Tempest member Dana Cloud spoke to Rutgers professor and union leader Deepa Kumar about how the unions united faculty and graduate students across academic ranks in a strike that brought the administration to the bargaining table and won major gains. This strike is a signal moment in the USA’s higher education labour movement.
Rutgers University picket line, 10 April 2023. Photo by SeichanGant used under CC licence.
This interview first appeared in Tempest, which is running a series of interviews with participants in the historic strike of faculty and graduate students at Rutgers University, the largest university in New Jersey – the second in the series is here.

After ten months of failed and bad-faith bargaining talks with the university administration, members of three unions — the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT, respresenting 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 American Association of University Profesors – Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey (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 organising 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% increase in per-credit pay; full-time faculty won more raises of 3.5/3.75% 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 $600,000 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 [24 April], as University administrators are stalling forward progress toward an agreement and a contract. [Update – the unions began balloting members on the tentative agreements on May 4.]

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.

Deepa Kumar is Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University and former president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the academic workers union. She has served as an elected officer of the union from 2013-2019, during which the union shifted from a service model to an intersectional model of unionism. She has been an elected member of the executive council, which is the highest decision-making body of the union, since 2010.

Dana Cloud: Can you tell me a bit about the background to the present strike?

Deepa Kumar: The Rutgers AAUP-AFT academic workers union is one of the oldest academic unions and was formed over 50 years ago. This is the first strike in our 50-plus year history.

Strikes don’t come out of nowhere, and it takes years of preparation before a union is ready to use the strike weapon. We were largely a passive union that didn’t ask much from its members. In 2008, I won a resolution to have chapter meetings because I wanted to organize a rank-and-file caucus. However, when we called for such a chapter meeting, only three people came to it. This was because of the culture of the union at the time.

What catalyzed the shift in our union from the ‘service’ model of unionism (which involves an elected leadership and staff working to serve the members and negotiate contracts), to a rank-and-file ‘intersectional’ union (that organises and mobilises members and focuses not only on class but also race and gender inequities) was the recession of 2008-2009. The contract that we got in the aftermath of this economic crisis was pretty bad and involved wage freezes.

This was the moment when some of us who had a different vision of what it would take to stand up to management’s attacks, were given a hearing. I argued for and won a contract campaign organiser for our 2013-2014 contract. Because we mobilised our members, we won a much better contract.

In 2015, a left-wing slate was elected to the leadership of the union which centred social justice activism. When Trump was elected, the union became the hub for anti-Trump activism. Our union called a meeting to organise against the Muslim ban and in 24 hours, over a hundred students and faculty showed up in our office. We took up the attack on DACA and protected our students. Our activism forced then Rutgers university president, Bob Barchi, to declare a sanctuary campus.

We then organized a race and gender equity campaign and made an educational video to explain to our members why intersectionality is a union issue. We conducted a long survey (40+ questions) which close to 2,000 of our members filled out. But members across all ranks were eager to share their experiences. This was the first time we had such significant participation in a union survey. There was a sense among our faculty that intersectionality was now on the agenda and more BIPOC [Black, indigenous and people of colour] faculty and students got involved in our union.

I led this campaign because of my own experiences as an immigrant woman of color faculty member who has faced a good deal of discrimination including salary disparities. When faculty of color note that one has to be twice as good as their white counterparts to receive the same recognition and benefits, they are right on the mark.

All this work, combined with the fact that Barchi had become extremely unpopular, meant that when we took a strike vote in 2019, over 92% of our members voted to strike. Just the threat of a strike led to a historic settlement. We won $20 million for diversity hiring, a pay equity process, 16% raise for graduate workers over a period of four years (at a time when NJ state workers were getting in the 2% range/year), job security for full-time non-tenure track faculty among other wins.

The new leadership that we recruited in 2019 shared our vision, built on the gains of the past and took our union forward. This time, however, they faced a new challenge: the first African American president of Rutgers. We have heard through the grapevine that the chair of the Board of Governors was keen to hire Jonathan Holloway as a way to push back against our intersectional union and to divide us.

