NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Overnight, officials with three unions representing thousands of Rutgers University teachers called for their members to return to work five days after launching a historic strike effort.
“The leadership bodies of our three unions have voted to accept a framework for new contracts and to suspend our strike and return to work immediately,” wrote the leaders in a one-page statement emailed to union members.
The strike took effect on the morning of April 10, shutting down classes in New Brunswick, Piscataway, Newark, and Camden, and leading to mass protest actions across the campus, in the state capital, and outside the homes of some Rutgers board members.
It marked the first time that professors have taken unified action to withhold their labor at the state university, which dates back to 1766, when it was founded as a private, religious educational institution.
A January 1987 strike of about 2,800 non-teaching staff at the school lasted nine days.
This time around, more than 9,000 workers are represented by the unions that struck, though not all of the teachers participated, with some classes and exams continuing in some fashion, and others being cancelled, postponed, or shifted to being held online.
Hundreds gathered for the daily rallies, marching across town and picketing outside of prominent locations, giving fiery speeches, and building solidarity with students and the broader communities of the cities Rutgers calls home.
The deal reached on the night of April 14 was characterized by union leadership and the university’s administration as merely a “framework” for new contracts and there are no formal agreements yet. But the progress was enough for the strike to be “suspended.”
The news caps off a week of frenzied activity, with lengthy bargaining sessions held Monday through Friday in the office of Governor Phil Murphy.
“This fair and amicable conclusion respects the interests of many different stakeholders, upholds New Jersey’s values, and puts an end to a standoff that was disruptive to our educators and students alike,” Murphy was quoted as saying in a press release issued shortly after 1am on April 15.
Though the strike has been suspended, there is still uncertainty about what the future holds for Rutgers, its students, and its faculty.
“Let us be clear, a suspension of our strike is not a cancellation,” read the late-night message from the union negotiators. “If we do not secure the gains we need on the open issues through bargaining in the coming days, we can and will resume our work stoppage.”
University President Jonathan Holloway said the agreed-upon framework includes:
- at least 14% salary increases for full-time faculty and Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) counselors by July 1, 2025
- a 43.8% increase in the per-credit salary rate for part-time lecturers over the four years of the contract
- a 27.9% increase to the minimum salary for postdoctoral fellows and associates over the same contract period
- “substantial enhancements” in wages as well as a commitment to multi-year university support for our teaching assistants and graduate assistants, who would see their 10-month salaries increase to $40,000 over the course of the contract, in addition to healthcare coverage and free tuition
Holloway added that the proposed framework is for contracts that would be retroactive to July 1, 2022, and will therefore provide back pay to covered employees.
Union leaders touted many of the same highlights, with somewhat less detail.
“We believe we have secured profound victories for our unions in this framework: significant pay increases for adjuncts; substantial raises for grad workers, moving them toward a living wage; structural job security improvements for adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty; union representation for graduate fellows; pay increases for postdocs; our first common good demands to center our students and communities; full-time faculty control over teaching conditions, including scheduling; and more,” reads a joint statement from the three unions
Agreements would have to be approved by union members in a “secret ballot” vote, according to the negotiators, who represented each of the three striking unions:
- AAUP-AFT (American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers)
- PTLFC-AAUP-AFT (Part-Time-Lecturer Faculty Council-AAUP-AFT)
- AAUP-BHSNJ (AAUP-Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey)
“We have not reached a Tentative Agreement for members to vote on,” said the unions overnight as the news of the framework spread. “There are open issues that need to be resolved, especially for AAUP-BHSNJ, and we won’t leave our colleagues at [Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences] behind.”
It had been a frantic five days since the impending strike was announced on the night of April 9.
Governor Murphy invited both sides to negotiate in his offices in the Statehouse the following day. On April 11, he told a radio reporter that he was “pissed off” that the ongoing disputes had led to a strike.
The conflict put the Governor in a pickle, pitting one of the unions that backed him politically against the powerful Rutgers Board of Governors, the majority of which are appointed by him, including two initially nominated by former Governor Chris Christie and re-nominated by Murphy.
Murphy got flack for the fact that another Christie connection was Rutgers’ choice for labor negotiator: David Cohen, a close ally of the notoriously anti-union ex-Governor.
For the first four nights of the strike, the union held massive “town halls” using the zoom videoconferencing platform (and broadcasting them on YouTube), where hundreds gathered to hear updates on the negotiations and the protest actions.
A frequent topic of conversation was President Holloway and his threat to sue the unions in an attempt to force an end to the strike.
“I would expect that we’ll be facing some kind of legal challenge shortly,” Howard Swerdloff, Secretary of the PTLFC-AAUP-AFT, said during the April 12 Town Hall.
Holloway, who is paid an annual salary of $780,000 plus bonuses and other benefits like a free house, drew the ire of the faculty and the broader labor movement when he claimed in a university-wide email that “it is well-established that strikes by public employees are unlawful in New Jersey.”
“We hope that the courts would not have to be called upon to halt to an unlawful strike,” wrote Holloway.
According to a report by Gothamist’s Karen Yi, dozens of prominent scholars criticized Holloway for his use of language criminalizing the concept of a public worker’s strike.
Ultimately, Murphy asked Holloway to hold off on taking legal action to force an end to the action, and several New Jersey politicians came out to support the striking teachers, including US Congressman Frank Pallone, whose district includes most of the New Brunswick/Piscataway campus.
Each of the unions on strike had been working under the terms of contracts that expired July 1, 2022, and the threat of a potentially crippling strike grew as relations between unions and the administration devolved.
One of the points of conflict was the unions’ attempt to merge their three organizations into one unit, an apparent attempt to prevent the university from using the tactic known as “divide and conquer.”
Despite collecting support from enough members to facilitate a merger, the university initially refused to recognize the merged union, though the state’s Public Employees Relations Commission later certified a partial merger and the university’s appeal failed.
Another critical question that remains unanswered is what impact the “framework” might have on student tuition and fees, such as the cost of on-campus housing and meal plans.
Those costs will be set this summer by the Rutgers Board of Governors.
Among the “common good” demands that the union coalition pushed was a “rent freeze” that would prevent the university from jacking up the cost of its housing “for at least the duration of the bargaining contract or four years.” It’s unclear which, if any, of those demands have made it into the pending deal thus far.
The university’s only hearing on tuition and fees is scheduled for April 27 from 6-8pm at the College Avenue Student Center. It is open to the public and can also be accessed remotely, but in order to speak, the school is requiring individuals to sign up before 12pm on April 26.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.