Press conference: February 25, 2021
Labor Coalition Representing 20,000 Workers to Present a People-Centered Alternative
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers University faculty, staff, grad workers, health care workers, and students will speak out Thursday, February 25, at 1 p.m., about their call for a people-centered alternative after a year of layoffs, cuts, and austerity. The press conference is being organized by the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, which represents 19 unions and nearly 20,000 workers (Click here to RSVP for the Zoom link).
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, well over 1,000 members of coalition unions have lost their jobs, and cutbacks in academic programs have affected every part of the university community. “But those cuts weren’t inevitable then, and they aren’t now,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents full-time faculty and graduate workers. “The administration can stop further harm—but the clock is ticking.”
In the months before it declared a “fiscal emergency” last summer, the administration “threw away” over $100 million in savings by rejecting a previous coalition proposal for a work-sharing program, Wolfson said. “It’s inexcusable that they would choose to lay off workers and demand cuts from academic departments when they had the means to prevent this,” he said.
“We’ve once again done the administration’s homework in proposing a work-sharing program that would save at least $1 million a week from furloughs while protecting our members’ income through unemployment benefits,” Wolfson continued. “We hope President Jonathan Holloway and the administration will work with us this time, but every week of delay is wasting another opportunity.”
The union’s analysis of documents shared by the administration indicates that Rutgers’ financial situation is not as dire as it’s been made out. For example, the university still has more than half a billion dollars in unrestricted financial reserves, which administrators previously referred to as a “rainy day fund.”
And there’s the continuing drain of a money-losing athletics program. University documents indicate that the administration is expecting a total deficit of $97.2 million for the current fiscal year, and the net loss of Rutgers Athletics accounts for over a third of that shortfall. “How can they be claiming a fiscal emergency while they continue to pour money into the financial black hole of Rutgers Athletics,” Wolfson said.
“Continuing an austerity-centered response puts the future of this great public research university at risk,” he said. “Our coalition is standing united to call on the board and the administration to change course and embrace people-centered proposals that protect the vulnerable and safeguard our future.”
Background on the Coalition of Rutgers Unions’ People-Centered Proposals
Stop the Layoffs
Over 5 percent of unionized workers at Rutgers University have been laid off since last spring, amid a global pandemic and deep economic crisis.
The consequences of losing their livelihoods, health insurance, and other benefits are devastating to the victims of the layoffs and their families, said Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, which represents administrative workers.
“It’s terrifying for people who have committed years of their lives—some of them 20 and 30 years—to suddenly lose their income at a moment when unemployment is high, to lose their health insurance in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis, to lose tuition remission for themselves and their family,” O’Connell said. “And all of us who remain at Rutgers feel the effect when we lose people who adapt to make the departments run during a pandemic, who continue to maintain the buildings, who continue to provide exemplary service to students and faculty.”
“It’s all so unnecessary when we’ve again given management the opportunity for greater savings than they get from cutting jobs,” O’Connell concluded.
Reappoint Laid-Off Adjunct Faculty
Adjunct teaching faculty at Rutgers have been hit especially hard by the layoffs and cuts, said Amy Higer, president of the Part-Time Lecturers Faculty Chapter-AAUP-AFT.
“Last spring, after quickly transitioning our courses to remote formats and working overtime to help our students get through that tough semester, we were rewarded by Rutgers with pink slips: 400 of us were not rehired for our regular courses in the fall and spring, even though enrollment stayed steady overall and in some schools even increased,” Higer said.
PTLs teach over 30 percent of undergraduate classes at Rutgers, so students are paying the price of the layoffs, Higer said. “Our class sizes are larger when online courses should be smaller, and our students have fewer courses to choose from,” she said. “By treating its teachers as disposable, Rutgers does real harm to students.”
The financial savings from this damaging cut is minimal. According to the PTLFC, the cost of rehiring all the adjuncts to teach their regular courses in the fall and spring semesters was less than Rutgers pays a single employee: head football coach Greg Schiano, who is getting $4 million in the first year of his eight-year contract.
