On April 10, over 9,000 union workers from Rutgers University went on strike, shutting down most classes on the school’s three campuses, and affecting an estimated 67,000 students. The strike comes as the result of over a year of failed contract negotiations for adjunct professors. The strike involves three unions at the university: Rutgers AAUP-AFT, representing full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and Educational Opportunity Fund counselors; the Rutgers PTL FC-AAUP-AFT, representing part-time lecturers; and AAUP-BHSNJ, representing workers at Rutgers’ health sciences schools.
For the past ten months, adjunct professors at Rutgers have worked without contracts, as their contracts expired in June of 2022. The unions have held upwards of 100 bargaining sessions to resolve their calls for better pay, job stability, and benefits for employees. “We intend for this new contract to be transformative, especially for our lowest-paid and most vulnerable members,” Rebecca Givan, the president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said in a statement. It is the first time that faculty at the state university of New Jersey have gone on strike since the institution’s establishment in 1766.
As staff and students formed picket lines on the New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark campuses, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy invited representatives from the university and the unions to the state capital of Trenton to discuss negotiations. Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway has warned of the possibility of pursuing legal action against the unions to end the strike. Governor Murphy was able to delay the university from going to court. Rutgers claims that a strike by public sector workers is illegal in New Jersey, however, Rutgers unions have asserted that there are no laws against members striking.
I was fortunate enough to get statements from Noble Avellino and Zach Soricelli, two current students at the university and residents of Demarest Hall on the College Ave campus. Avellino, a sophomore at Rutgers, attended rallies at Voorhees Mall, a green space on College Ave that surrounds several buildings. Additionally, Avellino took part in performances put on by the Rutgers Glee Club in support of the strike, including a performance of a pro-union version of the university’s alma mater. “The important part of my, and others’, participation was that the activity all felt fun and incentivized us to come outside instead of ignoring it for more entertaining activities.” When asked about student involvement with the strike, Avellino responded, “I think that students should be active in support of our faculty. There were students involved with union-adjacent organizations, such as R1, who distributed union materials and information. That’s great! Not all students are able to commit to all of the activities at every moment, though, and so students join a picket line or a rally when it’s convenient!” Soricelli, also a sophomore, and his band performed two live sets at the picket lines, the first having included the classic protest song, “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine. Soricelli joined the strike at the picket lines as well, “On the day the strike started, I made sure to arrive at 8:00 a.m. to picket alongside our professors and grad students.” Soricelli agreed that it was important for students, both graduate, and undergraduate, to be involved and informed about the strike. “A fight for professors’ and grad students’ working conditions is a fight for undergraduate students’ learning conditions. When these workers get the payment they deserve, it gives them more mental energy to dedicate to doing their job as well as they can. How can you expect a professor struggling to support a family or a graduate student who isn’t sure how they’ll afford the rent to teach without distraction? When a university is able to properly support its professors, only then can those professors properly support their students.” Soricelli continued that, “The strike showed firsthand the power of collective bargaining and unions and the value in banding together to create the work environment you want to see.”
The strike has since been suspended, and classes resumed at Rutgers on Monday, April 17. Union members and university officials held negotiations for five days, coming to a framework deal on Thursday, April 14. However, union presidents and university representatives have been giving conflicting reports, with union leaders claiming that negotiations have slowed down since returning to New Brunswick, and the university administration saying they are now finalizing details. Union members have said that there is a possibility that the strike will resume, as the suspension was conditional, but the fluidity of the situation makes it difficult to gauge how likely that is. As the semester comes to an end, we await the result of these contract negotiations and hope for a less tumultuous fall semester.