USA: lessons of the Rutgers strike

Joining the massive wave of labor action on campuses throughout the country, academic workers at New Jersey’s largest public university went on strike on April 10. Over 9,000 workers represented by three unions took to the picket lines in Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick. A first since the school’s founding in 1766, the strike lasted five days with energetic rallies and pickets, before a tentative framework, brokered by Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, put the strike on ice, diverting the struggle to the bargaining table. As of May 8, some 93% of members had voted to ratify their contracts. Enormous potential was on display during this inspiring strike and important lessons for the broader labor movement can be learned from both its successes and limitations.

Strike action is the ace up the workers’ sleeve

At the beginning of the strike, the workers had been without a contract for nine months, a period characterized by tough posturing of university management, who stonewalled negotiations by refusing to acknowledge the key demands of the unions. Incredibly, the day before the strike was called, management did not even bother to show up for the bargaining session at all. All of this undoubtedly represented a hardball strategy informed by the seasoned union-busting attorneys of the Jackson Lewis law firm, who thought they might call the unions’ bluff.

As in similar union efforts throughout the country, this stern approach by management bordered on absurdity when compared to the modest demands put forward by the unions and their campaign of rallies at meetings of the Rutgers Board of Governors. With management unphased until the very last, it was the strike that finally broke the log jam, illustrating clearly that it is the power of workers to withhold their labor that gets the goods, not a reliance on rallies and actions meant to pressure the besuited gentlemen of the Board of Governors, as useful as those are to gauge the mood of the workers and students.

What was demanded and what was won

cropped Logo spelled out black type Image Rutgers AAUP AFTMost significantly, the union took up the question of the casualization of academic labor, which has gone on for decades / Image: Rutgers AAUP-AFT

Many of the demands reflected the same pressures that have driven other long-inert layers of the working class onto the path of struggle on a global scale: inflation. Most of the key demands centered on modest pay increases, especially those of the most underpaid layers of academic workers: adjuncts, part-time lecturers, postdocs, and teaching and graduate assistants.

However, the demands around salaries were in marked contrast with the need for a living wage. In the case of graduate workers, the unions demanded that salaries be brought in line with the national average, a far cry from what they deserve in one of the most expensive states in the country. Other demands for salary increases, such as the full-time faculty, would not even keep up with the current rate of inflation over the life of the four-year contract, effectively amounting to wage stagnation.

Most significantly, the union took up the question of the casualization of academic labor, which has gone on for decades. To this end, they demanded that per-credit pay of adjuncts and part-time lecturers be raised to that of non-tenured full time faculty, multi-year contracts, and access to the university’s health plan. They also demanded non-specific, optional pathways to tenure for the university’s full-time faculty and postdocs.

Other demands included increased funding for childcare, salary increases specifically aimed at the workers in Camden and Newark—who have long been treated as lesser satellites to the central campuses in New Brunswick, more teacher control over classroom conditions and scheduling, and more.

Rutgers University Image Rutgers bus enthusiast Wikimedia CommonsThere were also demands formulated by the Bargaining for the Common Good coalition, made up of other local labor, immigrant, and student organizations / Image: Rutgers bus enthusiast, Wikimedia Commons

In addition to union members, there were also demands formulated by the Bargaining for the Common Good coalition, made up of other local labor, immigrant, and student organizations. These demands included a rent freeze on Rutgers properties to alleviate soaring housing costs in the neighborhoods surrounding the campuses, a $1 million investment by the university in a community fund for local residents in need, and debt forgiveness for undergraduates for things such as parking violations, which the university uses to withhold transcripts and degrees. Unfortunately, bargaining yielded a contract that fell short of most of the union’s initial demands.

The extremely modest demands on the part of the unions seem to have been informed by appeals to “practicality” and “realism,” fearing the negative press campaign that would result from demanding more. This is a dynamic we see time and again in many public sector struggles. However, preemptive concessions do not serve workers one iota. The art of negotiating anything, whether it’s a labor contract or a used wicker chair on Facebook Marketplace, is largely the same: the initial asking price should be more than what you are willing to sell for. In the case of the Rutgers contract fight, the lesson is clear: Bolder demands would have yielded greater results.

