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“We shut this place down because everybody walked out”

Interview with Rutgers workers about their strike

Tempest member Mel Bienenfeld interviewed with Rutgers workers Hank Kalet and Sebastian Leon about their historic strike, its methods, and its gains.

Tempest is running a series of interviews with participants in the historic strike of faculty and graduate students at Rutgers University. After ten months of failed and bad-faith bargaining talks with the university administration, members of three unions—the AAUP-AFT (tenured, tenure-track, other full-time faculty, Education Opportunity Fund counselors, post-docs, and graduate workers), the Adjunct Faculty Union (representing part-time, contingent instructors), and AAUP-BHSNJ, which represents health care faculty and staff in the medical school—voted in March to authorize a strike.

The Rutgers AAUP-AFT had worked over a period of years to build a “wall-to-wall,” industrial-style, intersectional union. What this means is that the union worked to unite faculty at all ranks, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, counselors and other staff and campus workers, and health care workers in solidarity. The union also made race and gender justice central to its organizing and negotiations as a way to bridge divides and to support a diverse student body. Undergraduate students joined pickets and demonstrations in solidarity with their instructors. Historically, it has been challenging to get full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty to identify and stand with more vulnerable workers. The unions’ success in winning all of these sectors to a unified action is remarkable—and remarkably effective.

On April 10, 9,000 educators walked out, beginning a week-long action that affected 67,000 students. For a week, they picketed administration buildings at Rutgers’ three campuses in New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark. They held massive marches and demonstrations, many of them festive, on campus and in surrounding communities. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy immediately got involved and called both sides to bargain at the state capitol, giving the bargaining teams 48 hours to come to an understanding that could end the strike. It took five days and tens of millions of dollars in contributions from the governor to reach a framework for a tentative agreement.

In that time, the unions made significant progress toward key demands significantly benefiting contingent faculty and graduate students. The tentative framework that resulted contained agreements on several key issues. Graduate students won a significant pay increase to $40,000 by 2025-2026; graduate fellows would be part of the bargaining unit as workers, giving them access to faculty health care and other protections. Part-time lecturers would receive a 43.7 percent increase in per-credit pay; full-time faculty won more raises of 3.5/3.75 percent per year, and postdoctoral scholars won large raises over the course of the contract.

The University agreed to provide non-tenure-track faculty presumptively renewable 5-year contracts, mitigating job insecurity (this is the equivalent of tenure). Part-time lecturers, under this framework, would work on two-semester contracts, whereas at present they must re-apply to teach courses on a per-course basis every semester; more senior adjunct faculty are eligible for 4-semester contracts. Undergraduates would benefit from this framework, which eliminates the practice of barring students from enrollment, receiving transcripts, and graduation due to outstanding library fines and other fees.

In addition, the contract includes community demands connected to Bargaining for the Collective Good, a coalition of unions and community organizations addressing issues of racism and poverty. The framework allocates $600 thousand to a “Beloved Community Fund” to help communities in need.

In spite of these remarkable gains, other issues remain to be addressed. The union asked for guaranteed fifth-year funding for doctoral students, retroactive to the current school year, which is not included in the framework.

After five days of negotiating, the bargaining committees for the unions and the University administration tentatively agreed to the framework, and the unions suspended, but did not call off, the strike. This decision met with some controversy, especially among graduate students who wanted to continue the strike in order to win several more demands including guaranteed fifth-year funding.

Next steps in the strike are unclear at this time, as University administrators are stalling forward progress toward an agreement and a contract.

Overall, however, the achievements of this strike are already historic. The Rutgers strike is part of a wave of higher education strikes, 17 over the past year, in the United States against increasingly corporate universities and the intensifying exploitation of academic labor. In its organizing effort and mobilization of university workers across ranks in joint action, and in the real gains promised by the framework, the Rutgers strike is an inspiration and a model.

Hank Kalet is an adjunct professor or part-time lecturer who teaches journalism in the school of communication and information and is on the board of the Adjunct Faculty Union.

Sebastian Leon is assistant professor of Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University, member of the AAUP Executive Council.

Mel Bienenfeld: We’re at the point where there is a framework for a tentative agreement. I’m going to put that last and begin with the lead up to the strike. In this strike there was an amazing and unusual degree of solidarity between the different job titles; in particular, full-time tenure track and tenured faculty supported the demands of the least privileged: adjuncts, grad workers, etc. And I’m wondering, first of all, why or how that came to be.

Sebastian Leon: I arrived at Rutgers in the summer of 2018. And so in 2019 when the contract was solidified, I was still very much kind of still learning where the bathrooms are and where to park on campus and the like.

But as is reasonably expected, there are things that work and things that left a lot to be desired or things to improve upon. Around 2019, different groups settled at different times, and that inevitably harmed everybody whereas you can go farther together.