Extend Funding for Grad Students
Not only did graduate student workers lose their raise due last July when the administration declared a “fiscal emergency,” but Rutgers has so far not agreed to extend all grad student funding to cover the extra time it will take to complete degrees because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.
For many grad students who have devoted years of their life to their Rutgers education—while working as teaching assistants and graduate assistants for less than a living wage, to boot—an extension of funding would mean the difference between finishing their degree and abandoning all those years of effort.
As with PTLs, the savings to Rutgers from withholding graduate funding extensions is a drop in the bucket in a $4.45 billion annual budget. The full cost could be covered by devoting just 1 or 2 percent of the university’s unrestricted rainy day reserves.
“Graduate students have lost time toward completion of their degrees that they can’t get back,” said Alexandra Adams, a PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology in Newark and Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. “Given the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis on the lives of graduate students, we call upon the university to take action to ensure that all graduate students at Rutgers are given the necessary support to complete their postgraduate Rutgers degree without compromising their health or financial security.”
Center the Voices of Students, Staff, and Faculty
At its last meeting in December, the Rutgers Board of Governors passed a last-minute resolution to restrict the number of speakers from the public at its meetings. Previously, well over two dozen people, mainly union members and students, signed up to speak to the governors, making powerful statements about the effects of administration policies.
Students, faculty, and staff have long advocated for exactly the opposite: greater openness and shared governance in the decisions that affect their lives directly.
As Nicholas LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, stated before the December meeting of the board: “Nearly all the peer institutions which we aspire to surpass recognize the vitality of student voices by having representation on their highest governing bodies. And overall they benefit from having the voices of students, who know the campus best, helping to navigate the future. Rutgers prides itself on empowering students and valuing the community, but as long as there are no student votes on the Board of Governors, that claim cannot be taken at full value.”
Put Health and Safety First
Another example of the union coalition’s people-centered priorities is its efforts to confront threats to health and safety as parts of the university return to in-person operations. A recent controversy in Rutgers University Libraries, which returned to hybrid onsite operations last fall, throws a spotlight on what’s at stake and why student, staff, and faculty participation in reopening decisions is critical.
Before the libraries reopened, staff and faculty on the New Brunswick campuses developed an effective schedule for alternating teams of staff to work some days onsite and some days remote so the libraries could reopen. That system was put at risk—along with workers’ health—in late January by a management order for all staff to report for on-site work, five days a week.
Dozens of staff and faculty responded quickly with a letter of protest spelling out why the back-to-work order put their lives at risk. This pressured library administrators to back down—and to reconsider requests from staff on the Camden and Newark campuses to work on a similar alternating, dual-team schedule.
“Library staff care deeply about our student and faculty communities,” the letter concluded, “and we have been here for them from the very start of the pandemic, providing seamless services and taking on the challenge of finding new ways to do our work. Our work is visible and speaks for itself. We are simply asking to continue to perform our duties in a safe manner and hope that you act on our concerns.”
Protect Programs That Serve the Community
“In the best of times, HPAE [Health Professionals and Allied Employees] members at Rutgers work to mitigate interlocking societal crises—economic, housing, drug abuse, health care as well as mental health, to name just a few,” said Ryan Novosielski, co-president of HPAE Local 5094, which represents professional staff at several Rutgers campuses and university-wide facilities.
“In this time of rampaging coronavirus pandemic, Rutgers’ HPAE members are making enormous sacrifices to serve clients in some of our most distressed communities,” Novosielski continued. “The university, meanwhile, has laid off well over 100 workers in various programs, with some of the largest cuts being to mental health services, in particular those providing services to children in crisis and in the foster care system, as well as services for adults who are one step away from hospitalization.”
He concluded: “The layoffs are devastating not only the programs but also the morale of staff picking up the additional caseloads and have occurred at a time when everyone agrees the demand for mental health services is increased. We want the administration to know that these cuts are not sustainable, and we need a commitment for the reversal of funding cuts and the prioritization of these vital community services.”