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Exploitation or equity? Faculty reactions to new labor contract

Teaching faculty working under the new contract that was agreed upon in the aftermath of the labor strike in April shared their views with The Daily Targum on how the contract has changed working conditions on campus. – Photo by Evan Leong

Fall 2023 marks the first semester with Rutgers' new faculty contract in place after it was passed in the aftermath of a historic faculty labor strike last semester, which lasted from April 10 to April 15.

The Daily Targum spoke with faculty members affected by the new contract to explore the events preceding the strike, as well as the impact this new contract has on those governed by it.

Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers chapter of the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) and vice president during the strike, said that last year was extremely difficult for the University's teaching faculty as they were being paid under an expired contract that did not reflect the record-high inflation at the time.

"That put a big strain on everybody but especially the lowest-paid and most vulnerable people at Rutgers, whether they were educators or not," he said.

David Winters, a lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, offered an opposing perspective. He said for him and other lecturers, previously referred to as part-time lecturers, working under an expired contract was no different than working under a regular contract.

Emily Coyle, a lecturer at the School of Arts and Sciences, said she had been surprised that there was no new contract going into the previous academic year.

"I was pretty shocked that we got to the Fall (2022) semester, and we were still working under an expired contract. And that nothing had happened over the summer," Coyle said.

Winters said the contract's expiration was unsurprising to the union and that, generally, contracts are often permitted to expire. Labeling the contract's expiration as something that came as a shock to the union served as an unethical marketing tool, he said.

Coyle said the communication between the union and its members prior to and during the strike was lacking, and the negotiations' move to Trenton worsened this issue. Nightly town halls held by the union often felt chaotic and unhelpful, she said.

"It seemed like the media was getting information about what was happening in the strike before membership was," she said.

Gary Roth, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers—Newark, said the Trenton-held negotiations and Gov. Phil Murphy's (D-N.J.) involvement facilitated the bargaining process but also broke the strike.

This involvement pressured the unions to accept terms and pay below the growing inflation rate and suspend the strike at the end of the fifth day, he said.

Wolfson said moving the contract to Trenton did not result in the union dropping any of its demands, but it did increase the speed and pressure on the negotiations.

He said the University administration had been delaying and prolonging the negotiation process for months, and Murphy and his office's influence helped put pressure on Rutgers.

"The pressure of the governor and his staff was responsible for the Rutgers administration conceding on several demands that we've never won before," Wolfson said. "For example, the administration's obligation to pay for unbudgeted salary increases for grant-funded faculty, postdocs and graduate workers."

Roth said he was surprised by the seeming lack of expertise of the union negotiators and the lack of support from the parent organizations of the unions.

"What was rather surprising was the lack of technical expertise that those umbrella organizations supplied to the unions," he said.

Wolfson said that while the AAUP-AFT received support from its national parent organization, the local Rutgers chapter led the negotiations.

Coyle said she noticed union members presuming that the union has their best interests at heart without being fully knowledgeable of the contract and the ongoing process, which is what led to the more than 90 percent vote to approve the new contracts.

"To me, (it) is not a good model of a participatory or democratic union if you have members who don't trust their intuition and are deferring to leadership, and leadership is just accepting that, rather than a union where people are educated enough to make their own decisions," she said.

Wolfson said there were communication issues and lessons to be learned for any potential future strikes, but by the time the vote occurred, most members of the union were well aware of the contract and the gains won.

"I think the 93 percent 'Yes' vote was a sign that people were well-informed by that point, but things weren't as clear before that," he said.

Matthew Buckley, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and an executive council member at Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said he has been working on ensuring the University follows through on the promises and agreements made under the new contract.

He said the challenge he is facing is that researchers, including himself, whose primary funding derives from federal research grants, now have to work with Rutgers to increase the supplemental pay they receive under this new contract.

"Since the federal grants that pay for their research have set salary budgets which do not increase just because we got a new contract, we negotiated and won language in the new contract that the salary increases would be paid for by central administration," Buckley said.

He said one of the biggest challenges the union is facing in this area is the process of requesting the University to honor their agreement, which has to be completed manually by research projects' principal investigators (PIs) and department administrators.

"Making sure that this support is coming through and that grants are not being charged has been a lot of work for many PIs and the administrative staff that keep our budgets," Buckley said. "Right now, this is not happening automatically, and we are finding it necessary to appeal for this funding at every administrative level ... Obviously, this adds a lot of time and administrative burden."

Wolfson said addressing certain issues that directly impacted the student community, such as a rent freeze and funding for the local community, was a non-starter for the University administration during negotiations, but the resultant rise in faculty pay does trickle down to improve the lives of the University community.

"When (our) educators and researchers have a fair salary and greater job security, the conditions for learning are improved," he said.

He also said unions were able to negotiate with the University on undergraduate-centered issues, such as removing barriers placed by unpaid bills and fees on registration and receiving a diploma.

Winters offered a more critical take on what the union's actions meant for the University's student community. He said the contract negotiation process manipulated students and graduate workers by convincing them the union had their interests in mind to encourage their involvement. In actuality, the contracts the unions were pursuing were only going to benefit a select group of their members.

He said graduate students actually belong to the same union as full-time faculty. As a result of this, graduate students are left behind as full-time faculty members are often the ones deciding what is ultimately agreed upon in negotiations.

Furthermore, when graduate students try to advocate for their needs to be met, they are often met with retaliation, Winters said.

"In the last two negotiation processes, the priorities of graduate workers have been left behind with tragic consequences," he said. "Graduate workers involved in those processes have tried to make that public and have been publicly berated and shut down by, mind-blowingly, the full-time faculty leadership."

When speaking about graduate workers, Wolfson said they now make closer to a living wage. Other major accomplishments he noted were increased pay for adjunct faculty and job security for non-tenured faculty.

Wolfson said that while it was a challenge to work with three different unions, the gains made for faculty could not have been achieved without the unity of the three groups. 

"We knew this would be a challenge going into the contract campaign, but we did a lot of (preparation) to bring people together," he said. "I'm particularly proud that full-time tenure track faculty members like myself fought for the interests of our more vulnerable colleagues first."

Winters and Coyle expressed concerns about diversity in higher education institutions when adjuncts and younger professionals are not retained or represented.

Coyle said that the younger lecturers and adjuncts are some of the better faculty because they can best relate to and understand the environment the students are living in and grew up in, but also the faculty with the lowest pay and benefits that often end up leaving to work in private jobs.

"We're more familiar with what's happening in the current scholastic and critical discourse, but we're also the ones that don't have security and the ones that end up leaving and going to (other) industries," she said.

Coyle and Winters said only those who are privileged can afford to work in higher education and under contracts that do not provide enough income or benefits like the one agreed upon at the University.

Winters said that by neglecting graduate students and adjunct faculty, higher education institutions are slowly eradicating individuals from marginalized backgrounds and undoing the progress these groups have made.

He said the situation with the current union mirrors the fallacies of unions of the past, where socially disconnected union leaders took charge without regard for their members' genuine interests.

Winters said he hopes individuals on campus who are negatively affected by the union's decisions can unify and begin advocating for their collective needs.

"What I can do here is potentially contribute to weakening the stranglehold that the major unions have on progressive politics on this campus," he said. "So that voices that are currently silenced can emerge and take leadership ... and come up with the new organizations that really need to fight for a vision of higher (education) that is different from the vision being worked for by both these unions and the administration."

Editor's Note: A previous version of the article referred to Emily Coyle as a Ph.D. student. The article has since been updated to refer to Coyle as a lecturer.

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