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 Yazmin Gomez
Since its inception, Rutgers AAUP-AFT has been in an ongoing battle with the university to center the humanity and human efforts that have kept it running for over 250 years. Touting its premier faculty, cutting-edge research, and commitment to community, Rutgers’ official rhetoric emphasizes individuals and their positive contributions to the institution. Yet its operations fail to provide adequate material benefits and threaten the very people it praises so heavily.
In response, higher ed unions have had to constantly adapt to management agendas that have reshaped higher education at Rutgers and other universities. Management and labor, with their distinct goals, continue to influence and shape the other. Tackling issues of pay equity, health care, budget cuts, and more, Rutgers AAUP-AFT seeks to hold the university accountable to its workers.
During an oral history roundtable and informal conversation with Ann Gordon, Sherry Wolf, and Rebecca Givan, our graduate labor history colloquium had a chance to engage with issues of labor within the neoliberal university. Fighting against the institutional “pecking order,” their organizing centers worker concerns about increasingly exploitative conditions due to managerial initiatives for innovation and streamlined operations.
“Adjunctification,” as Wolf calls it, is one of the most salient examples of management’s priorities in practice. This process has made a majority of the university faculty low-waged, overextended, and precarious. Management seeks to benefit from the labor of the university’s most vulnerable educators, part-time lecturers (PTLs). A transition to a majority adjunct labor force also helps management gain further control over work standards and worker autonomy, as these faculty members lack the sovereignty and job security of tenured colleagues.
An air of precarity reigns throughout the academic market. Gordon argues that “academic freedom is an irrelevant concept” when one is untenured. More and more workers go through the same experience as Gordon, whose employment long remained contingent on yearly contract renewals, did. This development, at its core, tips the scales of power toward management, as academic labor rapidly loses its bargaining power.
Through efforts that remind the powers that be that WeRNotDisposable, the union’s “people-centered approach” combats management’s processes of extraction. In recent years, the membership and leadership of Rutgers AAUP-AFT has changed, becoming younger and more working class, diverse, and female. As a result, the union’s efforts have adopted a strong social justice bent, in addition to bargaining for improved compensation, job security, and working conditions.
The pandemic has exacerbated union concerns about the neoliberal university, as the university showed even greater disregard for the humans behind academic production. With the widespread firing of PTLs, budgetary restrictions, and athletic overspending, it has become clear where institutional priorities lie: maximizing profits at the expense of a public good.
This has produced an “opening” for the union to mobilize new members around these issues. For instance, library staff, already concerned with the ramifications of joining the Big 10, have brought new perspectives to the organization. Such changes have fueled a growing consciousness among Rutgers employees, even the most empowered.
Through solidarity, organizers refute the central “divide and conquer” approach employed by the university to quell mobilization, though not without struggles. Representing graduate students and faculty, the union handles a multitude of grievances, some conflicting. Additionally, elected leadership also have day jobs, so their union participation is one of many things on their plates. Regardless, their efforts seek to accomplish labor justice without reproducing the power hierarchy of the ivory tower.
Informed by decades of organizing, these panelists shared their experiences and attitudes toward higher education with budding scholars. Their perspectives shed light on the future while also proposing further fights to combat the dehumanization of the work being done at universities. Asked to visualize the state of university labor in five, ten, and twenty years, these organizers and leaders responded with a mixture of optimism and brutal honesty. Wolf confessed she believed that “things will become worse before they are better” but stressed the need for educational unions to be integrated into the mainstream labor movement. Givan hopes for broader access to tenure for “faculty work” as well as a breakdown of snobbery within academia, in order to construct a new vision which “takes back the university” to the public. Thinking of proposed legislation to fund free colleges, Gordon argued that the function of the university may change to be a more responsive space that addresses questions of “why are you here?”
Engaged in a constant push and pull, the union and the university have actively shaped each other, for better and for worse. At the center of the union’s struggle is its approach to the humanity behind work in an ever-changing educational environment. Individuals like Givan, Wolf, and Gordon represent different paths to organizing but highlight the union’s overall mission. The narratives they graciously shared with rising graduate students stress the power of collective action. They demonstrated that for the labor movement to succeed, a continued emphasis on the person, not their productive output, must endure.