More importantly, the results raise the question of the unions’ decision to suspend the strike upon the drafting of the tentative agreement after five days. The agreement itself had proved disappointing to many union members and the strike was suspended while a number of important demands still remained unresolved, particularly those brought forward by the Bargaining for the Common Good coalition.

battle strike 1934 Image public domainA return to the militant traditions that built the labor movement is required / Image: public domain

The decision to suspend was viewed as a tactical mistake by a sizable number of graduate workers who took a more fighting stance, hoping to see their demands met under the pressure of the strike. Enormous power lies in the hands of the workers, not only to get management to the table, but to win their demands outright. By suspending the strike, the unions effectively removed their primary source of leverage in the midst of negotiations, returning to the tactic of rallies which received little press coverage.

As we have seen in countless struggles globally, a reliance on rallies and short-term strikes is simply not enough to wrest even defensive reforms in the context of capitalist crisis. A return to the militant traditions that built the labor movement is required, not the traditions that characterized the movement’s retreat, beginning in the 1980s, that relied primarily on PR and “pressure” campaigns.

While public perception is certainly an important consideration in any strike, it is the duty of the union to prepare for any and all attacks that have the potential to drive a wedge between the strikers and the broader working class. At Rutgers, the unions had already made a strong case in their messaging for far more than they were demanding at the bargaining table.

Examples of the distorted priorities of the university administration can be plucked at will. After the injection of federal pandemic relief funds, Rutgers is more flush with cash than ever. And what did the university do with those funds? They laid off hundreds of adjuncts during the pandemic. When looking at the unions’ demands, the most substantial of them was estimated to cost the university $20 million, a sum that would undoubtedly be harped on by those hostile to the strikers. However, compare that to the football coach’s $32 million contract (yes, that’s one man) and the overall unrestricted financial reserves of the university, which amount to over $818 million. Many at Rutgers and throughout the state are right to wonder whether the university is a public educational institution or merely bank with an athletic lifestyle brand attached.

Perhaps the union feared that a negative press campaign would zero in on the graduate workers, painting them as entitled students and undermining public support. However, a recent study at Rutgers itself revealed that of its workers who have essential research and teaching responsibilities, 46% reported either food or housing insecurity, including 5.6% reporting a period of homelessness. This is amid skyrocketing rent costs (over 33% reported last year in New Jersey) alongside continued inflation in an already expensive state. Armed with this basic data, the unions were well positioned to fight back against any anti-strike media campaign from the capitalist press.

Indeed, such a campaign could serve to provide the union with a platform from which to boldly call on support from the working class more broadly. With labor union favorability recently hitting 71% nationally, its highest level since 1965, the struggle at Rutgers could have not only gained support but spurred action elsewhere.

We don’t need to speculate about this either. After ten months of stalled negotiations with management, administrative staff at the university organized with URA-AFT, launched a strike pledge drive in the midst of the academic workers’ strike. While the truncated academic workers’ strike was a missed opportunity for them to combine efforts, it is clear that URA-AFT joining the coalition in future contract fights is a necessity. That said, we may yet see a stand-alone strike of URA-AFT.

Just across the street from Rutgers, Newark, a similar situation is brewing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where teaching and research assistants, post-docs, and adjuncts, organized into United Council of Academics @ NJIT (UCAN) have been without a contract for over nine months and have been campaigning for weeks to increase pressure on management to budge in negotiations.

In New Brunswick, 70 workers at the Barnes and Noble that serves as the university bookstore, submitted formal notice to management just days before the Rutgers strike that they intend to hold an NLRB vote to unionize, a first for the company. With a high proportion of students working in nearby industries, we may well see the impact that this strike has had in galvanizing the confidence of new layers of the class just entering the struggle.

A class-independent strategy is essential

Union logos for one faculty Image Rutgers AAUP AFTThe bridging of gaps between workers in a field which long encouraged a strong tendency towards individualist careerism should be celebrated as a conquest for labor nationally / Image: Rutgers AAUP-AFT

The past decade has seen the transformation of AAUP-AFT at Rutgers, from a union that lacked a bold leadership willing to lead its members in any kind of struggle, to one that has forged a coalition capable of acting in unison during a strike. The coalition of unions that went on strike included 5,000 full-time employees, post-docs, and grad students represented by Rutgers AAUP-AFT, 2,700 part-time adjuncts represented by PTLFC-AAUP-AFT, and 1,300 health science faculty represented by AAUP-BHSNJ. The bridging of gaps between workers in a field that has traditionally been hierarchically structured and which long encouraged a strong tendency towards individualist careerism should be celebrated as a conquest for labor nationally.