The pandemic had the opposite effect. The new leadership (Todd Wolfson and Becky Givan) did tremendous work uniting all unions at Rutgers. While our union had worked in coalition with other unions in the past, they brought together an industrial “wall-to-wall” approach during the pandemic. In order to prevent layoffs of dining hall workers, janitorial staff and others, our union working with the governor’s office adopted a work-share program where faculty took furloughs, which was funded by the state of New Jersey, in order to prevent layoffs and to get an extra year of funding for graduate workers. This was a moment of true solidarity across various unions and historic first for us.

Photo credit: AAUP-AFT via Facebook.

DC: Can you speak to the wall-to-wall organising strategy and its lessons, methods, and challenges? Many of us on the Left who do organising and who work in higher education are wondering how is it that solidarity can be crafted across academic ranks and workforces, including tenured and tenure-track faculty, non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty, adjuncts (part-time contingent instructors), graduate students, postdocs, staff, and the healthcare workers over at the medical school. It’s remarkable. How did that happen?

DK: The university is a very hierarchical space where status and stature are given to certain people and denied to others. The most senior professors are at the top of this hierarchy of academic workers, whereas adjunct faculty are largely invisible. For at least as long as I have been at Rutgers (2004), it was full professors and distinguished professors who were in the leadership of the union. And while these colleagues bargained good contracts (Rudy Bell was an ace negotiator) up until the economic crisis, they did not set out to bring various ranks together or stem the tide of the adjunctification of higher ed.

Beyond this are of course the workers who clean our campuses, feed our students, do administrative work, deliver packages and do various other tasks involved in running a university. Patrick Nowlan (the executive director) and Sherry Wolf (senior organiser) held regular meetings to build unity with other unions through the course of the 2010s. During the 2018-2019 campaign we centered the most vulnerable workers and sought to shed light on the plight of adjunct faculty through political education and videos. However, we weren’t able to win significant gains for adjunct faculty in 2019. As I have laid out elsewhere, the adjunct union and ours didn’t share a common approach to organizing and we weren’t aligned.

This time, however, intensive organising helped bring the three academic worker unions together for joint bargaining. This was a huge step forward. The pandemic made us all vulnerable, regardless of where we sit on the hierarchy. It was so important for our union to unite all of us with a focus on the most vulnerable. That is what paved the way for current unity and the strike.

DC: Can you speak to the role that the governor has played in the strike?

DK: As soon as we went on strike on April 10th the governor, Phil Murphy (Democrat), who had largely been on the sidelines, took a keen interest. The president of the university, Jonathan Holloway, a historian of black struggle in the US, took a strong anti-union posture threatening to bring an injunction to force us back to work.

Murphy asked Holloway not to seek an injunction and insisted that the three unions that were on strike and management come to his office and work out a settlement within 48 hours. In New Jersey, it is neither legal nor illegal to strike. Holloway dissembled about this in the lead up to the strike stating in an email to all academic workers that a strike was not lawful in New Jersey. This was clearly meant to intimidate and divide us.

Once we were on strike, Murphy took an interest presumably because Rutgers is the largest public university in the state and because he claims to be pro-labor. The governor’s mediators forced management to respond in a timely manner. Whereas there was almost no progress over the previous 10 months, the intervention of the governor’s office combined with about $70 million in state funds, led to the incredible framework that was agreed upon.

This was not the first time that the union has turned to the governor’s office or to NJ Democrats to pressure Rutgers management. The former State Senate majority leader, Loretta Weinberg, supported our pay equity fight and attended and spoke at several Board of Governors meetings.

Keep in mind that the Office of General Council, and the lead negotiator (David Cohen), are former Republican governor Chris Christie’s people. Add to this, the union busting law firm:Jackson Lewis. This firm has been working with Rutgers management for some years now. So there is a formidable wall of resistance that our union has to constantly go up against. Moreover, Holloway not only retained all these lawyers but has empowered them even further in the daily functioning of the university.

DC: There has been great controversy that the strike was suspended in an undemocratic manner and that the rank-and-file was not consulted. Can you respond to this controversy?

