Rutgers strike forces union-loving governor onto ‘tightrope’ of competing interests

By: - April 12, 2023 6:52 am

Gov. Phil Murphy's well-known support for unions puts him in a pickle as he tries to resolve Rutgers University's first faculty strike. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)

Gov. Phil Murphy’s love of labor unions is famous. He’s made TikToks and trumpeted support for unionizing efforts everywhere from Starbucks to Amazon to Medieval Times. He’s relied on unions for funding and campaign door-knocking. He’s even joined picket lines.

Now, Rutgers University faculty’s first-ever strike is putting that devotion to the test.

After 9,000 public workers walked off the job at New Jersey’s largest state university Monday, Murphy’s fans and foes alike are watching to see how the governor navigates the stalemate between the three striking unions and the university, where half of the governing body are gubernatorial appointees and state funding comprises a fifth of its $5.1 billion budget.

“The danger for the administration is that you have to balance out all these needs in a way that’s fair to all the stakeholders, and that’s really a very, very tricky business because it’s a zero-sum game,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It really is a balancing act. That’s the tightrope he has to walk.”

Murphy inserted himself square in the middle of the impasse last weekend, when the unions announced their strike plans after nearly a year of unproductive contract negotiations. He called both sides to his office at the Statehouse in Trenton for talks, which several members of Murphy’s senior staff joined and he personally dropped into too. He said he directed all involved to continue talking until they reach an agreement.

That was the right call, one political observer said.

“People look to governors and presidents for leadership in a crisis, and for many, this is a crisis,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “But it is a little bit of a political thicket for a governor who’s been very supportive of unions.”

It’s always easier to hold on to your ideals in a vacuum, when there are no competing interests, Rasmussen agreed.

While Murphy is an avowed labor supporter, Rasmussen said, “he also believes in helping students who want to go through college and families who are trying to finance getting those students through college. And he doesn’t want to necessarily open up the checkbook and write a couple billion-dollar checks to Rutgers either.”

Still, in his monthly “Ask Governor Murphy” show on WNYC Tuesday night, Murphy doubled down on his enthusiasm for unions and expressed specific support for the Rutgers adjunct lecturers, graduate student teachers, and other lower-rung workers fighting for equity in wages and opportunities.

“I think we’re the quintessential American organized labor state,” he told host Nancy Solomon. “So I want to get a solution that exudes, that reeks fairness to all of the categories that we’re talking about, including the ones that have had a far less good shake, as it were.”

It is a little bit of a political thicket for a governor who’s been very supportive of unions.

– John Froonjian of Stockton University

Bad timing

The strike’s timing — graduation is a month away, and final exams are in three weeks — puts added pressure on the governor to get a deal quickly, Froonjian said.

An extended work stoppage could drive Rutgers to extend the academic year into the late spring or even summer to catch up on missed class time, he said. That risks a ripple effect in the lives of Rutgers’ 67,000 students, he added.

“Is the family going to be going able to go on summer vacation? Will the student have to be going to classes later into the summer? Do they have to scrap the hall they rented for their graduation party? These might seem like micro-level concerns, but multiply that by thousands of students and it becomes real meat-and-potatoes issues for a lot of families,” Froonjian said.

When students are stressed, parents who vote are stressed, he added. And wherever the financial burden of the labor dispute lands, voter support of Murphy and his fellow Democrats likely will be impacted, Froonjian said.

While Murphy isn’t running again in New Jersey, the entire Legislature is up for election this year.

“Affordability is a key issue in New Jersey, and college tuition is a key cost for middle-class families,” Froonjian said. “So if the striking faculty are successful and they earn more money, is the state going to come up with an appropriation to pay that? Or is this going to be passed on to students in the form of tuition and higher costs?”

Tuition and fees are already the largest sources of Rutgers’ revenue, accounting for 28% of its budget. Murphy said Monday he opposes any contract resolution that would result in tuition hikes, saying: “I’m not a big fan of any solution that takes it out on the back of the students.”

Tuesday night, he said during his WNYC appearance that state funds could help resolve the contract dispute in a “meaningful, substantive way.” He declined to release details, saying, “We’re in the middle of that as we speak.”

Rutgers faculty, staff, students, and supporters on strike in New Brunswick on April 10, 2023. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Sentiment spreading?

Unions have championed Murphy for years, and now, they’ll be looking to cash in on that support, Rasmussen said.

“This is now the hard part,” he said. “There are a lot of really thorny questions involved.”

The longer the strike lasts, the more other sympathetic unions might rally to the Rutgers faculty’s cause, Froonjian noted.

“Then I think the potential for his base being upset with him becomes greater,” he added.

Members of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO and the Union of Rutgers Administrators-American Federation of Teachers, Local 1766, which represents 2,500 administrative workers, joined Rutgers faculty on the picket line this week.

Whether or not Murphy tumbles off his tightrope, he’s bound for at least a few bad headlines, Froonjian predicted.

“Everything you do in this current polarized political environment opens you up to criticism from the other side,” he said. “So whatever he does, there’s probably going to be fodder for Republicans or critics to criticize him on. But that’s the nature of leadership.”

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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.