We were in a really positive way building on the successes of the 2019 contract, while also addressing the areas where we could have done better. I think everybody really gets that it’s not from a position of appealing to moral virtue or the idea that it’s good to do the right thing. We are making clear that it’s in everyone’s self-interest to collaborate, to be one, to unify around all of our different categories and governance structures and the acronym soup that we’re seeing, all of the different things that could otherwise keep us in silos. Where we are at right now is a direct result of those efforts and bridging those gaps that historically would’ve divided us. It’s difficult to get there, but it makes total sense.

Hank Kalet: I think Sebastian is right about 2019. The adjuncts at that time settled on a contract that was probably better than the one we had before that, but it was tremendously inadequate. And there was some dissension in our ranks which led to some changes in leadership.

I don’t want to push against the past leadership. But I think that happened in 2019, and then 2020 comes up, and all of a sudden we get hit with the pandemic that made it really clear that all of us are precarious, even the most privileged of full-time faculty who may have been here for years and years and years. The precarity of everyone’s connection to the university was laid bare.

We witnessed large numbers of staff being laid off. I think five percent of the staff workforce was laid off. We saw hundreds of part-time lecturers laid off. Adjuncts were laid off.  Almost the entire writing program was cut loose. The adjuncts in the writing program were cut loose. We were asked, without much assistance and certainly no extra money, to move everything online all at once within a couple of weeks.

The researchers, especially the grad researchers, found themselves in labs, not able to work from home, often without PPE (personal protective equipment). I think all of that coalesced. When we started showing back up on the campus, a coalition of unions came together.  It’s like 15 or 20 unions on campus are now working together in various ways to protect the health and safety of people who are on campus.

Now that all happens before I get involved in the union. I’ve been at Rutgers since 2013, part-time as an adjunct. My kind of class, the practical journalism classes, are mostly taught by adjuncts.

I’m also a graduate of Rutgers back in the heyday. So I have multiple connections to this campus. When I came back, I said, I have to do more than I’ve been doing. And then I got involved.

MB: Anybody who’s paid any attention at all to the strike itself and to the rallies knows how strong the undergraduate support for the strike was, attending rallies with very militant chants. They marched on the president’s office.

HK: Five times, once a day.

MB: Is that level of involvement among the students all about the student-related demands for debt relief, rent reductions, etc? What is the reason for that strong student support of the strike?

HK: There are two things:  the fact that we were willing to listen to the students and to create this bargaining for the common good.

We also had community members marching when we were out. We had members of a group called New Labor and Cosecha. They were out with us on and off.

So it was all manner of faculty and students and these community groups. We decided that Rutgers needs to be a better neighbor than it’s historically been. That’s part of what this is about.

The other reason [for strong student support] is that we have spent much of the last two years–I know I have–talking directly with classes and students.

In the adjunct union, we held events. We had “Adjuncts Speak Week” several times, where we asked everybody to talk to their class about it. And I’ve gotten into the habit almost at the beginning of almost every class, especially as we got closer to the strike, of talking about this and constantly bringing it up, constantly asking questions, encouraging questions from students.

I think enough faculty members of all ranks did that, and it really made a difference. You know, we’re being open and honest about the struggles that we face as adjuncts. Our students often can’t tell the difference in most cases between an adjunct and a tenure-track faculty member. We were empowering them to ask us about that. And I told them, go ask your other professors. Empowering them to find out what the status of their professors are and to learn more about their professors, I think, brought them closer to us in ways that I don’t remember happening when I was a student, for instance.

SL:  To echo a lot of what Hank said, anecdotally from my own limited vantage point, the undergrads that have been involved with BCG (Bargaining for the Common Good coalition) and also just everyday undergrads, they are walking and they stop, they look at the picketing and they say, well, hell yeah, if this is a way that I can contribute to something that’s bigger and that’s on the right side of history, it’s not too hard of a sell. What’s been beautiful is that the BCG undergraduates have been this force that is not motivated, they’re not coming at it because they’re holding eight, nine hundred dollars in parking tickets and late registration fees. They feel the pressures as well, and they know that they’re being nickeled-and-dimed left and right, and that they are the product, they’re the cash cow that’s monetized and commodified left and right.

And so when they know how much money is available and yet deliberately not spent on the real human beings who live, work, and spend a lot of their lives associated with this institution, and they blow it on things like helicopter rides and these excessively Wall-Street-level perks, it’s incredibly insulting because, on top of that, the students often don’t know because it’s kind of hidden.

When someone’s at the front of the podium, you just assume that they, because of their educational credentials, are materially secure and don’t have to worry about things like health insurance. And that’s far from the case. There are thousands of students, thousands of reasons to get involved.

They’ve been a force to be reckoned with and we couldn’t have gotten to where we are without them. In essence, from the last contract campaign, our working conditions are the same as their learning conditions. And I think that’s been very intuitive for our students.

