Last week, after a first-ever week-long strike at Rutgers University in New Jersey, 93% of three Rutgers faculty unions (Rutgers AAUP-AFT, Rutgers PTLFC, and AAUP-BHSNJ) voted to ratify a new, unified contract. The contract effectively merges the three unions into one, making the union larger and potentially stronger than had previously been the case. It also won significant pay increases. Over the next three years and going back one year retroactively, full-time faculty will get a 14% raise, while teaching assistants and graduate workers (among the lowest-paid of academic workers) will see a 32% increase. They also won multi-semester and multi-year appointments, a gain expected to give them a bit more stability after decades of increasing job insecurity. Grad workers will also get guaranteed funding for five years, there will be a new, binding arbitration process for grievances, and new paths to tenure. They also won a number of other gains for library workers, new vacation benefits, and a “Common Good Community Fund” that will be used for community needs and initiatives.
This is unquestionably a victory for the hard-pressed academic workers of Rutgers, who with this victory at least temporarily stopped the backwards slide that non-tenured faculty had been on for decades. They were pushed into this situation by the university administration, which gave them a terrible contract in 2019, and initially rejected outright all the unions’ major demands in the lead-up to this contract negotiation. The 2019 contract created anger among many rank-and-file faculty, who built a reform movement within their unions to win offices and then began organizing for this strike. This shows that education workers, when motivated and organized, can win strikes and make real gains.
But we shouldn’t think that this is over. These financial gains will certainly be a great boost to faculty, but they barely keep up with the costs of increasing inflation (which is approximately 5% today, nearly the equivalent of the yearly gains for most workers covered by this contract). Like many major universities, Rutgers has also ballooned at the top, with more and higher-paid administrators than ever before, eating up more money that should be used for its education workers and student services, as well as to reduce the cost of tuition. Even though New Jersey’s governor was directly involved in negotiations, the strike in no way addressed the lack of state funding that has forced continual tuition increases for more than two decades, making Rutgers far less affordable than it was 20 years ago. All these larger factors make it likely that Rutgers academic workers will continue to face the same challenges into the future, and will have to continue to organize and build for power if they want to maintain their hard-won gains.