DK: The leadership of graduate workers, organised in the graduate steering committee, were strongly opposed to suspending the strike. The governor had given the union an ultimatum: take the framework and suspend the strike or lose everything, including the $70 million to pay for many of the victories in the framework. It might be worth it to go into more detail on this process so that people can understand why we voted to suspend.

At 8:30pm on April 15th, the Executive Council (EC), which is a democratically elected body consisting of full-time faculty, TA/GAs, Postdocs and EOF counselors, and which is empowered to vote on behalf of members on various issues including on when to start a strike and when to end it, voted (in a highly contentious meeting) to suspend the strike. Discussion took place for 3 hours and 15 minutes, and at 11:45pm a vote was taken. The adjunct union executive board was also present at this meeting and took a separate vote. (They voted unanimously to accept the framework).

In the EC, those who voted to suspend did so for the following reasons: The governor had put forward significant money to fund various economic demands and threatened to take this money away if we didn’t suspend the strike. Thus, we would have lost the gains in the framework if we walked away and would have had to start from scratch with a management that had refused to budge on key issues for 10 months. He had prevented Holloway from getting an injunction and had we continued on strike he may not have continued to pressure Holloway. Thus, Holloway could have got an injunction and forced us back to work.

Those who voted against argued that the governor was bluffing. He had set a 48-hour deadline for an agreement but we pushed him an additional 71 hours. Thus, they argued that we should call the Governor’s bluff, not accept his Friday evening deadline and continue to push for our demands while on strike. The strike, as well as spirited protests outside the governor’s office, were the most effective way to win our demands. If we suspended the strike, we would lose our leverage. They also asked for time to understand the framework and report back to members and assess with picket captains about our strength and capacity to continue to strike for a second week (our pickets were much weaker on Friday).

In response, others argued that this time they believed that Murphy would not budge (and could do what Biden did with railroad workers) and permit an injunction. Being forced back to work with an injunction would have seriously weakened us and we could have ended up in a situation with far fewer gains. They added that parents might have turned against us once they saw the huge gains we had won (and turned down) and that the media narrative (which was very positive towards us) could have turned against us as well.

In a 27-12 vote, the EC voted to accept the framework and suspend the strike. This decision to suspend caused a schism between graduate workers and others in our three unions. Moreover, our medical school colleagues weren’t able to win even a framework by Friday because our bargaining committee was so focused on grad demands. Thus, there was tension that resulted from this vote.

However, I should note that there was nothing undemocratic about it. The EC is the highest decision making body of the union and it is authorized to vote on behalf of members. When we have a tentative agreement, the agreement goes to all members for a vote. Incidentally, I led a “no” vote back in 2012. And grads are free to organize against any tentative agreement that is reached, and if our members don’t like what is negotiated, they can vote down the agreement.

Since the suspension vote, graduate workers have put out a call for solidarity with all unions. But they continue to maintain that a bulk of our bargaining demands must be met or the strike should be restarted.

Photo credit: AAUP-AFT via Facebook.

DC: You are saying that if you all go back on strike, you will sacrifice the tentative framework. Would you be hopeful that something better could be in the offing if the strike continued into the end of the semester?

DK: 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 my opinion, a union that had never been on strike in its 50+ year history can’t expect to win all its demands with one five-day strike. That is unrealistic. Our strike was powerful and we made significant gains. But even nation-wide strikes don’t result in workers winning all their demands. Thus, the 1997 UPS strike, which I have studied, and which had massive public support and good media coverage didn’t get the Teamsters everything they wanted.

My thinking on this is that the bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

DC: Holding all these constituencies together is so challenging, but the fact that they came together in the first place is pretty amazing. I’ve heard you and others attribute that to sort of the interdependence that was fostered during the COVID pandemic. But it seems to me that it has been key to make arguments with tenured and tenure track faculty to have solidarity with the more highly exploited instructional faculty and with graduate students, on whom tenured and tenure-track faculty have dependent for their labor. In addition, it is an achievement to build solidarity from undergraduate students in such a way as to thwart the administration’s attempt to pit students and their families against the striking faculty. How are people convinced that they share these interests in common and are willing to throw their support behind the most vulnerable?

