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Rutgers union members, students discuss ongoing issues with U. at virtual press conference

Several union members and students expressed their frustration with the layoffs of part-time lecturers and other workers throughout the pandemic and called for the University to create a more "people-centered" response overall.  – Photo by Rutgersaaup.org

The Coalition of Rutgers Unions held a press conference yesterday where members of the Rutgers community spoke out against layoffs and funding cuts that have occurred throughout the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as called for the University to take a more “people-centered” approach to these issues.

Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators — American Federation of Teachers (URA–AFT), was the first speaker of the meeting and discussed how Rutgers has continued to progress through the pandemic without taking significant losses, while hundreds of faculty and staff have been laid off.

“The Coalition of Rutgers Unions offered a practical solution which would have benefited everyone — management and worker — while helping the most and doing the least harm,” she said. “We offered to help save them (more than) $100 million and continue to make that offer while they continue to delay.”

This proposition, described as a “workshare program,” would essentially operate through federal government funding to reimburse workers through the form of state unemployment or insurance, where workers would, in turn, agree to stage furloughs, said Donna Murch, executive council member of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP–AFT) and an associate professor in the Department of History.

“We also were willing to take a collective sacrifice so that none of us would lose our jobs,” she said. “But the (former University President Robert L. Barchi) Administration rejected this and instead chose this path of mass layoffs, and it recouped a pittance of what it would have from workshare.”

Murch said that the University has laid off approximately 5 percent of its workforce, or approximately 1,500 people, throughout the pandemic.

One speaker, Joshua Fesi, a member of the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter of the AAUP-AFT, was laid off after 10 semesters of teaching as a part-time lecturer (PTL) at Rutgers.

Fesi said that while they loved teaching and being a community member at Rutgers, the University has continued to undervalue educators by replacing permanent teaching positions with more and more PTL positions, which they said are often underpaid and less secure.

“Last semester, after supporting students throughout the spring and fall semesters of the pandemic, we learned from an unceremonious email that PTLs would be laid off,” they said. “I am now unemployed, navigating the seemingly endless red tape of New Jersey unemployment and unsure how to move forward.”

Another speaker, Charles Dismukes, a distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and a member of the AAUP-AFT, said he filed a petition on behalf of 23 faculty members and students due to an incident where a worker was fired with no justification despite serious backlogs in work.

He said that, as of Wednesday, the petition, which consisted of considerations calling for the hiring or rehiring of new workers, changing how these decisions are made and hearing voices from other departments, was rejected by the University.

Other speakers included student representatives Sarah DeGiorgis, a graduate student in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers—Camden and a member of the graduate steering committee of Rutgers AAUP–AFT, who discussed her concerns regarding the funding of graduate students during the pandemic, and Amna Ahmed, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, who stood in solidarity with faculty members and students.

“If the administration gives us inadequate funding, or kicks us off our health insurance, it will be impossible for me to finish my degree,” DeGiorgis said. “Health insurance is always important, but of course, the ongoing pandemic makes it that much more important.”

Additional student speakers included Nicholas LaBelle, a Rutgers Business School senior and president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, who discussed the importance of PTLs and supporting students and faculty during this time, and Jenifer Garcia, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and community organizer with New Labor, who talked about how the pandemic has affected New Brunswick and asked Rutgers to step up in taking care of the community.

“PTLs are the lifeblood of most academic institutions … and if you cut these vital people, we have to acknowledge that … it's not good for their outcomes, because they are people and deserve respect as such,” he said. “But furthermore, if we come back (to) the University in the following semester, and we've let go of some of our top talent, we are losing our capacity to educate and be a university.”

Garcia said she has been on the frontlines with her organization helping the community in ways that the University has not been doing well enough, such as providing mutual aid and fighting against dangerous workplace conditions during the pandemic.

“The community is very important for Rutgers because we help them, but we would also like (them) to implement emergency funds for our community, and also for its students because we're all going through this very, very tough problem,” she said. “I do want to go to the point that also Rutgers University, they make all these decisions without the say of the community.”

More speakers included L. M. Miller, a member of the URA–AFT and a library associate, Tulsi Patel, a member of the Committee of Interns and Residents at the Service Employees International Union and a resident physician at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and Justin O’Hea, co-president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5094 and a clinician at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care. 

Miller discussed a sudden decision by Rutgers in January that called for librarians to return to work full-time, abandoning their “A and B” week schedule, which existed to limit contact and better maintain safety protocols. She said the decision put the health and safety of librarians at risk, so they wrote a joint letter to the University and ultimately got the decision reversed, but this does not rule out the chance of it occurring again in the future.

“Our members have been buckling under the pressure of drastically reduced staffing levels, as well as increased demands for care,” O’Hea said. “Rutgers had the money to prevent all this from happening, but instead they used it as an opportunity to reduce our ranks to skeleton crews, contributing to further employee burnout and turnover during a health and mental health emergency.”

Patel said that rehiring faculty and providing graduate students with exemptions could easily be taken care of using just 1 to 2 percent of the University’s unrestricted emergency reserves, and would cost them less than the deficit created by the Rutgers Department of Athletics.

Overall, the union members and students said they want to work together with the University in order to resolve these issues and will continue to express their concerns and pitch potential solutions going forward.

"We're experiencing some of the largest, most long-term social justice, organizing efforts that we've seen in a couple decades, at this point, and we're also in the mid of a pandemic that we are still grappling with," said Ihsan Al-Zouabi, a graduate worker at the School of Criminal Justice and a member of the Rutgers AAUP–AFT. "Rutgers ... has the chance and opportunity and the means to be standing on the right side of this."

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