Press Statement: September 23
“We Didn’t Take Austerity for an Answer,” Say Union Leaders
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Threatened cuts in higher education were reversed in state budget legislation that largely returns appropriations for Rutgers University to pre-pandemic levels for the 2020–21 fiscal year, according to the Coalition of Rutgers Unions.
The Coalition, which mobilized its 20,000 members in 19 unions for a campaign to win back cuts that the university administration had accepted as inevitable, is pressing ahead with the fight to reverse layoffs and cutbacks at Rutgers—and make sure the restored funding goes to priorities that serve Rutgers students, workers, and the community.
“This is major progress for Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, and it’s due to the organizing and advocacy of our unions, students and alumni, and our community partners standing together,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union that represents full-time faculty and graduate workers.
“There are still areas of the budget—in health care, for example—where we need deep cuts fully restored,” Wolfson said. “But overall, we accomplished a lot. The administration had accepted the state funding cuts and built them into their budget projections, but our unions and our allies refused to. We didn’t take austerity for an answer.”
Justin O’Hea, co-president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5094, one of the locals representing health care workers at Rutgers, said there there are still serious concerns about significant cuts to mental health services for at-risk youth and adults in Middlesex and Essex Counties, as well as in other areas of the Children’s System of Care.
“There has been a lot of clamor in the media about the current or ‘looming mental health crisis’ as a result of COVID-19,” O’Hea said. “Yet our vital public mental health and public health care institutions have seen funding cuts. We cannot continue to ‘do more with less’ when the demand for services keeps growing. Public mental health, like public health care, needs an injection of capital, not budget cuts.”
Last spring, many people, including top Rutgers management, assumed that deep cuts in state appropriations were inevitable—despite unprecedented aid for higher education in the federal government’s CARES Act, which included over $100 million earmarked for Rutgers. In April, former President Robert Barchi, pointing in part to projected state funding cuts totaling tens of millions of dollars, gave an inflated initial prediction of a $200 million budget deficit for the 2019–20 school year, with worse to come in 2020–21.
In contrast to the Rutgers administration’s attitude, said Patrick Nowlan, executive director of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the Coalition’s Legislative Committee went to work, contacting allies throughout the state and communicating with elected representatives and state officials. “We had officers and staff from the unions in the Coalition working intensively on this,” he said. “And our members responded by making phone calls, sending emails, writing letters, and attending meetings and hearings.”
Nowlan said opponents of the higher ed cuts needed to “flip the script” on the assumption that nothing else was possible. “We have to raise the money that’s been taken away from the higher education budget over several decades,” Nowlan said. “That means progressive taxation and state borrowing to keep a commitment to full funding.”
One key factor in the unions’ approach was the proposal for a millionaire’s tax, supported by Gov. Phil Murphy. Back in July, it looked like the proposal had stalled again, but advocates kept at it. The final legislation hammered out this month included the millionaire’s tax.
“We know firsthand the dire effects of decades of austerity on higher education, and those policies only accelerated under former governor Chris Christie and his appointees at Rutgers,” said Kathleen Hernandez, executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1031. “The millionaire’s tax is a matter of elemental fairness to tip the balance back and secure the futures of the working majority of our state.”
Representatives of the Coalition say they’re proud of how member unions have come together during the crisis. In the spring, the Coalition jointly developed a work-sharing program for furloughs that could have saved the university more than $100 million, even as the jobs, health benefits, and incomes of Rutgers employees were fully protected, thanks to the federal unemployment supplement enacted in the CARES Act. The Barchi administration ultimately rejected the coalition proposal and locked in on austerity by declaring a “fiscal emergency.”
“While the university has retained a notoriously anti-union law firm, Jackson Lewis, in its fiscal emergency campaign, the Coalition worked not only to protect the health of its member unions during the pandemic but also to make sure Rutgers receives the funding it deserves as a state institution,” said Michael Gallagher, a delegate of the Committee of Interns and Residents-SEIU, which represents Rutgers medical residents. “The university needs to uphold the responsibilities it has towards its employees, especially during these increasingly uncertain times.”
Now, unions are working closely with Rutgers student groups and community organizations for a united #March4RLivesRJobsRSchools this Saturday at 3 p.m. in New Brunswick. The safe, socially distanced march will convene in front of Lincoln Annex middle school, which is threatened by Rutgers development plans, and proceed through the downtown area. The march’s demands are: stop the layoffs, save Lincoln Annex, reduce tuition and fees, stand for racial equity and climate justice, and settle all union contracts.
Dahlia Vertreese, a labor relations specialist with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68, which represents building maintenance and operating engineers at Rutgers, stressed the importance of holding Rutgers management accountable for using the restored funds to make the community whole.
“Back in June,” Vertreese said, “the university declared a fiscal emergency to break our contracts and take away union members’ raises. But at the very same time, they were admitting that the estimated budget deficit $200 million had shrunk by 75 percent—and that’s not to mention the hundreds of millions sitting in their barely tapped ‘rainy day fund’ or poured down the financial sinkhole of Rutgers Athletics.
“Now, the threat of big state funding cuts that underpinned their prediction of another $200 million-plus deficit this school year has vanished. They’re running out of excuses.”
Amy Higer, president of the Part-Time Lecturers Faculty Council-AAUP-AFT, which represents over 3,000 part-time faculty, said unions would now take the fight to the Rutgers administration to reverse its austerity measures—like the freeze on hiring adjunct faculty that has cost hundreds of jobs among her members and driven up class sizes for students.
“The Barchi administration acted precipitously and recklessly in laying off hundreds of experienced teachers last spring, reducing course offerings and increasing class size,” Higer said. “The Holloway administration now needs to put students’ education first and rescind this ill-advised hiring freeze for the spring semester.”
Dr. Catherine Monteleone, president of AAUP-BHSNJ, the union representing faculty in Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, said that three unions in the Coalition have been working without contracts for more than two years. “Now that Rutgers has the money, they should do right by their medical faculty heroes who served admirably during the pandemic and settle our contracts that are more than two years overdue.”
“The administration wants us to believe that cutbacks on campus are as inevitable as the state funding cuts were supposed to be,” said Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, Local 1766, which represents administrative staff. “But we proved them wrong—and we’ll prove them wrong again.”
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