Rutgers has some amazing, amazing students.

HK: We might think that there was a selfish element to this, that they were in to “get these fines off my back.” There is a  little bit of that, I guess.

But the students who were really active, these are some of the smartest, most engaged students out there. These are kids who probably don’t have fines and fees outstanding. These are kids who are probably getting A’s in their classes. They’re committed, and they are probably going to go forward when they graduate from Rutgers–they may go into grad school, they could go into politics. I suspect that whatever choices they make, these really amazing kids make me feel better about where things are going, because if our world is in their hands, I think we’re gonna turn out okay.

I was heartened because until I got involved, I really didn’t have a whole lot of connection to them.

MB: It’s impressive and really important that you all made these kinds of personal connections where they can understand who you are and what you’re going through and what your needs are and vice versa.

Can you say more about the community groups you mentioned and Bargaining for the Common Good?

HK: I think that while we were very supportive as adjuncts, it was the full-time union that really took that and ran with it.

SL: The groups that have been building BCG over the years are New Labor, Cosecha, and the Central Jersey DSA (Democratic Socialists of America).

And then there is Rutgers One, which is kind of a hub that connects undergrads, grad students, and faculty from across different silos of the university to further organize around common causes.

New Labor has been critical. They have, on their own, scored major wins with the legislature. They show up and provide unwavering support. They’re headquartered in downtown New Brunswick, and their leaders are just the amazing, amazing leaders that have really helped to foster this connection between people who live in New Brunswick, work in New Brunswick, and of course, the Rutgers community.

It was actually the coalition to defend Lincoln Annex that was a major kind of catalyst for tipping some more dominoes to bring people together and, to Hank’s point, to move the needle in a substantive way on Rutgers going from a bad neighbor to a good neighbor. And that’s very much a work in progress, but we’ve been making some big gains.

HK: One of the main components is a demand for a rent freeze on Rutgers-owned properties. Rutgers owns probably the largest amount of rental housing in the city.  I haven’t done the math myself. That’s what we’ve been told. And a lot of students live in those houses, but also a lot of community members as well.

If Rutgers freezes the rents, it will have an effect on other rental properties around the city, which would have a kind of a domino effect, helping students and then helping community members. This is part of the ongoing negotiations. There are some questions about whether a rent freeze would affect the university’s bond rating. And so they’re hashing it out.

One of the central issues that we face in dealing with administration and dealing with higher ed in general is that the universities have become so beholden to bondholders that they have become primarily ways of generating income for finance people.

In addition to the rent freeze, we want to end the practice of using fines and fees on small things–library books, parking tickets–to withhold transcripts and class registration. And then those students who manage to get through, if they still have debt, often it’ll be sold to collection agencies. And that is really problematic because Rutgers gets the money and in the process it ruins the credit rating of these kids going forward. It’s just an awful, immoral practice, as far as I’m concerned.

And then there is the community fund.

SL: This fund is community-based and student-led so that the community in partnership with students can direct and take the lead on.

HK: I don’t know how much money it would be, but it would be a fund that could be used by students and members of the community when they’re in distress.

MB: That’s great. Turning to the strike itself, first, I understand there was extensive strike preparation in terms of people knowing what to expect, what the plans were for, what you would all be doing during the strike, etc. Can you speak about that?

HK: We actually had a strike timeline as early as the fall. We had an idea that we were going to start to build up both the public profile and start to recruit activists. So we did some actions. The first action I was involved with, I was a union member. I had just been elected as vice president for the New Brunswick campus. But I wasn’t really active. That rally was key for me, pulling me in and getting me really jazzed up and ready to go. We did a number of those. We protested at the Board of Governors again in December. The first major volley, I think, was that September 28th meeting of the University Senate.

SL: Yeah, at Holloway Alexander Library. The University president was appearing there and he was able to see the faculty that he would then try to intimidate months later.

HK: Yeah. And we continued to organize after we came back from winter recess. December 6th was a big, I mean, a massive rally in New Brunswick. It was rainy, and it was awful that day. But we still managed to get 800 people out rallying at and speaking to the Board of Governors.

We spent a lot of time on the activist side recruiting activists. We held strike school. We held picket captain school. We held town hall, after town hall, after town hall. The respective bargaining units did. By the time we kicked off the strike vote with a big rally on the Newark campus, we were really in stride.

Our cause was out there. People knew what we were, what we were talking about, why we were engaged in this. I wrote a number of columns in the student newspaper. We ended up with the support of the student newspaper. We ramped it up. There was so much happening in public. We were doing department meetings.

MB: Is there  anything you want to say about the activities during the strike, the picket lines, the rallies? I understand that there was a concert at one point. This  is maybe a good time to introduce the fact that there are three main Rutgers campuses, one in New Brunswick, which has a college town atmosphere, and the two others in more urban settings, with more working class people of color among the students, in Newark and Camden, New Jersey. Is there anything you want to say about the three different campuses and about the activities–the pickets, rallies, etc.–going on at all those places?

