Media statement: April 7, 2021
“We Finally Got the Administration to Change Direction and Adopt Our People-Centered Approach”
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Some of the largest unions in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions are celebrating an agreement on job security, graduate student support, and other issues that union leaders say represents a new direction after a year of layoffs, cutbacks, and crisis.
A tentative agreement (see the full text here) was struck late last month after weeks of negotiations stretching back to the start of the year. Members of the five unions involved in negotiations—CWA Local 1031, HPAE Locals 5089 and 5094, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, and URA-AFT—voted separately by large majorities to ratify the common agreement.
Union leaders say the main achievements of the negotiations include:
- A no-layoff guarantee for staff unions running through January 1, 2022.
- An improved program for funding extensions for graduate students whose research has been disrupted by the pandemic.
- The reversal of a restriction on reappointing adjunct faculty that led to one-fifth of Part-Time Lecturers losing their regular courses this current school year.
- A timetable for payment of raises canceled last summer when the university declared a fiscal emergency.
In return, the unions agreed to a work-sharing program designed to save jobs, under which most members would furlough for a day or half-day each week through June. The full income of almost all workers would be protected through state and federal unemployment benefits, thanks to the $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement extended in the COVID relief law enacted last month.
“We finally got the administration to change direction and adopt our people-centered approach,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents more than 5,000 full-time faculty and graduate workers.
When the pandemic struck last spring, the 19 unions of the Coalition came together to “figure out how to stop layoffs and protect the vulnerable,” Wolfson said. “We did management’s homework by developing a work-sharing program that could have saved them over $100 million while protecting jobs and our members’ incomes.”
The administration, then led by former President Robert Barchi, rejected the proposal, giving up the savings offered by the Coalition and instead laying off well over 1,000 workers and canceling raises for union members by declaring that the university was suffering a “fiscal emergency.”
“That was a shocking indictment of management’s profit-centered priorities,” said Wolfson. “But our Coalition decided to try again at the start of the year. We finally have an agreement that makes strong progress on our demands. Rutgers will have what is likely the largest work-sharing program anywhere in higher education—one that our Coalition developed that the administration is adopting to cover the majority of workers at Rutgers.”
Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, which represents 2,500 administrative staff workers, emphasized the precedent set by an agreement that was negotiated jointly by five unions. “By ratifying an agreement with management as the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, with benefits that will be felt by all union workers, we show both Rutgers and our members that we’re stronger together and that solidarity is more than a word. Rutgers works because we work!”
The layoffs and cuts of the last year have hit hardest among the most vulnerable workers at the university. A year ago, the administration issued a memo mandating a 20 percent reduction in the number of adjunct faculty appointed to teach courses in the fall and spring semesters. Many adjuncts (called Part-Time Lecturers at Rutgers) lost a regular source of income in the middle of the pandemic—for an estimated savings to Rutgers of no more than $4 million, the same amount that the university pays to a single employee, football coach Greg Schiano, every year.
Though not part of the agreement, the Part-Time Lecturers Faculty Chapter worked with other Coalition unions during negotiations to get the administration’s hiring freeze order rescinded, said PTLFC Treasurer Bryan Sacks. “The PTLFC is honored to have fought alongside and on behalf of our CRU brothers and sisters as crucial job protections and extensions were won,” Sacks said. “The strong showing of solidarity allowed us to make and win our demand that the PTL hiring freeze language be rescinded. It shows we can make a better Rutgers when we join forces and fight.”
One issue that was front and center in negotiations was financial support for graduate students whose work and research has been disrupted by the pandemic. Without funding extensions, grad workers would suffer “silent layoffs,” said Ihsan Al-Zouabi, a third-year PhD student and Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
The administration introduced a confusing and inadequate funding extension program in early March, but unions were able to win important improvements in the ratified agreement, Al-Zouabi said. “This extension program will alleviate the precarious situations of a substantial number of graduate workers at Rutgers,” said Al-Zouabi. “This could not have been achieved without the leadership of grads, faculty support, and the strength and solidarity of the Coalition. The language of this current agreement will pave the way for future efforts to fight for more just and equitable policies that are inclusive of all workers at Rutgers.”
Kathy Hernandez, executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1031, which represents staff at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, also stressed the importance of union solidarity in winning protections from the continuing layoffs. “During very difficult times, the Coalition of Rutgers Unions pulled together to hammer out a historic plan that includes furloughs but protects jobs and our members. This agreement sets an important example beyond Rutgers.”
Hetty Rosenstein, the recently retired state director of Communications Workers of America, added her praise for the outcome of the negotiations: “This agreement provides job security to thousands of workers and is a historic living testament as to what can be accomplished through solidarity.”
Justin O’Hea and Ryan Novosielski, co-presidents of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5094, which represents professional staff at several Rutgers campuses and university-wide facilities, said they hope the agreement can set the stage for struggles to come.
“After a year of false starts, many layoffs, and a variety of setbacks, we have been able to ratify an agreement through 2022 promising worker protections for our members who have been working very hard mitigating this interlocking crisis on the front lines,” O’Hea and Novosielski said in a statement. “In addition, we have been able to preserve the raises we fought so hard for in our 2018 contract agreement. We achieved strong layoff language that will help preserve our vital workforce.”
“This is a big first step for the Coalition of Rutgers Unions and is clearing the way for HPAE 5094 and the Coalition to internally organize and collectively move forward into the contract campaign for 2022,” they concluded. ”This past year has opened our eyes to how truly fundamental it is to have a well-organized local, ready to act when it counts. This was a teaching moment and a learning experience. We look ahead to the future and hope to see more promising developments to come.”
Nicholas LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, hailed the agreement as an advance for the whole Rutgers community, not just union workers. “The importance of unity in protecting some of our most vulnerable communities cannot be understated,” LaBelle said. “By allowing for graduate funding extensions, we fulfill our academic mission and the promise of upward mobility granted by higher education. By returning PTLs to their positions, we not only ensure quality instruction but provide for these people’s well-being in the midst of an economic crisis.
“By including and accounting for all stakeholders, we are achieving the values set forth in shared governance. These outcomes would not be possible without broad support, and this demonstrates the critical role students have in helping create and promote the values at our university that we all deeply believe in.”
Donna Murch, an Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and co-chair of the union’s People of Color Caucus, likewise underlined the importance of unions acting for the whole community in fighting for a compassionate response to the pandemic.
“Concern about mass layoffs of the lowest-paid workers, many of whom were women of color, animated the Coalition’s cross-class organizing,” Murch said. “In a little over a year, this newfound solidarity has produced a historic agreement. With many universities facing closures and draconian cuts, the struggle at Rutgers points toward a resurgent labor movement.”
# # #