervention for children, especially those in foster care.

Other layoffs affected the Adult Acute Partial Hospital Program, which O’Hea said helps at-risk adults in the community with serious mental health or addiction issues.

Novosielski said most people agree that mental health services are even more necessary during the pandemic, yet funding for these services within the University and at the state level is being cut.

“When the caseloads go up, the ability for people to keep track of every person as well and know what's going on with cases has decreased,” he said.

To prevent layoffs in all sectors, Wolfson said the CRU created a work-sharing proposal in May, which would have saved the University approximately $100 million while allowing all workers to remain employed, according to the AAUP-AFT’s website. He said this proposal was denied.

Novosielski said the University eventually created a furlough program for non-union employees because they did not have to negotiate.

“To be frank, they took the idea that the (CRU) thought up about the work share or furlough program, applied it to everybody else (and) left us kind of hanging in the wind,” O’Hea said.

University spokesperson Dory Devlin said approximately 6,400 workers have entered or will enter shared-work programs that include furloughs. She did not say why officials rejected the unions’ initial proposal.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to reach shared-work arrangements with other unions as we look to control costs and preserve jobs,” Devlin said. 

O’Connell said there have been reports that some managers have told workers that their jobs are at risk because the unions refused a furlough deal, which she said is untrue.

To help address the University’s financial situation, union members recently petitioned state lawmakers to restore the University’s appropriations, which Wolfson said was ultimately successful.

He said this restored funding combined with funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the sale of the saliva-based COVID-19 test for $44.4 million and other recent property sales should be enough to offset most of the other economic challenges.

“Yes, we're living in the middle of a pandemic and that pandemic has economic effects, there's no doubt about it. But Rutgers is not getting hit with the full brunt of those economic effects, and yet, is still riding it out by firing low wage workers and taking away their health care in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “To me, it's morally reprehensible.”

Devlin said the restored appropriations only addresses a small portion of the University’s budgetary shortfalls for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Devlin also said the University is not considering lowering tuition beyond the lowered campus fee. The Daily Targum previously reported Holloway said tuition money helps the University maintain its usual operations.

The layoffs have also brought attention to racial justice at Rutgers. O’Connell said EFNEP is a program that helps families with limited resources learn to buy nutritional meals on a tight budget.

She said this program is federally funded through a grant which was not impacted by COVID-19, yet paraprofessional employees in the program, many of whom are people of color, were laid off.

The layoffs within HPAE were announced in July after Holloway entered office. Novosielski and O’Hea said the effects of these layoffs contradict with Holloway’s statements about protecting workers at all levels within the University and committing to racial justice.

“He did that kind of entrance video, where he was talking about this as we're at a time of racial reckoning, which is true, there's no doubt,” O’Hea said. “But the great majority of people who got laid off were people of color and low wage people of color in precarious circumstances.”

In addition to protections for employees, protesters also called for protections for the Lincoln Annex School, which is being sold to build the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, the Targum reported.

Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Associate Professor in the Department of Latino and Caribbean Studies and Department of History Lilia Fernández said the school serves approximately 94 percent Latinx students and approximately 86 percent economically disadvantaged students. 

“I would hope that the Rutgers administration would own up to the role that it's playing in this process. To live its values and its commitment to local communities, to racial justice ... and that it would want to do what's best for a marginalized and low-income immigrant community right here on our back steps,” she said.

Fernández said COVID-19 made it difficult for advocates to continue raising awareness about the school and said she felt local officials have taken advantage of the fact that all meetings must be conducted virtually.

Since commentary can only be conducted by phone, she said it was harder for the community to engage in meaningful conversations about the school.

The Lincoln Annex School is important to the community because it is the only school in the neighborhood, Fernández said. The Targum reported the temporary replacement school is a renovated warehouse outside of their neighborhood.

"It is a vital resource for the immigrant community that lives in this section of New Brunswick,” she said. “Tearing it down and closing it is simply going to advance the gentrification plans of city leaders and developers, and is going to really leave the community bereft of an important educational institution and make things much more difficult for them.”

Wolfson said he wants this protest to send a message to University officials about what kind of example the Rutgers community hopes the institution will set.

In order to set this positive example, Wolfson said the University must stop the closure of a well-performing school in a minority community, along with committing to job preservation, respecting students facing financial hardship amid the pandemic by lowering tuition, strengthening initiatives to promote racial justice and addressing climate change.

“We think a public university needs to shine a light. It needs to be the beacon on the hill, telling us about the society that we should and could have,” Wolfson said. “That's the role and the Rutgers we want and we deserve.”

He said he believes Holloway is more receptive to collaborating with unions than past administrations based on their conversations but said changes still need to be made. Devlin did not say whether administrators were planning to meet with protest organizers. 

Wolfson also said he hopes the protest will inspire students, faculty, staff and community members to continue collaborating.

“For the longest time, we haven't talked together, we haven't worked together, we haven't built together at the kind of scale that we need to,” he said. “But if we do work together, if we do act together, we are the ones that can determine what the future Rutgers is.”

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