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The Point: Learning from the Wins at Rutgers


Today’s Point is an excerpt of an interview with Todd Wolfson and Bryan Sacks of Rutgers University conducted by Joseph G. Ramsey, Senior Lecturer, English, American Studies, and Honors College.

I recently had a chance to interview two impressive leaders from the Rutgers University 2023 bargaining campaign, which culminated in a historic system-wide strike and major contract gains. Todd Wolfson (Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies) is President of Rutgers-AFT/AAUP,  representing full-time faculty (TT and NTT), grad student employees, post-docs, and some campus staff. Bryan Sacks (Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion) is President of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, representing part-time lecturers.  Made possible through our mutual work in Higher Ed Labor United (HELU), a growing coalition building a "Wall-to-Wall and Coast-to-Coast" academic labor movement, this dialogue offers important lessons for us here at UMass Boston as we gear up for our next round of bargaining, with a particular emphasis on building unity across existing job categories, and reclaiming the common-good mission of higher education.  Those interested in getting more into the tactics and details of the Rutgers effort are welcome to read the full transcript, excerpted below, via the FSU website here:

Joe Ramsey: What do you see as the biggest wins from your recent bargaining efforts at Rutgers?  

Todd Wolfson: One of the central goals of the campaign was to challenge increasing contingency and precarity across higher ed. To that end, our biggest wins were pay parity between adjunct faculty and full time non-tenure faculty and over 40% raises for adjunct faculty, as well as long-term contract of 2 and 4 semesters for adjunct faculty after reaching seniority thresholds. For our full-time non tenure faculty we won presumptive renewal after the fourth contract which is a very strong form of job security. For our grad workers we won a 33% raise across the life of the contract. We also won five years of universal funding for all PhD programs at Rutgers starting in AY 24-25 and we have developed a path to accrete our graduate worker fellows into the bargaining unit.

Bryan Sacks: In addition to the significant material gains Todd outlined, we successfully imposed on management a demand that we be permitted to operate as one unit during bargaining. While we nominally remained separate units, the three faculty units cooperated on virtually every aspect of the contract campaign: organizing, messaging, bargaining strategy and, ultimately, striking. This disoriented management and made it easier for our adjunct bargaining team to keep the pressure on them to meet our core demands around pay parity and job security.

Joe: This seems big:  Getting so many unions–faculty, grad students, and staff–working together, both formally and informally.  Can you say more about some of the challenges or strategies you used to get so many different unions and workers working together?

Todd: The basis of the strategy was to build long term trust. That meant meeting often and learning about one another’s goals and beginning to collaborate and show up for one another on those goals. Personally, I think a turning point on trust across units emerged during the pandemic when the full time faculty committed to entering a work share program in order to protect the jobs of adjunct faculty and staff.

Bryan: Examples of that trust-building included adjunct leadership regularly participating in the committees of the FT and grad worker unit, and vice-versa.  We also coordinated messaging to members emphasizing what we had in common - a need to fight contingency, significantly raise the salaries of our lowest-paid members, and a strong desire to better serve students through the improvement of our working conditions.

Joe:  What was the strategic approach or preparation that made winning possible?  What tactics or demands proved particularly useful?

Todd: There were four pieces to our approach. 1. We built solidarity across three separate unions, drawing on years of collaboration and support. 2. We built a strong organizing program rooted in Jane McAlevey’s concept of super majority and structure testing where we methodically test the strength of the union through different actions. In particular, we had a strike school in the fall of ’22 where we trained about 500 members and in the spring we had picket line trainings for about the same number. We consistently tested our structure and our strength. 3. We centered the demands of the most vulnerable in this campaign but we had critical demands for all of our job categories. 4. Finally, we pushed for big, transparent negotiations as much as possible.

Bryan: A huge factor in our ability to build that solidarity during the contract campaign of Fall 2022-Spring 2023 was the previous merger campaign our three unions undertook beginning in Spring 2022. While the merger campaign didn’t result in a legal merger of our units, it  mobilized the largest number of adjuncts (members and non-members) in our union’s history. Crucially, it also demonstrated to our members that the full-time and clinical/medical faculty were in this fight with us. This clearly emboldened our members during the strike pledge campaign and our strike authorization votes.

[ … ]

Joe:  What were the biggest obstacles that you had to overcome on the way to achieving what you did?

Todd: The biggest obstacle was balancing the multiple constituencies, including our students and community. It was also very difficult to successfully bargain on issues that were not mandatorily negotiable and that is something we want to improve in our next contract.

