This article was written by graduate students in a U.S. Labor History colloquium as part of a series on “The Living History of Our Union”—a section of our website dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of our own history.
By Elissa Branum and Sarah Coffman
Labor history is living history, and it is in the making at Rutgers.
It lives when Rutgers AAUP-AFT union members and students gather in Newark to back a DACA student summoned by ICE for an appointment before officials determined to deport her. It lives when tenured faculty members go to bat and secure a contract for graduate student living wages, extra funding, and time to complete research during a public health crisis. It lives when union members back their colleagues in Camden to protest pay inequity at a Board of Governors meeting.
Capturing these moments and the experiences of union organizers is crucial to preserve a shared, living union history. When we listen to our organizer elders, our present focuses are informed by their past achievements and by how they historicize and frame ongoing struggles.
On October 13, we were fortunate to spend a few hours with three senior union representatives during a graduate labor colloquium: Becky Givan (co-director of the Center for Work and Health and president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT), Ann Gordon (an emerita research professor and emerita representative to the union’s Executive Council), and Sherry Wolf (the union’s senior organizer). A glimpse of the union’s past reveals that many current unionizing issues are persistent.
Hearing about the interviewees’ individual histories taught us how labor and other struggles against injustice became focal points of their lives. Becky learned the moral stakes for the labor movement from her parents’ involvement in a 1980s mining strike in Northern England. A “political scientist by training” who taught in her past job at an Ivy League university, Becky witnessed the disjointed efforts that mark many faculty unions—especially when they lack the power to engage in collective bargaining.
During our interview, she explained the difference between public and private institutions: “There were no academic worker unions, and I saw how bad that was.” Becky added, “We can talk about Rutgers as the neoliberal university, but compared to these wealthy private universities, it’s really unbelievable…The way that everything is completely top-down, and any notion of shared governance or faculty governance is a complete farce.”
Pandering to the administration does not make for equitable and significant change. Gains for faculty at the expense of part-time workers or graduate students are only temporary fixes. By contrast, she values the solidarity and bottom-up pressure for change shared across tenured, non-tenured, and part-time lecturers in the Rutgers AAUP-AFT chapters.
Similar to Becky, Sherry absorbed her family members’ involvement in labor organizations as a child. “My grandparents, who grew up poor and were working class, actually went on strike to have a union in the ‘40s and ‘30s…one as a high school secretary, the other, my grandfather, as a [photo engraver],” she remembered. In 1983, she moved to deindustrialized “Rust Belt” Chicago to attend Northwestern University. She watched the crumble of prominent industries and blows to industrial unions across the Midwest.
At this crucial moment of collapse and anti-unionism, Sherry “became part of the radical left and labor solidarity.” Sherry participated in supporting a strike at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota in 1985. This Republican town that previously voted for Reagan radicalized around the labor struggle. She was animated by stories about people who listened and learned “who they needed to be in solidarity with,” calling this “a school” that was “very intimate and very powerful.”
Sherry’s organizing strategies evolved from her work in organized labor outside the academy, and she represents a progressive academic union movement that unites workers not only across the tenure line but beyond the professoriate. While acknowledging the tensions between industrial and academic laborers, and how they identify with their work, Sherry sees radical potential for university unions to revitalize worker-consciousness by using a rank-and-file strategy.
Ann attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s and 1970s, during the formation of the graduate student-led Teaching Assistants’ Association. “We went into union activity as graduate students from a very different place,” she said, articulating how the context of the Vietnam War impacted how students viewed activism—defying university connections to United States imperialism.
In 1982, Ann came to Rutgers as a non-tenure track professor. She was vulnerable to contingency as she faced annual contract renewals. Though she was ultimately promoted to full professor as an NTT faculty member and enjoyed the protection of the union, her job status was still volatile. This encouraged her to organize part-time lecturers and other unprotected academic workers after she retired.
If all Rutgers organizers came from the same geographic backgrounds, had the same childhoods and work experiences, and looked the same, what would be lost? Each organizer’s personal context shaped the tools they use to approach organizing academic labor. Their decades of personal experiences co-created an expansive, versatile toolbox that is invaluable to the present union.
As new issues arise, like the pandemic, the varying previous work of organizers has informed approaches to resolving issues worsened by COVID. Some union workers took pay cuts that reflected the solidarity that Becky was missing at her previous job. The work-sharing program created new work calendars that helped preserve pay for most workers, reflecting the gains of Ann’s PTL organizing. The union granted graduate students a pay extension, speaking to Sherry’s concern for rank-and-file workers at the bottom of academia’s hierarchy.
During the interview, the three organizers actively co-narrated a history of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT union. Their emphasis on raising shared consciousness of key events, turning points, and conflicts was reflected in this creative process of memory-making. Thinking about the last decade, Ann remembered “we had a female president.” Becky filled in that a number of presidents had been female. Ann argued that pay equity was a persistent issue, while Sherry remembered that in the early 1970s, gender pay equity was temporarily achieved by the union. Becky pointed out the current pay equity struggles at the Camden campus, where academic workers teach more students of color and are paid less. When Sherry said, “this is about money; this is about power,” describing how the political economy of the university turns workers against each other, Becky explained that this was illustrated by tensions between faculty and graduate students around funding, health care, and respect. Through their agreements and disagreements, the speakers composed a shared vision for future union initiatives.
When asked about their vision for the future of higher education and labor organizing, Sherry’s warnings were balanced by Ann’s and Becky’s hope. The organizers’ backgrounds inform how they think about the future. Sherry, thinking from her work in industrial unions, pondered how academia will likely get worse before better. She hopes an “uptick” in strikes in other industries will begin to “reverse damage” in higher education, if similar striking and restructuring occurs. Ann, speaking from her commitment to teaching, expressed confidence in the College for All Act to change the nature of higher education by pressuring institutions to become more “responsive educational environments.” Becky, reflecting her commitment as union president to work-sharing, emphasized long-term goals of building consciousness across categories of academic workers and “raising” and “flattening” pay and access to tenure.
As new graduate students, we attended our first union meeting on October 1. Though it was on Zoom, the environment was fiery and focused. Ann, Sherry, and Becky brought the same passion to our discussion. Through these experiences, we recognized our part in an organization that actively defies the divisive nature of capitalist labor systems. We admire how Rutgers AAUP-AFT chapter embraces solidarity between professors and graduate students.
In an article on the TA union at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s and 1970s, Daniel Czitrom reflected, “One of the dirty little secrets of the American university is no longer a secret: it cannot function without the exploitation of graduate students and other contingent labor.” Having acknowledged this routine exploitation, the Rutgers union utilizes hierarchies within academia to protect the most vulnerable workers. This suggests we as graduate students and TAs are valued members of the union, even though Rutgers as an institution may not treat us as such.
Our conversation also inspired us to seek out more collaboration (including writing this blog post together!). Graduate students are an important link between full-time teaching faculty and undergraduate students. Czitrom argued that the oldest graduate student union in the country succeeded through coalitions between graduate students and undergraduates, organically united by shared concerns for learning and anti-war political activism. At Rutgers today, graduate and undergraduate students are similarly united by shared concerns about inequity, student debt, and environmental crisis. The senior organizers highlighted how DACA activism and community organizing have been driven by undergraduates.
Our powerful conversation with three lifelong activists allowed us to explore how histories emerge through shared knowledge, discussion of individual lives, and communal remembering. Personal contexts inform their views on the future of organized academic labor and shape well-rounded union strategy. Labor history is living history, tangible in the life stories that Ann, Sherry, and Becky shared.