HK: I just want to note that the city of New Brunswick, which houses the main campus, is equally as urban and as disadvantaged. The median family income is 35 thousand dollars. It’s  largely Hispanic and there is a large number of immigrants. So, all three of Rutgers’ primary homes are in that situation, and Rutgers is taking advantage of that. I think it’s really important to say that.

The New Brunswick campus by the way, is actually five or six separate small campuses as well. It’s sprawling.

SL: I was a picket captain on Livingston campus, which is a world apart from the kind of energy and scene that you would’ve seen on College Ave., where it was a festival, the coolest thing that I’ve seen in a while.

It was just beautiful with amazing weather. The students were out. We had bands, live music, calls to action, speeches, performances. It was just absolutely amazing. I played soccer one afternoon with a bunch of undergrad organizers. I’m still sore from that. There was an organizing effort going to Trenton on Friday the 14th as well.

It was just everyone firing on all cylinders, rushing to each campus, and the social media streams kind of showcased that Newark was throwing huge, huge gatherings, huge pickets. Camden was organizing as well. Each campus had its own flavor and idiosyncrasies that make it unique and that make it rich.

HK: At the Bush campus, which is in Piscataway and neighbors the Livingston campus, one day they got there early and marched on the stadium. We got word that the Teamsters had said, “If you show up with a picket, we’ll walk off the job.”

Teamsters walked off the job.

They marched there but they also marched on the president’s mansion. The thing that stands out for me though, the one moment that really stands out for me, was when a lot of the picketers from Bush and Livingston carpooled and made their way over to the Cook Douglass campus, which is completely on the other side of the city.

They all met up there and they started marching up George Street, which is one of the main streets in the city of New Brunswick. You had 300 people marching up George Street. They picked up students from the art school and the School of Public Policy, Mason Gross and Bloustein. That group of three or four hundred continued to march up George Street until it hit the entry gate to the College Avenue campus at Rutgers, where there were 700 of us waiting. And we enveloped it. It was an amazing scene. I didn’t think we could fit that many people on the lawn in front of the administration office.

A tight group of dozens of marchers proceed down a city street carrying signs reading "We R on strike for a better Rutgers." The shot is taken from behind the march.
Photo credit: AAUP-AFT via Facebook.

So we met and we were in front of the administration office, and we were singing songs and chanting at the top of our lungs and calling the president out. And then we marched from there to the main central mall lawn area. It’s called Voorhees Mall, where there was another concert and another set of speeches and a whole bunch of other stuff going on.

It was like a big party. The amount of love that was in the air on those days was just– and a lot of us had never met each other before. There were people I’d met only on Zoom and then there were people that I’d never met before.

There were people calling to me because we see each other on Zoom all the time. It was really gratifying and energizing even in the heat, knowing that we were dealing with administration that just wanted us to go away

MB: Exciting. Sebastian, do you want to add something?

SL: I echo Hank’s sentiments and I have the same read on the joyous nature. I mean, I think there’s something particularly special. There are some people, myself included, who got some pretty intense sunburns. There was sleep deprivation, fatigue. Our bodies hurt. There are some people whose voices sound absolutely atrocious. They sound like frogs, they’re croaking in the throat from all the chanting and yelling. This was a historical event.

I’m robustly cosigning everything Hank said. It’s so beautiful to know that people have such positive memories from a week that did include a lot of agitation and was an emotional rollercoaster. We’re in a far from utopian process. There are many “could’ve, should’ve, would’ves,” in hindsight, that could have been better. But we were truly in a place where we were firing on all cylinders. And it is just so beautiful that we were able to celebrate and come together in that kind of way.

HK:  The other thing that really struck me is the number of babies and dogs we had on the picket line with us. We said from the beginning, this is going to be family friendly. And we invited everyone, because a lot of people were on campus during times they normally wouldn’t be.

I usually teach Monday and Tuesday. This semester I teach Monday and Tuesday, and I was there every day. And I suspect everybody else was in the same boat. There are people there on days when they don’t have childcare. Maybe they have childcare on Tuesday and they were there Thursday.

So we had to make sure that we could make this available. We had food for everybody. On Thursday the governor called our negotiators to Trenton. They arranged to have an ice cream truck show up and bought all the ice cream for everybody who was out there. They were appreciative of what we were doing.

MB: I want to move on to discuss the bargaining. How long has bargaining been going on?

HK: The contract expired on June 30th. I don’t know what day we are up to. We’ve been doing a countdown, but we’ve gotta be over 290. I don’t think we started bargaining until after the contract expired. Usually there’s an expectation that you want to try and get a contract in place, but they didn’t even meet with us until after.