DK: Over the last decade we have made arguments that show that we are all in this together. We brought back an old labour slogan: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’. And we made posters, banners and picket signs with this motto.

Take the case of rising numbers of adjunct faculty. This is not something that full time tenure-track and tenured faculty benefit from. It’s not as if the amount of advising that we have to do goes down. It’s not as if the number of committees that we’re on goes down. Yet, when full-time faculty ranks shrink, our workload increases. And so yes, there are more people teaching courses, and this is what adjunct faculty do, but the fewer tenured and tenure-track and the fewer full-time faculty that we have, the greater the service burden is on everybody else. So not only are some people being super exploited, but full-time faculty also have no interest in that exploitation in a real material sense.

As part of building solidarity, we made a number of educational videos in 2018. One of them was about our adjunct faculty. We showed the conditions that they have to endure. Some people live in their cars, sometimes because they can’t afford rent. Adjunct faculty told their stories of what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet.

We humanised them. We also showed how they don’t even have offices. And because we highlighted these human dimensions, people came to see that they don’t even know the names of adjunct faculty who work in their department. And then it became necessary to say: ‘well, maybe you should’. We encouraged full time faculty to get to know and understand the plight of adjunct faculty.

In my own school (School of Communication and Information) an office was created for adjunct faculty because we kicked up a fuss (tenured faculty did this) and said it is just not right to let adjunct faculty hold office hours with students on hallway benches.

We set out to make visible these invisible workers and shed light on their conditions of labor. We showed that solidarity for us was not simply  something that exists in a moral realm, but that materially we lose if we don’t stand with adjunct faculty. Tenured and tenure-track faculty are also very invested in good graduate programs because if you don’t have good funding, you lose people to  competing research-one universities.

Faculty want the kind of students who they can do research with and they spend a lot of time going through application processes to try to attract the best and brightest. And what we typically find after doing all this work is that we’ve lost the students to New York University or the University of Pennsylvania because their funding packages are much more attractive than ours.

So, TT faculty are very invested in trying to get good wages for grad workers, good healthcare benefits, fellowships and other things that make Rutgers attractive. So I would say that it is not hard to win people to the idea that they should stand in solidarity with graduate students. Certainly for faculty that exclusively do collaborative research, this is a huge problem to not be able to attract the kind of Ph.D. students they need to do their work.

Regarding non-academic workers, Todd Wolfson came up with a brilliant idea to hold school-wide meetings of all unionised workers. I don’t think that people know where the janitorial office is in my building or who it is who cleans their offices. It was necessary therefore for people to get to know one another and understand each other’s work conditions. Now staff and faculty hold regular meetings. This model has been used in other schools as well such as the Graduate School of Education, where everyone who works in that building, staff, faculty, graduate students come together to discuss their common plight. We hope to develop this further.

Sometimes we’ve also organized a common meeting point to walk together to attend a union rally, so that people get to see each other, meet one another, and get to understand what the issues that everybody faces. It’s been hard with the pandemic to actually meet face-to-face. But nevertheless, we’ve tried as much as possible to humanise people and to make them understand that the university is a corporation.

It exploits all of us, and as long as we’re fighting each other, we lose sight of the fact that there are over 800 million dollars in unrestricted reserves, which is money that is not earmarked for anything and that all it serves to do, to the best of my understanding, is improve the Moody’s rating for the university. The university has increasingly become like a corporation. And that’s because of who staffs our Board of Governors and Board of Trustees and the attitudes that they bring to the university.

Land grant [state-funded] universities were supposed to be institutions that served the public, and it has long lost this mission of prioritising research, teaching, and service to the community. It turned into a for-profit institution, and what we are arguing is that the university is not and should not be a corporation.

Our slogan is basically, ‘Rutgers is for education. We are not a corporation’.

Photo by Mel Bienenfeld.

DC: Can you talk a little bit more about how undergraduates were won into the struggle and what their role has been?

