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Rutgers Academic Workers Are Striking for the Future of Public Education

Donna Murch outlines the historic and ongoing labor struggle at Rutgers University.

Rutgers students and faculty participate in a strike at the university's main campus on April 10, 2023 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Janine Jackson interviewed Rutgers’ Donna Murch about the lessons of the Rutgers strike for the April 21, 2023, episode of CounterSpin.

This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: Thousands of teachers — full-time, tenured, part-time, adjunct — grad students, counselors and others at New Jersey’s Rutgers University went on strike this month, an unprecedented labor action at the 257-year-old institution.

Workers standing up anywhere can have rippling effects, but somehow when it is educators at a public university, there seems to be an added opportunity to find some lessons in the fight.

The story at Rutgers is still unfolding; we’re joined now for an update by Donna Murch, associate professor of history at Rutgers, and New Brunswick chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. She joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CountersSpin, Donna Murch.

Donna Murch: Hi, Janine. It’s a pleasure to be here. You know I’m a big fan of the show.

Well, thank you very much!

Listeners should know we’re recording on Thursday, April 20, and I’m reading that the strike is over, and also that it’s not over. And I also hear that some real concrete gains that workers were calling for have been secured. So maybe fill us in on the current state of affairs.

So we went on strike last Monday — not this past Monday, but roughly 10 days ago — and it was the first strike, in Rutgers’ 257-year history, of its academic workers.

There was a strike, I think in 1987, of AFSCME workers; an injunction was used against them. But there’s never been a strike of academic workers. And this is a big deal, because it is a multi-union strike, and it is cross-job category. So it includes three unions.

The Rutgers AAUP-AFT covers grad workers, post-docs, EOF counselors, non-tenure track lecturers, full-time faculty and tenure-stream faculty. The university is a very hierarchical place, and our union includes these many different categories, which is quite rare. It goes back to 1970.

But we’ve managed to build a powerful campaign that has brought all these different groups together, as well as forming a direct alliance with the PTLFC, which is the part-time lecturers for Faculty, and the BHSNJ, which is the union for medical workers.

So this is really quite remarkable. There were 9,000 people on strike from last Monday to Friday, and then after a marathon bargaining session at the governor’s mansion — and I can talk about what’s happening with that, because it’s quite important to understanding the dynamic — they came to an agreement that’s called a legal framework.

It’s not yet a tentative agreement, which is a legal category. So first you start with the framework, then the tentative agreement, and then the signed contract. So we’re still in that process of bargaining both economic and non-economic demands.

We agreed as an executive council to suspend the strike to continue negotiations. And there were several reasons this happened.

The first is that we have been under a lot of pressure. Sadly, our president, Jonathan Holloway, who came to Rutgers in July 2020, he has proved very, very anti-union. I think that there are ways that you could argue that he’s the most anti-union president that we’ve had.

So when it became clear that negotiations were breaking down — we have not had a contract now for almost 290 days; our contracts of all the unions at Rutgers, with the exception of AFSCME, were up in June — and the administration has just been terrible.

They often wouldn’t come to the bargaining table. When they did, they would repeat the same things over and over. They refused to address specific proposals by all the different job categories, including the graduate students, who submitted their proposals in May, and we’ve only begun bargaining them over the last month, and it’s true of many other categories of workers, as well as proposals.

So when the negotiations began to break down about a month ago, Jonathan Holloway sent a letter directly from the president to all of the different faculty, grad workers, all the different categories within our bargaining unit. And he also sent it to all of the undergraduates, and it was a very threatening letter.

He said that public sector strikes in New Jersey are illegal, and those that participate in them, the individuals can be fined, the unions can be fined, and there’s threat of arrest, and to engage in this kind of job action would be met with, essentially, the penalties.

Now, what was striking about this is that it is not true. Public sector strikes in New Jersey are not illegal. There is no statute covering them. In order to make a strike illegal, the employer — in this case, Jonathan Holloway — if there’s a strike, he goes to a court and seeks an injunction.

Sometimes they’re granted, sometimes they’re not; most of the injunctions against public sector workers, sadly, have been used to fight against grade school teachers and K–12 teachers in school districts.

So once you get the injunction, you go back to the striking workers, usually with a cease-and-desist order to tell them to stop. And then, if they don’t stop, then you have to go to a second hearing, and seek penalties. And those penalties can include what I said.

One that I left out, the kind of complet that’s available, is the penalties for the whole union, penalties for individuals that cannot be paid by the union, arrest or firing.

So this was a shot across the bow in a working-class state like New Jersey, that has really tough, gritty class politics, and he miscalculated.

Both his strong anti-union stance, and he chose a representative, Chris Christie‘s head of labor relations, who worked for the Christie administration from 2010 to 2014. This is the chief bargainer that our president chose.