And then the bargaining was sporadic for a period of time. There was no urgency early on on the part of management.

MB: We haven’t mentioned the graduate students. They have a separate union, correct?

HK: No, they’re actually, they’re part of the same union that Sebastian is in [but I am not]. Before the campaign for the contract, we actually tried to merge. We ended up, even though we had enough signatures, not merging. And that had to do with the problem with having bargaining units that change membership every semester. So in our [adjunct faculty] union, it’s just the adjuncts, we’re all adjuncts.

In Sebastian’s union, it’s full-time, tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure track faculty, grad students, and EOF (Equal Opportunity Fund) counselors.

So that’s the union structure. Now, there are three unions though. The other union is called BHSNJ, the behavioral and health science union. They’re part of the Rutgers Behavioral and Health [RBH] System. That union represents medical and health educators, clinicians, and a host of researchers.

They also voted to strike, but the rules around their strike are a little bit different because many of them have patients. They would see their patients, but they weren’t teaching and they weren’t doing some of the research. Some research continued because some of it’s really sensitive and you can’t just stop on a dime. That’s the other part of our coalition.

A fourth union just started the process of voting for strike authorization. They’re actually in the pre-vote, pledge card stage of it. That’s the Union of Rutgers Administrators. Those are the people who handle scheduling, student advising, student affairs; they run the student centers, the ordering of food, and management of the dining halls. Their contract also expired. They are also working on an expired contract. They’re looking for changes in their working conditions.

I’m a journalist and journalism teacher. Knowledge about labor unions and labor reporting is like a lost art. What’s happened is that most reporters don’t get the nuance. They don’t realize that people go on strike for more than just money. So this strike for us was about a lot of things as adjuncts. I don’t want to speak for URA directly, but they’re not just looking for raises. There are work from home issues. BHSNJ has family leave issues. There are a lot of these kinds of things that are as important as money for a lot of us. A lot of the reporting has not necessarily captured that.

We’re looking at, if the numbers hold, huge raises for adjuncts and with some movement toward real job security, which is amazing.

But a lot of our issues are still in play. We are still not satisfied with the health care provisions that have been discussed. And the grad workers need a guaranteed retroactive fifth year of funding so that they can finish their degrees. That’s something that’s significant that we haven’t been able to get fully on the table yet.

MB: Can you describe how each of the unions’ bargaining teams worked? Are they elected?

HK:  In my union, many of the members of our executive board ended up on the bargaining team. Not necessarily all of us engaged in the nitty gritty. We have several people who are rank-and-file members on the bargaining team. There are nine or ten of us. We did open bargaining, meaning that anybody who’s a union member could participate in some way.

Why I thought it was really important that we fight to maintain it, is that bargaining is traditionally behind closed doors between small groups of people, and then it’s presented to the membership as a fait accompli. We were very much against that.

So we opened up the bargaining committee. We have ten to twelve people on it. We’re making some strategy decisions about how bargaining should proceed. But then we opened it up, and the beauty of Zoom allowed us sometimes to have as many as a hundred people. I don’t want to call them observers. I would say they were participants because it’s their union, so it was going to be their contract no matter what happened. So they had a stake in seeing what was happening at the bargaining table and how we were being treated, which ended up being a tremendous organizing tool.

MB: Were they able to make, if they attended on Zoom, comments in the chat or anything like that?

HK: We decided not to because everybody can see Zoom, both unions and management. So we ran a separate document alongside the meeting, like a Google doc, and we allowed people to comment there.

If there were questions, if you were watching and you had a question about something or you caught something that maybe was wrong, you could reach out to leadership or or the bargainers themselves and let them know. We called members in to give testimony about their lives to explain why we needed these things.

We made a really strong effort, not just the adjuncts, but the full-time union as well. We were all committed to this. And at some point, we merged the bargaining schedule. We were no longer doing separate bargaining. We were doing big, multi-union bargaining.

MB: And that included the health science people?

HK: Yep. All three were in, all three unions were engaged in it.

Initially, everything was on Zoom because we were still kind of coming out of  the COVID bubble. After the new year, a contingent started negotiating in person with us on Zoom in the background.

MB: When management started responding, how did each union make decisions about any offers, whether to accept or to counter-offer? How is that decision made? Did it have to get taken to the executive committee or executive board of each union? Or did the bargaining teams have some sort of authority to accept?

HK: Each union did it a little bit differently. Our bargaining committee would weigh in on every single counter, if we thought there needed to be changes. Our initial demands were drafted by multiple committees that we created for each separate article of the contract. Our contract is smaller, so we had twelve or thirteen sections, or articles. So we had article committees, and each article committee was made up of six people.

They took the old contract, learned it, and tried to match it to the concerns that we had individually and as a union. And they rewrote those sections. That’s how we submitted our demands.