DK: We have been organizing with undergrads for quite a while through our Rutgers One coalition of students and community activists. Our Muslim ban and DACA work was done through this coalition. We also took up the key student problem of rising debt and higher tuition costs. David Hughes (VP of the Union) was deeply involved in this struggle.

Thus, when it came time to bargain our contract in 2018, undergraduate students supported us and understood that we are part of the same corporate university and face the same adversary.

Students also understand that our working conditions are their learning conditions. When you have insecure faculty, like adjuncts for instance, who teach over 30% of all courses, then you have a situation where a professor you love may not be there the next semester. In these conditions, how do students and adjunct faculty build a real relationship? How are adjuncts supposed to mentor? How do they write letters of recommendation and give career advice when they struggle with time pressures holding down teaching appointments in various universities?

This time around, our union has taken up several student demands around unpaid fees, withholding transcripts for students who have outstanding balances and other punitive measures etc. This is part of common good bargaining since it goes beyond what our members need to see what’s in the common good, a way of thinking and bargaining that we started in 2018 and have continued to the present. The common good involves incorporating our undergraduate students as well as community members, typically Black and Brown community members who live around our three campuses where Rutgers is a huge landlord.

DC: I want to come back to ‘intersectional organizing’, the wall-to-wall strategy across differences in rank, identities, and oppressions.  You led the shift towards this approach and made race and gender issues central to the union. Can you say more about why you took this approach?

DK: I can’t take credit for the ‘wall-to-wall’ approach. While we did work in a coalition with other unions when I was president, it was Todd who deepened this approach during the pandemic. When we talk about intersectional organising at Rutgers, we mean two things. First, organising with other unions and second, recognising various structural forms of oppression along the lines of race, gender, nationality, LGBTQ status, gender identity, disability, and making the struggles of these members central to our union. Not so coincidentally, those at the top in tenured and tenure-track positions tend to be overwhelmingly white, while dining hall and janitorial and groundskeeping workers are largely black and brown; there’s a huge race disjuncture. Thus, when we organise across rank, we organize also across identities and oppressions.

What I did when I was VP and then President was to center race and gender demands. My own experience, for instance, of not being allowed to go up for promotion to full professor (even though my second book was published in 2012) and being told that I had to produce yet another book signaled to me that if a union leader could be treated this way, what must others face? I also found that I was paid $25,000 less than a male colleague who was hired the same year that I was and that I had lost over $300,000 over the years. I tried to push back with the full support of the union, including our union staff and lawyers, but didn’t get very far. It bothered me that if an outspoken person like myself could be stymied in these ways, where does that leave more junior faculty or non tenure-track faculty who are scared to go up against a dean.

This is why I made winning a pay equity process that went higher than the dean-level a central priority.  And I am pleased to say that we won! It was a historic first. We also won campus equity. Our Camden and our Newark colleagues are paid less than our New Brunswick colleagues, even though the promotion and tenure expectations are the same.

This was a huge step forward, but management dragged its feet and did everything it could to render pay equity as ineffective as possible. Thus, the union and five women faculty were part of a lawsuit to win a better pay equity process. I was one of the plaintiffs. Because we went to court, and because Loretta Weinberg supported our struggle. we won an improved process. Now instead of a lawyer at Jackson Lewis (the union busting law firm) deciding what pay increase we should or should not get, we have a  faculty committee that also serves as a gatekeeper in the process. But we have not yet won campus equity. And we still have a long way to go in terms of realising actual pay equity.

DC: Could you say more about the ambivalent role the governor has played in this strike?

DK: Our union has shied away from seeking the support of the governor’s office and the Democrats in New Jersey because we’ve had some Democrats who have been quite anti-union, and even this governor actually raised our healthcare premiums quite significantly just earlier this year, leading to a pay cut for all of us.

But as I noted earlier, we are dealing with Christie appointed lawyers across the bargaining table and increasingly, thanks to Holloway, even in the day-to-day functioning of the university including the grievance process. Christie once said that the national teachers union deserves a “punch in the face.”

That’s the attitude at the bargaining table, which is what has made negotiations very hard. It was therefore necessary to bring in the supposed ‘friends of labor’.