With the labor of academics under assault for decades through austerity and the increasing use of contingent labor, the pressures have mounted, necessitating a bold turn toward the best of labor’s traditions and the implementation of the slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all!” But this class-based approach must be generalized beyond the confines of individual unions.

In any strike, the workers can only rely on their own power and solidarity support from the broader layers of the working class. Where there is yet a lack of broad solidarity, there is a need to forge those relationships and to prepare to face the enemy with absolutely no illusions in their empty rhetoric. Despite the weakened state of the labor movement, still emerging from decades of lethargy, it is a mistake to turn to those who claim to stand with labor in words alone.

Jonathan Holloway Image public domainUniversity President Holloway epitomizes the classic case of a former professor with “progressive” credentials, whose bourgeois ambitions have brought him in direct conflict with labor / Image: public domain

Being among the largest public sector strikes in state history, a lot of political and professional “friends of labor” careers were at stake. Among them is University President Jonathan Holloway, who epitomizes the classic case of a former professor with some “progressive” credentials, whose bourgeois ambitions have brought him in direct conflict with labor. And this is not the first time, as his record at Yale and Northwestern in previous years illustrates. To highlight the absurdity of this union-busting “progressive,” just a few months ago he was published in DSA’s Democratic Left—though his article has since been removed after protest from two of New Jersey’s DSA chapters.

While Holloway deliberately avoided attending any of the negotiations in an effort to dodge the added scrutiny that would surely tarnish his manicured image, he was not shy in floating his opinion of the illegality of the strike and threatened to petition for an injunction against the workers. In response, the unions replied by correctly pointing out that public sector strikes would not be illegal in the absence of injunctions against them.

In a statement, the union stated that they “hope that President Holloway will not seek an injunction at all. However, if he does, we call on him to follow in the footsteps of President Bloustein [who sought only to curtail the locations of pickets during an AFSCME strike in 1987]. As a scholar of labor history, he should know not to act in any way that would prevent us from exercising the fundamental right of withholding our labor.”

Appeals to bourgeois legality and the kinder nature of the university’s president is a strategic mistake. If an injunction were issued and the strike effectively declared illegal, it would be necessary, not to meekly respect that decision, but to deliberately fight against it. In such a situation, it would be necessary to prepare the workers for that eventuality. Immense power is in the hands of the Rutgers’ unions and a piece of paper in itself would be incapable of breaking a picket line if the workers remained determined and if broad support of the students and the broader working class were rallied behind them.

Governor Phil Murphy also threw his hat into the ring at the eleventh hour, calling on management and the unions to “Figure this out, ASAP,” and asking management not to take legal action. Murphy, seeking to avoid an ongoing conflict, ultimately pledged $70 million from the state, which led to the tentative agreement, effectively bailing out Rutgers management from any of their responsibilities and bolstering his “pro-labor” credentials. Like Holloway, Murphy has long postured as a “progressive.” It is widely believed that he has ambitions for the Oval Office and the embarrassment that would flow from crushing a strike would not look good on his resume to working-class voters. However, it would be a return to form considering his history as a Goldman Sachs executive who oversaw the capitalist looting of industry in East Germany after Reunification.

Revealing the thinking of many in union leadership on the alleged perils of not suspending the strike, Deepa Kumar, former president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, stated:

I am not sure. What I do know is that this is very risky. Holloway would immediately get an injunction and that would be the end of the strike. Management could then take everything that they have conceded to in the framework back. And it is likely that the governor would withdraw the $70 million. With finals fast approaching and with seniors getting ready to graduate, we would face a situation where they would need to wait a year. This is very likely to irk parents. And our union will be seen as taking an “all or nothing” posture that would enable the standard anti-union narrative of “greedy” workers who don’t know when to stop and not hurt the public. In this case, we might also be cast as “irresponsible” for holding seniors back.