That set of committees forwarded their work up to the bargaining committee. The bargaining committee looked it over, said, okay, here we go. And then, when counters needed to be made, we’d bring back these article committees, especially if we were going to do some major revamping. In one case we did; we actually wrote a brand new article that didn’t exist. We broke one of the articles and made two.

That’s in-the-weeds stuff. The only reason I point it out is that it wasn’t as if two or three people were making all of the decisions, rewriting the contract and leaving it to the lawyers. The lawyers were there. But most of the contract was written very much by members, by multiple members. So we really tried to expand and open the process up to as many people as we could.

MB: So this next question is more about the other unions. They cover all these different job titles, including the grad workers. Are they all represented on the bargaining committee?

HK: I don’t know, exactly. I know that there were grads who were represented at the bargaining table. Inevitably, there’s going to be some conflict in those situations because, even though we’re all pushing in the same direction, we all have slightly different expectations. What I’ve been telling people about the framework that we have in front of us right now is that there’s some really good stuff in it, but it’s an imperfect document because it’s only a framework.

There’s still a lot of work that we have ahead of us. I’ve been using a football analogy, and I realized, I’m not a football fan, I should come up with a different analogy. But in these negotiations, we’re somewhere near like the 30 or the 20 yard line, we’re moving toward the end zone, but we’re not there yet.

In the context of the larger struggles in higher education, I think we now have taken the lead. Once this contract is in place, we will have moved the ball way down the field. And we anticipate being an example for others.

There have been more than a dozen strikes in higher ed in the last year or so. Somebody said there were six this year alone. We are the only ones that walked across faculty job categories. Every other one of them was adjuncts or grad students. Sometimes adjuncts and grad students, but never adjuncts, grad students, faculty, and clinicians.

We shut this place down because everybody walked out. And that makes us incredibly different. But it’s also why, based on the pieces of the framework that I’ve had a chance to see, this strike is going to be historic.

The gains that we’re going to make for adjuncts in particular are not something that we’ve seen before. I feel pretty confident that through the rest of this process, we’re only going to make what we’ve agreed to significantly better.

A crowd of demonstrators are gathered before the Robeson cultural center at Rutgers university holding red signs reading Our working conditions are students' learning conditions. At the front of the assembly is a person in a giant rat costume.
Photo credit: AAUP-AFT via Facebook.

MB: Can you discuss the decision to suspend the strike? I’ve heard that some people thought that you should stay out until they nailed down all of the issues, particularly those related to graduate workers.

HK: Not everybody was happy with the decision. I think that’s honest. There were some grad students who were concerned, and I think there was good reason to look at the suspension and the framework and say, is this the right thing to do? It was a really difficult decision. It was imposed on us at the last second by the governor. We had to make some decisions because of things that the governor himself put on the table. So we had to act more quickly, I think, than anybody was comfortable with.

I know many of us spent the last weekend kind of doing a lot of outreach to a variety of different people who were concerned.

There is a really legitimate debate to be had over why we paused the strike. Should we have paused the strike? Would a continued strike win us anything more than we’ve already won?

You know, today is April 17th. Our semester ends on May 1. So the end of the semester was looming. Public support for the strike has been amazing. But one of my worries was that the closer we got to May 1, the more fragile public support was going to become. I saw the potential for diminishing returns.

So I specifically made a calculated decision. We probably could have stayed out a little longer, but I didn’t think staying out longer would witness us anything demonstrable. We were being requested to pause, and it seemed to me that not pausing may have blown up negotiations.

I think everybody raised legitimate issues, regardless of what side or what position they took. That was really important.

We had a picket today for about an hour around lunchtime. We had about a hundred people out for it. We’re not on strike anymore. We had a hundred people on the picket, including students, grad students, part-time, adjunct faculty, and full-timers. We all came together today and we all marched. And that was a big deal, a huge deal. With this and all of the phone calls that we made over the weekend, we want to try and just say, okay, we need to figure out a way to move forward.

We’re all committed to that.

MB: What do you think about the governor’s intervention in the bargaining process?

HK: I would give him a mixed review. Again, I’m going to speak for myself because I think that there are members who think that the governor played a largely positive role. And then there are those who think that any negatives that come out of this are the governor’s fault. I wouldn’t subscribe to either of those. I think the governor should have gotten involved much earlier than he did.

That’s my first thing. We announced our strike vote on March 10th before we went on break. And it wasn’t until right before we officially voted to go on strike that he got involved. So that I found problematic. He should have gotten himself involved much earlier. He did eventually get involved. His involvement is tied to the fact that we walked, that both things happened simultaneously.

So there are people who say that the strike was working, but I think partly why the strike was working was because the governor was standing like a big bear over negotiations in Trenton. So I think those two things were connected together. Whatever pressure the governor asserted was only effective because we were out.

