Striking Rutgers educators say they are fighting for ‘basic needs’

By: - April 10, 2023 12:46 pm

American Studies professor Johanna Almiroa with other Rutgers faculty, staff, students, and supporters on strike in New Brunswick on April 10, 2023. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

More than 9,000 teachers walked off the job at Rutgers University Monday morning, an unprecedented work stoppage that leaders of three faculty unions called necessary after a year of unmet demands for higher wages, better benefits, and job security.

The strike was the faculty’s first in Rutgers’ 257-year history. Gov. Phil Murphy called both sides to meet midday Monday at his office at the Statehouse in Trenton “for a productive dialogue.”

Over the weekend, university officials directed Rutgers’ 67,000 students to report as normal Monday morning for classes, with just three weeks left before final exams.

But nothing was normal Monday on most campuses of New Jersey’s largest university.

In New Brunswick and Piscataway, strikers — including professors, part-time adjunct lecturers, counselors, and graduate student instructors — spread out across six sites to demand a contract under sunny blue skies.

In Camden, adjunct professors carried signs with slogans like “Why won’t Rutgers respect its workers” and chanted: “Exploitation ain’t the way! Adjuncts deserve equal pay!”

In Newark, picketers marched and shouted: “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want it? Now!”

Even famed author Joyce Carol Oates, who has been a visiting professor teaching creative writing students at Rutgers, joined the fray. She tweeted a photo of her cat and wrote: “Lilith is on strike for the first time in her life! Will be honoring the Rutgers picket line.”

Tara Kelley, an audio-visual archivist at Rutgers libraries, joined the picket line in New Brunswick.

“We’ve been negotiating since the contract ended July 1, and it just seems like there hasn’t been any progress, so here we are,” Kelley said.

Yazmin Gomez, a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Rutgers-New Brunswick, said picketers are fighting for “basic needs,” including equal pay for equal work and adequate health care.

“We want to show the university we’re serious about our demands,” Gomez said.

Rutgers spokeswoman Dory Devlin said Monday university officials welcome Murphy’s involvement and “are hopeful that we can quickly come to a resolution of the remaining outstanding issues.”

At an afternoon news conference on an unrelated executive order, the governor said he hopes the “force” of his office will entice both sides to resolve their differences. He said he wouldn’t support a tuition hike or any increases students would have to shoulder to get to a contract.

“I’m not a fan of a deal that’s on the backs of our students,” Murphy said.

He declined to comment on any legal action the university might take to force striking workers back on the job.

“I am hopeful that we can come to a resolution that meets both sides’ needs fairly,” Murphy said.

The three striking unions are the Rutgers American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers, representing full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and some counselors; the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, representing part-time lecturers; and the American Association of University Professors-Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey, representing biomedical and health sciences faculty at Rutgers’ medical, dental, nursing, and public health schools.

Professors and others represented by those unions have been working without a contract for more than nine months.

Sunday night, union leaders met online for a “town hall” to rally support for the strike.

“It’s not for lack of trying that we now have to have a strike,” said Dr. Catherine Monteleone, a Rutgers professor of medicine and AAUP-BHSNJ president. “We’ve done everything to try to get them to negotiate in good faith with us, and it’s just not happening. So we find ourselves here, and we stand together.”

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway called the strike “deeply disappointing” in a statement he issued Sunday, saying both sides agreed last week to use a mediator to resolve differences.

Holloway said the university offered a 12% salary bump for full-time faculty by July 1, 2025; a 20% increase in the per-credit salary rate for part-time lecturers and winter/summer instructors over their four-year contract; 3% in lump-sum payments to all faculty unions over the first two years of a new contract; a raise of “more than 20%” for postdoctoral fellows and associates over their contract period; and “similar enhancements in wages as well as a commitment to multi-year university support” for students who work as teaching assistants and graduate assistants.

The unions are seeking salary bumps of 18.5% for full-time professors and 37.6% for graduate student teachers; a path to tenure for untenured teachers; and other adjustments and supports to resolve pay inequities between campuses and teachers of different demographics and experience levels.

As the pickets continued, state lawmakers urged both sides to come to an agreement quickly.

“I urge all sides to remain at the table until a deal is reached,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in a statement.

Daniella Heminghaus contributed to this report.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.