In the same interview, Kumar notes the danger of relying on the Democrats, but says “we know that Democrats are fair-weather friends. It’s really about holding their feet to the fire when we need to and making sure that they follow through on their supposed support for labor, while knowing full well that they could let us down at any minute.”

This clearly illustrates the unwillingness of a part of the leadership to prepare to escalate the struggle to its logical conclusion. Instead, it is reflective of an approach that has long plagued the American labor movement and political left of not preparing for eventualities that flow from a class analysis of society and accepting the immediate conditions as a fixed quantity. This approach is epitomized by DSA founder Michael Harrington’s famous phrase, “the left of the possible.” Cowing to a legal injunction issued by a former labor historian and reliance on a former Goldman Sachs executive’s magnanimity is not a strategy of working-class struggle, it is acceptance of the anti-labor status quo.

harrington Image Barbara Alper Getty ImagesThe approach of the conservative wing of the labor movement is epitomized by DSA founder Michael Harrington’s famous phrase, “the left of the possible” / Image: Barbara Alper, Getty Images

This begs questions of a broader strategic nature: the need for working-class independent political organizing. At the strike’s first rally on April 10, Donna Chiera, President of the New Jersey AFT, illustrated the power of organized labor by referring to the pressures they exerted which resulted in the resignations of previous anti-labor Rutgers presidents from office. First McCormick, then Barchi. Next up: Holloway. This is well and good and earned wild applause. However, she then pivoted towards the necessity of registering to vote with appeals aimed at a “lesser evil” political strategy. The response was notably muted. One could not help but see the futility of this argument, which we have seen time and again with predictable results: new boss, same as the old boss.

Nationally, the labor movement lacks a political weapon of its own to wield in the battles that lie ahead. The Rutgers strike illustrates clearly the treachery inherent in continued faith in “progressive” Democrats who, even in the absolute best of circumstances, are under extreme pressure within the party to “both sides” any dispute between labor and management. Look no further than the Squad’s near-universal strikebreaking vote against the railroad workers in the fall of 2022. We know that there are no neutrals when it comes to irreconcilable class antagonisms and we need a political party founded on this elementary fact.

With a robust and organic base of working-class activists and free from any commitment to the interests of the capitalist class, such a party could take up the cause of student debt cancellation, guaranteed access to higher education for all, guaranteed grants and paid internships for all students to ensure that they can dedicate themselves fully to their education, and more. Such steps could more effectively forge a mighty movement of students and youth directly with the efforts of educators and the broader working class. Imagine the Bargaining for the Common Good coalition of the Rutgers strike on steroids. Drawing in the workers of surrounding neighborhoods and workplaces into a political party fighting on the electoral front and coordinating and mobilizing at the “workplace front.”

For a socialist solution to the crisis in higher education

Little Tokyo UTLA Strike Day Image Mike Chickey Wikimedia CommonsThe only way to fundamentally address the crisis in higher education is through the socialist transformation of society / Image: Mike Chickey, Wikimedia Commons

Academic workers at Rutgers and throughout the country have taken a bold stand against capitalism’s reduction of education to the mere calculation of profitability on account ledgers. However, as the capitalist crisis deepens, so too will the crisis in higher education. This is not merely a question of policy choices, but policies that reflect the necessity of capitalist rule: to more thoroughly plunder existing markets for higher profit. Gone are the days of easily fought for wage increases as capitalists allowed crumbs to fall from their table.

As we’ve seen, public and non-profit institutions are not quarantined from the dictates of capital, highlighting that the only way to fundamentally address the crisis in higher education is through the socialist transformation of society, through the nationalization of the major industries and educational institutions under workers’ democratic control and planning. The struggle of the working class in general, but public sector workers in particular, must fight on the picket line and politically.

In any strike the question of power is posed. The strike of academic workers brought Rutgers to a halt, and it has revealed the real power dynamic and the conclusions which flow from it: those that make Rutgers run, should run Rutgers! However, to realize that potential, a number of successive steps must be accomplished by the labor movement more broadly: a nationally coordinated movement of academic workers and students, and a political party of the working class armed with a fighting socialist program.

This is the perspective we fight for!

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