I think that if we had not been out, and they were negotiating in the governor’s office, he would’ve been less likely to lean on the administration than he was. That’s my take. He kept the administration honest, and the administration, for the first time in a little over nine months, took us seriously. I think that a lot of that had to do with the strike, but a lot of that had to do with its being in the governor’s office. That’s the positive.

The negative is that there were a series of artificial deadlines, and there was the governor’s power being dangled. I think his role was more positive than negative because I think the pressure he exerted forcing the administration to take us seriously was probably the most important piece of it. I think that’s the best way to look at it. He wasn’t the hero, but he is also not the villain that some of our members see him as.

MB: Was he motivated by wanting to be seen as a pro-union governor or by the need to stop the strike at the major state university in his state? Because that really, you know, is bad for business, bad for everything, bad for a presidential run.

HK: I stopped trying to figure out how these guys think a long time ago. As a journalist, and as an instructor of journalism, I always say, look, you can’t be in somebody’s head. We can only kind of go by deeds and words. I don’t know what his motivation might have been. He does have a reputation as being a pro-labor governor. He has a background, though, at Goldman Sachs. And rumor is, he is looking to run for the White House. All of those things put into a pot take him in all different directions.

MB: I want to talk a little about the question of job security in the framework. Right now, adjuncts have to apply for their jobs every semester. I have enough experience to know that it’s even worse than that, because last semester you taught course A at 10 in the morning. Next semester, you might be teaching course B at five in the afternoon if that’s the one they have for you. So it’s worse than applying for the same job again because it’s not exactly the same job, right? And you don’t even know in advance what the job is going to  be until you apply. You know, what have you got for me now? At least that’s what it was like where I taught. What I saw in the framework is that adjuncts would be able to get two-semester appointments instead of one-semester appointments, which is a step.

HK: Well, it’s two-semester appointments with the same course load as previously. So you won’t have one of these things where, if you have a history of teaching two, they can’t drop you down to one without real cause.

There’s supposed to be some real teeth in it this time. There was a nod to that in the previous contract. Is it perfect? No, but this opens the door and it will allow us in future contracts to expand it later.


Two women standing in front of a building at night hold a white sign with blue lettering reading Healthcare for Rutgers Adjuncts Now!
Photo credit: AAUP-AFT via Facebook.

It’s a one-year appointment. And then, after a certain number of years, there are some two-year appointments for those who have been there longer. Bargaining is a trade off. I think almost everybody’s satisfied with the idea that they have this one year and that some people are going to get two-year appointments. We are really pushing to make sure that they can’t use the enrollment excuse or some other excuse. Those instructors are supposed to be presumptively renewed, which is something the non-tenure track full-timers won: a presumptive renewal. They can’t kick you out of a non-tenure track job without cause now, which is huge. Before it was, “Contract’s up, let’s go find somebody else.” Now, unless you’re doing a bad job, they have to renew you if that position still exists.

MB: And in terms of pay for equal work, you came pretty close?

HK: Yeah, pretty close. The numbers that we’re talking about are amazing. I’ve been reticent about putting numbers out there, but the president of the full-time union put the number out there, and it comes out to a 40 percent pay bump retroactive to 2022 in the first year. These are big numbers.

By the end of the contract, we’re looking at some big numbers. It appears that we’re still on a piecework or per-credit basis, which is something we wanted to end. We wanted to be fractional, meaning we wanted our pay to be tied to non-tenure track full-timers, such that if we worked a third of the amount of time that they did, we’d have a third of their annual pay.

We made a lot of progress. We moved in the right direction for sure. The New School adjunct numbers were pretty good, but I think these are much better. Their upper end is our lower end now.

MB: What else would you like to mention?

HK: There are several things that are still out, like equity between the three major campuses. We’re trying to pin down the fifth year of funding for graduate students, guaranteed and retroactive to this school year.  The big adjunct issue that’s still out there is healthcare.

MB: Currently you have none at all and can’t buy into it even if you want to.

HK: Not yet, no, that’s the problem. There are two pieces that are a problem here. One is we can’t buy in. There’s no mechanism in the state law, apparently, that would allow us to buy in. We finally got a commitment from Rutgers to go to Trenton with us. But the legislation I’ve seen is woefully inadequate.

The idea is to allow access to healthcare with a certain number of credits and you can cobble together your credits from multiple state institutions. Which is good for a lot of people, but not for some, like me, for instance. I teach at three schools, but two of them are community colleges that don’t appear to be covered by any of the state legislation.

Luckily, I get really good insurance through my wife’s job. But as you can imagine, that creates pressure because now we know we have to keep her insurance. That means we worry that much more about her job and it makes it hard to decide to retire if we wanted to do that a little bit earlier or something like that.