I think he really miscalculated what it’s like to be at a public university like Rutgers, and that the students, the workers of all kinds, are infuriated by this. And it’s been met with a real vibrant form of industrial organizing.

We talk about it as intersectional organizing, and 21st century industrial unionism in the public sector, which has really, I think, become the vanguard in one of the most radical wings, partially because people are fighting for public infrastructure, making demands, not just about wages, but also bargaining for the common good.

News media seem to virtually always reduce any striking worker’s demands to more money.

Exactly.

But you’re articulating it in a much more complicated and interesting, frankly, context. Workers’ compensation isn’t something that happens in a vacuum, and here at Rutgers, never mind wider society, it’s priorities in terms of the use of resources that are at issue, right?

Absolutely. I think this point about wages is incredibly important. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this movement is emerging now, and what its relationship was even to the world that I grew up in; I was still coming of age under the Cold War in the ’70s and ’80s, and the attack on the labor movement was so profound.

And it happens at a time when, also, the composition of labor unions is changing, of organized labor itself, and becoming more female, Blacker and browner. And it’s in this period that we actually begin to see the real strikes at the public sector. And those two things are happening simultaneously, for multiple reasons.

I always think of George Meany, the first head of the AFL-CIO, who said, “The organized fellow is the fellow that counts.” And that was the kind of unionism that, first of all, supported the anti-Communist Cold War violence all over, including Vietnam. But the domestic focus was on a unionism for the most elite workers: white and male and craft.

So today it’s interesting, because the university itself is also trying to push us towards wage demands. The thing that’s made the union strong is trying to speak to each job category, and to privilege the lowest paid. And that includes the adjunct workers and the graduate faculty and the EOF counselors.

So you have tenure-track faculty, and we’re all doing this, using tenure to fight for the contingent categories of labor. So in that sense, it’s a really exciting thing.

But whenever I talk to reporters, and I’ve done a lot of media work, I do this work — of course, you already knew —b ut of trying to explain to them why we need to focus on other demands.

That said, industrial campaigns are really hard. This is the first strike. And I think having all these job categories is great for building power, but when you come to the bargaining table, you confront the long history of, really, anti-labor union practices.

And I’ve learned many things. Of course, we’re still in the midst of it. You asked where we are now. This is, what, Thursday, so it is the fourth day of our suspension; you don’t include the weekend. So I think there’s going to be a discussion tonight, where we get updates from the bargaining table, and decide if we’re going to resume the strike.

There are reasons to resume the strike. There are many demands that we would still like to win, including better language and structures for our non-economic proposals, including five years of graduate funding that’s centrally funded, and our bargaining for the common-good demands to serve communities in New Jersey and fight for undergraduate debt relief.

So we’ll see. It’s very important to know that our strike is suspended, not ended, and that we may go back on strike, depending on what the union decides. We do not yet have a tentative agreement.

But being involved in this process and seeing bargaining…. What I always thought with bargaining is that the problem was people that had narrow demands. But seeing people that I know very well and respect a great deal go through bargaining, it just shows me that we’re having a powerful resurgence of labor organizing, but we’re still confronting the narrowness of the possibilities, and we’re trying to squeeze ourselves through those narrow channels and widen them, hopefully for all workers, just as the Chicago Teachers Union, the UTLA teachers union in Los Angeles, the Red Tide in Oklahoma and in West Virginia, widened the tide for us.

One of the reasons that I know that people are seeing what’s happening at Rutgers as super hopeful is, first of all, the concrete win of increased wages for some folks and acknowledgement and visibility, but it’s also the coalitional nature of the work.

Tenured professors standing in solidarity with grad students, with researchers and teachers — and then also students, who are refusing the frame that some politicians and some media are using that suggests that their interests are pitted against those of faculty. The breadth of this effort has been important, hasn’t it?

It has. I think it’s been incredibly important, and this is a way to build power. I also think that one thing I find exciting about Rutgers is that we all know about the incredible social inequality in the US, and how it’s getting worse day by day. And the only solution I see for this is greater labor organizing, period.

I’ve been involved in many different kinds of activism throughout my life, but I decided to really get involved in the union movement around 2015, 2016, because I saw clearly the rise of racial fascism, the election of Trump, and then later I was in Brazil right after Bolsonaro was elected, and it was one of the most frightening experiences that I’ve had.

And it wasn’t because I saw things that were frightening; it had to do with the level of fear of the people that I was visiting, some of whom had had family members killed in the military dictatorship.

So I think that the labor unions now, real left labor unions, like the kind we had before Taft/Hartley, are really important for economic gains, and also as political opposition.

Thank you, Donna Murch, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much.

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