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The Point: New Jersey State of Mind


Greetings, Colleagues:

What an honor to be sending you this communication on May Day (aka International Workers’ Day)—the holiday that celebrates the efforts of labor around the world.

On the Executive Committee of the FSU we remain ever mindful that one of our main jobs is to try to improve your working conditions, not to make them more onerous.  With that in mind we want to keep this week’s Point as clear, direct, and short as possible. We recognize that it is the time of the semester when it becomes difficult even to keep up with basic job responsibilities and not take on extra tasks. As such, we urge you to file this somewhere safe, for when you do have a few extra minutes to read about what is the most exciting development in the academic labor movement of recent memory.

Here it is: it is an interview with Professor Deepa Kumar, former president of the multi-campus Rutgers University faculty union and one architect of the cross-sectoral organizing campaign that in recent weeks led approximately 9,000 academic workers to go on strike for a better contract and achieve what looks, from here to be a truly impressive tentative agreement.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that even after 30+ years of living in the Boston area, your humble reporter—a New Jersey native—might be biased in believing that the Garden State fights above its weight class in many arenas. But I think you’ll agree that the Rutgers’ accomplishments are truly impressive.)

This interview transcript is long, but well worth your time—when you have the time.  For now, I just want to briefly index three main areas of achievement of the Rutgers’ effort with an eye for what it might have to teach us at UMB.

  1. Cross-Sectoral Organizing.  This does not happen overnight, but the Rutgers success is certainly one result of the strength-in-numbers approach that brought together tenure-stream faculty, contingent faculty, graduate workers and postdoctoral fellows.  This kind of cross-sectoral organizing effort is not easy to effectuate or sustain: even in the moment of the strong tentative agreement, it is clear that not all constituencies are equally satisfied (or happy with the decision to suspend the strike). A crucial message for those of us who are tenure-stream faculty is that we have enormous power to get management to bargain fairly, but only if we are willing to do the work and give up a tiny bit of our privilege for the greater good.  Which brings me to….
  2. Bargaining for the Common Good. Professor Kumar is utterly convincing in her comments on the commitment of the Rutgers’ unions to use their power to improve the lives not only of member of the campus community but of the surrounding community as well.  Doing so is partly practical; it means that when it comes time for bargaining (and possible strike activity) there is a huge amount of goodwill and support coming from faith communities, other labor unions, and so on. Bust mostly this is a matter of ethical commitment: Bargaining for the Common Good includes a range of issues from affordable housing to racial and immigrant justice and is meant to “benefit both campus workers and the broader communities they live and work in.”
  3. Real Equity: For some time now the unions at Rutgers have recognized and acted on the realization that top-down DEI efforts tend to emphasize the short-term, the performative, and the superficial.  Beginning with its 2018-2022 contract the union achieved some major gains in the realm of real equity—especially salary equity.  The Rutgers’ unions had the courage to platform an intersectional approach to equity on campus at a moment when austerity logic had made doing seem virtually utopian.  But their energetic organizing efforts led to some real success—and the promise of more in the future.

This is your union! Please let us know at what lessons you find in the example of the successful Rutgers’ organizing effort.


Jeff Melnick

Vice President