By Ryan Womack, Member, Rutgers AAUP-AFT
The primary topic of discussion at this week’s meeting was the union’s introduction of a new article titled “For the Common Good of the Beloved Community.” After a brief update during which management indicated they were still in the process of preparing counters to prior union proposals, substantive discussion of the new article commenced. This meeting was quite different in content and tone than has been typical for these sessions. Management had a specific positive response, described in more detail below.
Fatimah Al-Toum provided consecutive translation services from English to Spanish (as well as Spanish to English) during the meeting for the many community leaders, members, and attendees present whose first language is Spanish.
Todd Wolfson and Sebastian Leòn introduced the article, emphasizing that all of us are inspired by the hopefulness of President Holloway’s message around the theme of the beloved community and his recognition of the dignity of all workers, students, and community members. The union’s proposal, developed from extensive interviews and a survey and following the spirit of the Bargaining for the Common Good Coalition report “R Homes, R Community,” aims to make a material difference in the lives of community members.
Carlos Castaneda from Cosecha NJ spoke on the proposed introduction of a “Beloved Community Fund” to support those who did not receive state or federal funding or support during the COVID pandemic, many of them belonging to the most vulnerable and exploited groups in our society. During the same period, Rutgers received large infusions of emergency federal and state funding and benefited from its tax exemption. The proposal calls for a $1 million seed fund (which would be open to further charitable contributions) to benefit the community.
Reynalda Cruz and Yanel Franco from New Labor spoke on the affordable housing proposal. If Rutgers freezes rents on the properties it controls, it will help moderate other rents in the community, whose landlords follow Rutgers’ lead. By having Rutgers work alongside community members, this and other issues having to do with maintenance and discrimination in housing can be improved for all, students and community members alike.
Felix To spoke to the debt forgiveness and fee forgiveness proposal for students and alumni. Current practices compound the problems of students with financial difficulties by blocking their graduation, release of transcripts, and hence students’ ability to get jobs or move on to graduate school. Faculty member Carlos Ulises Decena recalled how he had faced similar obstacles, overcoming them only due to his insider status. But those who are most vulnerable, without an “in,” face a permanently constrained future from debts to their university, one that could be brightened by the proposal.
The eloquent testimony from multiple community leaders and students was moving and enabled attendees to understand the human costs of the practices at Rutgers that must be addressed, as well as the pandemic’s impact on the communities surrounding Rutgers.
In past discussions of any issues outside of the narrowly defined terms of wages and working conditions, management’s response has been to dismiss talk of community. However, management’s representatives reiterated at this bargaining session that President Holloway was very interested in building community and announced that he had authorized them to announce that Rutgers will commit to matching up to $250,000 in other contributions to community development initiatives. After negotiations are concluded, next steps would be discussed.
By allowing discussion of community concerns, and making a concrete commitment, the university has opened the door to a new approach that is more community-oriented and focused on finding common good between community, students, and university, rather than the extractive and destructive relationship so often practiced in the past.
While it is worth celebrating the significant change in approach at this bargaining session, the union recognizes that the funding proposed by management is nowhere near what it should be, and we will have to fight for more. Management’s commitment was won through the union joining together as a larger front with the community, but there is a danger that this could be a one-time effort to blunt further collective action. Our union must ensure that community funding is simply the first step in changing the relationship between Rutgers and the community and in building solidarity and genuine respect for community and student voices, not simply a token charitable donation.
The above is a report from a bargaining session for our next contract. After each session, our union will provide an update, written by a rotating cast of member-observers who are sitting in on negotiations. Click here for a full archive of Bargaining Updates.