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Rutgers University AAUP-AFT

By Kelly Hand

The faculty at Rutgers College formed an AAUP chapter in 1922, just seven years after the founding of the AAUP. The full-time faculty at what had subsequently become Rutgers University voted in 1970 for the chapter to become a professional organization with collective bargaining rights under New Jersey state labor law. Graduate student employees joined the full-time bargaining unit in 1972, and part-time lecturer faculty members formed a second bargaining unit in 1988. Postdoctoral associates voted to unionize in 2011. Today the full-time bargaining unit includes full-time non-tenure-track faculty members as well as a small group of Equal Opportunity Fund counselors who have a separate contract.

The Rutgers Council of AAUP-AFT Chapters encompasses these several bargaining units and maintains the primary affiliation with the AAUP. Members voted in 2005 to affiliate additionally with the American Federation of Teachers. Rutgers AAUP-AFT represents more than 6,600 employees on all three campuses of Rutgers University—Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick—who share a common mission to “uphold, promote, and defend values essential to the protection of quality public higher education.”

In 2020, after hard-fought contract negotiations during the 2018–19 academic year, Rutgers AAUP-AFT celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its unionization. Priorities for the contract campaign reflected the chapters’ commitment to “bargaining for the common good” and resulted in historic provisions for diversity hiring and equity. We learned more about Rutgers AAUP-AFT from Executive Council president Todd Wolfson, vice president Rebecca Givan, and executive director Patrick Nowlan.

Which victories of your contract campaign mattered the most to members, and how have they made a difference in conditions for faculty and students at Rutgers?

Our members were very motivated by our focus on equity. We put forward a number of specific demands, including a diversity hiring initiative (to address our acute lack of faculty diversity) and a process for our members to remedy salary inequities. Diversity and equity issues motivate our members because they directly affect the learning conditions of our students. We have a shared concern when the faculty does not look like the student body or the population of New Jersey, and we are committed to addressing this gap.

What methods have you found most effective for mobilizing a large membership across three campuses?

We have focused on organizing and member engagement at all times, not just during bargaining and contract campaigns. We are constantly talking with our members and addressing the issues that matter to them, from the climate crisis to the need to be a sanctuary campus. We let our members know that we are here to fight to make Rutgers the university that faculty, graduate employees, students, and the people of New Jersey deserve. We find that many members are activated by one of these issues but not necessarily all of them, and we encourage them to become involved with the issues about which they care most, in ways that contribute to the larger campaign and build strength for our union. As a dual AFT-AAUP affiliate, we’re able to organize broadly while maintaining a connection to the AAUP’s long-standing work protecting faculty and fighting for academic freedom.

Is there anything you learned from this campaign that might lead to changes in how you approach future campaigns?

We were profoundly moved by the commitment of our members. Many members feel a deeper, stronger connection to the union and its broad goals after having gone to the brink of a strike and demonstrated a commitment to our values. Our focus on ongoing organizing and member engagement will continue. Of course, we are not unique in our need to coordinate better with the other unions on our campuses and to elevate the voices of our student and community allies. And we can always do better in representing our international scholars, whether they are faculty, postdoctoral associates, or graduate workers. As a community that is under attack both politically and economically, we need to broaden our demands and create more inclusive spaces within our union.

How does Rutgers AAUP-AFT’s focus on social justice help build relationships with on-campus and off-campus communities?

We take seriously our responsibilities as part of the flagship public higher education institution in New Jersey and as critical members of our communities. We fight alongside our students for affordable tuition and debt-free degrees; we are currently working in coalition with immigrant-led community groups to ensure that the Lincoln Annex School, a vibrant school serving the children of New Brunswick, is not destructively relocated to serve the supposed priorities of the university. We refuse to let our employer pit us against other Rutgers workers, our students, or the members of our communities.

What are the current and most urgent priorities for Rutgers AAUP-AFT?

We are focusing on the implementation of the exciting and innovative provisions of our contract, such as the new process through which inequitably paid faculty members can secure an equity pay increase. We also continue to work on the kinds of issues that all faculty unions must address. For example, the Rutgers administration would like to eliminate the role of faculty in scheduling classes and give this work to a for-profit company called Infosilem. Our members are deeply concerned about their ability to schedule their own time so that they can keep their commitments to service and research as well as to childcare and other family needs. We’ve been mobilizing around this issue, which typifies management’s lack of understanding of the reality of faculty work and its insistence on exercising control to the detriment of faculty and students. Winning a fair contract for postdoc members (a growing membership base) in a state with a high cost of living is also a high priority.

Rutgers AAUP-AFT has offered a warm welcome to incoming university president Jonathan Holloway. What are your goals for establishing a productive working relationship with his administration?

We feel optimistic that our next president is someone who shares our goals of equity and diversity. He is an experienced faculty member, so we think that, unlike many other university presidents, he will understand what faculty actually do and what our concerns are. We hope we can work with him to create a stronger, more equitable university and build on potential shared goals of improving our commitment to diversity and being good citizens of the cities in which we are located. Longer-term issues that need addressing include sustainable funding for graduate programs and recognition of our members’ struggle with the high cost of living, particularly our graduate workers, postdocs, and adjunct faculty.

As this profile went to press, AAUP chapters around the country were contending with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. How is Rutgers AAUP-AFT addressing those challenges?

Our first concern has been for the safety of our members and other campus workers. When Rutgers made the irresponsible decision to keep university libraries open after the transition to remote learning, we worked tirelessly and successfully to insist upon their closure. We have also spoken out on behalf of adjunct faculty about the need to include them in decision-making about changes to courses and to provide health insurance coverage for them. Throughout this crisis, we will continue to advocate for the interests of our members and the entire campus community.

Does your chapter have a story to share? Write to academe@aaup.org to be considered for a chapter profile in Academe.

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