[ … ]

Joe:  Zooming out a bit: what important lessons did you all learn through your recent efforts at Rutgers that are worth sharing with others elsewhere?

Todd: When we organize across job categories we can win big. And importantly, higher education workers can transform our institutions if we build alignment across job category.

Joe: This notion of alignment seems key to your approach.  Can you spell that concept out a bit more?

Todd: For me, alignment is having leadership and members from different job categories on our campuses that have a clear and shared understanding of the problem. In this case, it is the 50 year federal and state divestment from higher education and the outcomes, from contingency and understaffing to student debt, rising tuition, the explosion of higher ed bureaucrats and the attacks on academic freedom and tenure. Once we have that sort of shared understanding, the whole body of the university can see that we have a shared interest in transformational change and we can begin the process of plotting a collective strategy to make that change on our campuses across our states and ultimately across the country.

Bryan: In terms of the big lessons: First, don’t believe those who tell you adjuncts can’t be organized. It’s a matter of reaching everyone in the unit, listening to what they’re most concerned about in their workplace, and then organizing to address those concerns.

Second, I agree with Todd about the need to build solidarity across all academic job categories. It’s hard for contingent faculty and other categories of vulnerable workers to win their demands by themselves. All academic laborers are important contributors to students’ educational experience, and when you create cross-category solidarity, the student body, media and public will respond positively. Having the shared understanding  of what academic labor is facing really helps as well.

Joe: That’s a very interesting point about how a more holistic, united approach has implications for reaching students, media, and the public.  Can you elaborate on that a bit? [ ... ] Could it be that this is a key way in which it is actually in the long-term interest of FTTT faculty to build with adjuncts, grad students, staff, and others, despite the challenges such a broad and deep effort involves?

Bryan: Students, their parents, and the broader public are all key stakeholders in higher education. They’re positioned to be our natural allies, which is one reason why so much energy on the right is spent trying to demonize academic unions and cast doubt on the value of the work we do. Among other effects, demonization makes austerity arguments sound more reasonable.

But an educated public is the greatest threat to right-wing ideologies. With this in mind, academic laborers should work together to appeal to those publics - and to students in particular. All university workers are important contributors to student experience, whether we’re faculty, cafeteria workers, maintenance or clerical staff, bus drivers, librarians, or any of several other categories of university employee. Students understand this very well. This gives us an advantage over university administration which is often seen, rightfully, to be an impediment to positive student experience. What this means is that unions need to communicate that it’s our workers who are on students’ side, and that our fights for better contracts mean far better universities for them.

[ … ]

Joe:   As you indicated at the start of our interview, among the noteworthy achievements of your recent struggle was the significant gains made for Part-time and NTT faculty.  Could you say more about those wins and what made them possible?  What role did TT to NTT (or FT to PT) solidarity play in this process? 

Bryan: Adjuncts and NTTs strategized together, bargained together, and we structured our demands so that adjuncts were demanding gains that would put us into alignment with current [Full-time] NTT compensation and certain NTT job security provisions. We successfully defeated the pernicious “zero-sum” argument whereby contingent and full-time faculty are needlessly pitted against one another. In other words, we didn’t accept that any gains one unit achieved necessarily meant less would be available for other units, even if at times we were willing to trade gains for one unit so that another could benefit. The fact that our strike forced the intervention by Governor Murphy suggested to us that new state money could be made available to meet our demands if we kept the pressure on, which is precisely what happened. The result was winning the demands listed earlier.

Joe:   What would you say to FTTT faculty as to why it's appropriate or necessary to prioritize the issues of PT and NTT (or Adjunct) faculty in the current situation?

Todd: We need to build a wall-to-wall formation at all of our institutions. In order to do that we must prioritize the demands of the most vulnerable as a platform for winning long term alignment. And, we must challenge the core contradictions in higher education, which include our institutions’ addiction to short-term contingent contracts, rising tuition and growing student debt, and the emergence of a very powerful managerial class of bureaucrats that run our institutions.

[ … ]

Joe:  Any other advice for those organizing in the FSU at UMB right now (a 50/50 TT/NTT union of faculty plus librarians? Our next round of bargaining starts soon!

Todd: This is not a time to settle. This is a time when the wind is at our backs and we must set our horizon high and organize to win contract provisions that can transform our institutions for workers and students.

Bryan:  Build solidarity between job categories. Educate members to everyone’s demands. Involve as many rank-and-file members as you can in your campaign. Structure test your units often, and press as hard as the support your members offer will allow for. There’s a whole world to win.

Read the full transcript here: