Three Rutgers University unions and a Chicago-area union have joined a higher education faculty strike wave that is expected to grow this morning to include six universities in two states.
“We’ve been keeping track of strike activity in higher education more recently, since 2013,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. “And we’ve not seen anything like this, where there are so many simultaneous strikes by faculty.”
The walkouts involving faculty are the triple-union strike at Rutgers, which began Monday across its New Brunswick, Camden and Newark arms, and strikes at three Illinois universities: Chicago State and Eastern Illinois Universities, where union members stopped work last week, and Governors State University, where the walkout is set to begin this morning.
And those aren’t the only universities facing labor unrest.
A University of Michigan graduate student instructor and staff assistant strike has been ongoing since March 29.
And a union including roughly two dozen staff in admissions, food service, maintenance and other departments at Vermont’s Goddard College has been striking since March 25, according to the union president there.
The scale of the Rutgers strike is massive in comparison. This is the first faculty strike in Rutgers’s history, which goes back to 1766.
Three unions—representing full-time faculty, health sciences faculty, so-called part-time lecturers (the union disputes the label “part-time”), graduate student workers, postdoctoral associates and counselors—have started a walkout that the striking unions say is in solidarity with nine other Rutgers unions whose contracts all expired last summer.
The three currently striking unions, all affiliated with American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, have roughly 5,000 regular dues-paying members among them, said Rebecca Givan, president of the group representing full-time faculty, counselors, grad workers and postdoc associates.
“We’ve been out of contract since July 1, we’ve been bargaining since May, there’s been—you know, a lack of progress is an understatement,” Givan said.
The over-67,000-student university didn’t say Monday how much the strike, which involves all of its campuses, had slowed teaching and research.
Governor Phil Murphy, a Democrat, called representatives of the unions and the Rutgers administration to the statehouse in Trenton Monday to meet with members of his administration.
“I am hopeful that we can come to a resolution that meets both sides’ needs fairly and come to that resolution ASAP,” Murphy said.
“Our administration is committed to ensuring that Rutgers educators and staff are able to continue their critical work and, importantly, that Rutgers students, particularly given that we’re on April 10 with the clock ticking toward the end of the school year, that those students are able to pursue their education,” he said.
“We yesterday said everybody is gonna get into a room and we’ll do a version of locking the door and throwing the key away until we come up with a solution here,” he said.
Howie Swerdloff, secretary for the part-time lecturers’ union, said from Trenton Monday that the sides are “quite divided.”
“It’s been 10 months and we’re pretty much nowhere, so I would be very surprised if we get this done in a day or two,” he said. “It’s probably impossible.”
Before the strike began, Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway had written to the campus to say, “It is well established that strikes by public employees are unlawful in New Jersey” and “We hope that the courts would not have to be called upon to halt to an unlawful strike.”
But a university spokeswoman said Monday that Murphy asked Rutgers “to delay taking legal action” and “We agreed to his request to refrain from seeking an injunction while it appears that progress can be made.”
Swerdloff said he expects Rutgers will come up with the money to fund the financial requests, but he said a big sticking point is his union’s demands for guaranteed one-, two- and three-year appointments for lecturers after they work a certain number of semesters or teach a certain number of credit hours.
“We keep changing it to make it more accommodating, but it doesn’t seem to help,” he said.
Amy Higer, president of the part-time lecturers’ union, said appointments are currently only for a semester at a time. She said she fears the university will simply reduce courses per lecturer if they only get a pay increase.
Higer said her organization wants pay “to be commensurate with the full-time, non-tenure-track faculty at Rutgers”—who teach the same courses. She said that means being paid at a rate of about $10,000 per three-credit hour course, not $5,800.
She was a full-time, non-tenure-track faculty member herself, but “they terminated my contract and hired me as a part-time lecturer, so how demeaning is that?”
Swerdloff said the full-time faculty union has centered on the part-time lecturers’ union’s demands.
“This is not the company line here, I’m giving you my heartfelt words here—we’ve achieved a level of unity between the full-time faculty and the adjuncts that is remarkable,” he said. “It’s just amazing. They have put our demands at the center of their campaign and we’re here together bargaining as one union, even though we’re not, and that’s been going on for months and it’s just astounding.”
Representatives from the three unions have said they have been trying to merge into one union. But even the push to merge the Biomedical and Health Sciences faculty union with the full-time faculty union is still getting pushback from the university, said Diomedes Tsitouras, executive director of the Biomedical and Health Sciences union.
Givan, the president of the full-time faculty union, did stress concerns of the other unions, alongside her own, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.
“We want equal pay for equal work by adjunct faculty, we want a proper living wage for graduate workers, we want support for our communities,” she said, for instance, by ending the practice of stopping students from re-enrolling if they have unpaid fees.
“For full-time faculty, we want a fair pay increase that keeps pace with inflation, but our biggest real salary concerns are for postdocs—we’re looking for close to $70,000,” she said. A union spokesman said they currently make $50,000.
And for graduate workers, Givan said unions are pushing for $37,000. As of July 1, 2021, according to the university, full-time teaching assistant and graduate assistant starting salaries were about $30,160 for a full academic year appointment and $34,000 for a full calendar year appointment.
Beyond particular university employees, the unions are pushing for help with housing for all in the campus community. Alan Maass, a union spokesman, said they’re calling for a rent freeze, including on dorms.
Swerdloff said, “They're really fighting for the adjuncts and the graduate students, and it’s just wonderful to behold. And if that sounds corny, it’s really the truth.”