Our union endorsed Murphy early on. But he has largely been a long-distance friend, supplying some statements in support but not intervening directly when we have asked him to during our 2018-2019 negotiations. Yet, since then Democrats have offered more direct support.

Loretta Weinberg, who helped pass the Diane B. Allen Pay Equity Act, was invested in helping that act succeed. Thus, she helped us with the struggle to improve the pay equity process. She came to our Board of Governors (BOG) meetings, she did press conferences with us, and all this added pressure on Holloway and the BOG. We also got good media coverage. Of course, well before her involvement the New York Times did a story on our lawsuit.

But of course, 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 labour, while knowing full well that they could let us down at any minute. I think that honestly, if we had not suspended and accepted the deal that Murphy had given us, he could have gone the Biden way. Biden sold out railroad workers giving them a little on salary but thwarting their key demand on paid sick leave and preventing them from striking.  This may have been the way that Murphy would have gone as well. I understand that he has presidential aspirations.

The key for unions I think is to press Democrats to make good on their campaign promises.

DC: What have I missed that you might want to talk about? What do you anticipate for the current moment? How would you assess the organizing lessons and gains in this moment?

DK: I want to say a little more about racial justice demands and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). In 2019 we were able to force management to set up the University Committee on Diversity, Race and Gender (UCD) as a joint labor-management committee. I have co-chaired that committee since its foundation. We have through much effort made some gains–we won diversity dissertation fellowships and mentorship programs for junior BIPOC faculty. I am pleased to say that the $500,000 we won in 2019 is going to be renewed this time around.

I want to talk about this because there is so much talk at Rutgers and other universities about DEI and yet there is little of substance to this. We won $20 million in diversity hiring in 2019 and Holloway has put that to good use with various presidential hiring plans. He may even have upped that budget, I’m not sure.

However, we have been met with nothing but resistance around equity, particularly pay equity. And while inclusion through social events, through naming campus locations after Paul Robeson (a Rutgers alum), are good they don’t address real structural problems, which is what Robeson stood for. Holloway has been pushing the notion of a ‘beloved community’, and yet one of the first things he did during the pandemic was to lay off hundreds of workers, a majority black and brown.

DEI programs in general are a way of not addressing structural problems, but instead of making symbolic gestures to give the appearance of actually addressing racism,sexism,homophobia and other forms of oppression.

It remains vitally important for unions to have a voice around these issues and to fight for structural transformation  both as they pertain to our members, but also as they pertain to the communities in which our universities are based. So I am happy that we won $500,000 for the UCD  but this too is a drop in the bucket. There is a lot more work to be done.

DC: How would you characterize this strike and its gains so far in terms of the context of a wave of higher education strikes? How does the Rutgers struggle represent that and also lead that or serve as a model for that? What is the general historic impact of this fight?

Photo by Kyle Handojo.

DK: There have been about 17 higher ed strikes over the last year, and a lot of them have been led by vulnerable workers, adjunct faculty, graduate students. Ours, I believe, is one of the first major strikes consisting of faculty, graduate workers, postdocs, adjuncts, and medical school colleagues all standing together.

Our strike was not as numerically large as the University of California graduate worker strike, but it is significant in terms of the ranks of people who were involved and who stood in solidarity with one another. Thus, we demonstrated in practice that intersectional wall-to-wall organising works.

Our next step should be to have non-academic workers also involved in getting strike ready. That did not happen this time. There is much work to be done on that front, and I hope that other unions at Rutgers organize their members to be strike ready in 2026. In 2026, we should aim to completely shut down Rutgers with white and blue collar workers standing arm in arm.

The kind of power that you have when you are organized in this manner is truly significant. This time a joint strike by 3 unions consisting of 9,000 academic workers prompted  increased funds from the governor. Combined with his mediators’ pressure on the administration, we were able to win some really significant and transformational demands.

If an injury to one is an injury to all perhaps we might also say that a victory for some is a victory for all.  If nothing else, our experience shows that solidarity across ranks is powerful.

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