I’m okay, but I know at least one adjunct that’s on subsidized state healthcare. Another one of our activists is in the same boat. It affects maybe a small subsection of our membership. It’s a small number, but it’s an important number. One of our goals is to make sure that the most vulnerable of our membership are protected. We’re all in this together, so we need to make sure that we have healthcare. We don’t know who’s going to be hired into the PTL system,  the adjunct system, next semester and the semester after that. We have to be thinking about them as well.

MB: The graduate workers are also getting a big increase?

HK: It didn’t get them as far as they would like. And maybe not as far as they need to be, because it’s expensive to live around here. They’re not going to reach today’s living wage, probably until the end of the contract.

MB: It says here they get up to 40,000 in the fourth year, a little below the living wage, probably.

HK: Yeah. 42 is the living wage. So it’s a start. I don’t know, maybe we’ll get lucky and we can figure out how to push that number, but right now that’s the number. I think they’ll live with it if they have to, if they can get that extra year of funding and the certainty that comes with the funding they also won. But again, it needs teeth.

They won recognition of grad fellows within their unit, and that’s really important. I didn’t really understand why it was important until last week. Grads, when they’re grad TAs or grad workers, they either teach or do research. So they either teach classes or they do research for their PIs [primary investigators] or faculty supervisors. And then in other semesters, they’re fellows, so they get money from the university and they do their own research. For those years, the university considers them to be students only and not workers. So they get kicked out of the union and they get kicked off their healthcare, because they’re in the state healthcare system. When they go to be fellows, they have to go on the crappy student system.

The rationale for that is that the research that grad students are doing is “on their own,” on their thesis or dissertation. It’s research that is “for them.” But it’s also for the university, because their dissertation will be on file with the university. It’ll be published by the University. The University will use it. The University will use the success of these grad students in its advertising and its marketing. So all of the research that they do is in some way or another tied back to the University. It’s work.

Moving fellows into the union makes it so that this healthcare merry-go-round can stop and they can be paid. That’s included in the framework. There’s still some discussion about how that will be structured. That’s a really key thing for them.

It’s a terrible system compounded by COVID. I know former grad workers who are now doing their research for their dissertations and working as PTLs [part-time lecturers] because they’ve exhausted their funding.

Many of them exhausted their funding by losing a year to COVID, not being able to do their research during  COVID. The lab people were more likely to be in the labs, but in the humanities in particular–historians, social work, sociology, anthropology, and the like–they didn’t have access to libraries. They didn’t have access to primary sources. So they lost that time. And the university has avoided acknowledging it.

One option that we’re asking for as a stopgap on healthcare is to let us into the fellows program, which is essentially the student program, which is crappy, but better than not having anything at all.

MB: If this settlement is what the framework makes it sound like, this would be groundbreaking and precedent setting, hopefully, for the rest of the country.

HK: I think it’s important to place what we’re doing at Rutgers in that larger context. It’s funny, the more I got involved with this, the more I understood what contingency was, and the more I understood what contingency was, the more committed I became.

But this is not a Rutgers problem. This is a national higher ed problem. Higher ed is broken, and it has become another corporate element of our society. It’s more concerned about bond holders than it is about students or staff or faculty.

Rutgers runs a deficit in its sports programs. But it’s almost as if we’re an excuse to have a house for big-time football–not that the students get paid to play, but you know, they’re more worried about football and basketball.

Two two highest paid public employees in the state of New Jersey are the football coach and basketball coach, much more than the college president. He’s making over a million dollars too. If you took a look at the highest paid public employee in most states, it is going to be the football or the basketball coach.

The other thing that’s been going on aside from the football factory thing and the constant reliance on bond holders is the shift toward contingency to create flexibility for management. Management wants flexibility. They don’t care that what they’re using for flexibility are actually human beings and not widgets or something. But they want flexibility. They want low paid employees. They want, essentially, to turn higher ed into another version of the gig economy.

In this fight on our end, we know we fit into this national movement. We’re fighting the scourge of contingency as well.  eAnd we’re hoping that once this is settled and the smoke clears,  it’ll be clear that we struck a real blow, we won one of the major battles in the pushback against corporate higher ed.

We want the mission of higher ed to be education and research first and foremost. We want that education and research to be conducted by well-paid well-respected employees. The faculty who teach and the faculty who research should all be paid what they are worth. All of these schools have the money to do it. So they need to do it.

Featured Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Mel Bienenfeld, Hank Kalet, and Sebastian Leon View All

Mel Bienenfeld has been a socialist activist since the late 1960s. He belonged to the International Socialists in the 1970s and 1980s and was involved then in labor and anti-imperialist struggles. More recently he has been president of the Westchester Community College Federation of Teachers, retiring from that position in 2019.

Hank Kalet is an adjunct professor or part-time lecturer who teaches journalism in the school of communication and information and is on the board of the Adjunct Faculty Union.

Sebastian Leon is assistant professor of Latino and Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University and a member of the AAUP Executive Council.