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Learning From The Wins At Rutgers


Learning from the Wins at Rutgers

The following is a transcript of an interview with Todd Wolfson and Bryan Sacks of Rutgers University conducted by Joseph G. Ramsey, Senior Lecturer, English, American Studies, and Honors College.

I recently had a chance to interview two impressive leaders from the Rutgers University 2023 bargaining campaign, which culminated in a historic system-wide strike and won major contract gains. Todd Wolfson (Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies) is President of Rutgers-AFT/AAUP,  representing full-time faculty (TT and NTT), grad student employees, post-docs, and some campus staff. Bryan Sacks (Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion) is President of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, representing part-time lecturers.  Made possible through our mutual work in Higher Ed Labor United (HELU), a growing coalition building a "Wall-to-Wall and Coast-to-Coast" academic labor movement, this dialogue offers important lessons for us here at UMass Boston as we gear up for our next round of bargaining, with a particular emphasis on building unity across existing job categories, and reclaiming the common-good mission of higher education. 

Joe Ramsey: What do you see as the biggest wins from your recent bargaining efforts at Rutgers?  

Todd Wolfson: One of the central goals of the campaign was to challenge increasing contingency and precarity across higher ed. To that end, our biggest wins were pay parity between adjunct faculty and full time non-tenure faculty and over 40% raises for adjunct faculty, as well as long-term contract of 2 and 4 semesters for adjunct faculty after reaching seniority thresholds. For our full-time non tenure faculty we won presumptive renewal after the fourth contract which is a very strong form of job security. For our grad workers we won a 33% raise across the life of the contract. We also won five years of universal funding for all PhD programs at Rutgers starting in AY 24-25 and we have developed a path to accrete our graduate worker fellows into the bargaining unit.

Bryan Sacks: In addition to the significant material gains Todd outlined, we successfully imposed on management a demand that we be permitted to operate as one unit during bargaining. While we nominally remained separate units[1] , the three faculty units cooperated on virtually every aspect of the contract campaign: organizing, messaging, bargaining strategy and, ultimately, striking. This disoriented management and made it easier for our adjunct bargaining team to keep the pressure on them to meet our core demands around pay parity and job security.

Joe: This seems big:  Getting so many unions–faculty, grad students, and staff–working together, both formally and informally.  Can you say more about some of the challenges or strategies you used to get so many different unions and workers working together?

Todd: The basis of the strategy was to build long term trust. That meant meeting often and learning about one another’s goals and beginning to collaborate and show up for one another on those goals. Personally, I think a turning point on trust across units emerged during the pandemic when the full time faculty committed to entering a work share program in order to protect the jobs of adjunct faculty and staff.

Bryan: Examples of that trust-building included adjunct leadership regularly participating in the committees of the FT and grad worker unit, and vice-versa.  We also coordinated messaging to members emphasizing what we had in common - a need to fight contingency, significantly raise the salaries of our lowest-paid members, and a strong desire to better serve students through the improvement of our working conditions.

Joe:  What was the strategic approach or preparation that made winning possible?  What tactics or demands proved particularly useful?

Todd: There were four pieces to our approach. 1. We built solidarity across three separate unions, drawing on years of collaboration and support. 2. We built a strong organizing program rooted in Jane McAlevey’s concept of super majority and structure testing where we methodically test the strength of the union through different actions. In particular, we had a strike school in the fall of ’22 where we trained about 500 members and in the spring we had picket line trainings for about the same number. We consistently tested our structure and our strength. 3. We centered the demands of the most vulnerable in this campaign but we had critical demands for all of our job categories. 4. Finally, we pushed for big, transparent negotiations as much as possible.

Bryan: A huge factor in our ability to build that solidarity during the contract campaign of Fall 2022-Spring 2023 was the previous merger campaign our three unions undertook beginning in Spring 2022. While the merger campaign didn’t result in a legal merger of our units, it  mobilized the largest number of adjuncts (members and non-members) in our union’s history. Crucially, it also demonstrated to our members that the full-time and clinical/medical faculty were in this fight with us. This clearly emboldened our members during the strike pledge campaign and our strike authorization votes.

Joe:  Can you say more about this “merger campaign”?  Why do you think it resonated and helped mobilize so many adjuncts?  How did it change things between PT and TT faculty?

Bryan: The rallying cry for the merger was #OneFaculty - that really says it all. For the first time, adjunct faculty heard full-time faculty forcefully proclaim that we belonged together, and that we should legally join them. It was very affirming for adjuncts, and helped create the trust between our units that had previously been hard to come by.

Joe: What were the biggest obstacles that you had to overcome on the way to achieving what you did?

Todd: The biggest obstacle was balancing the multiple constituencies, including our students and community. It was also very difficult to successfully bargain on issues that were not mandatorily negotiable and that is something we want to improve in our next contract.

Joe: What were some of those ‘non-mandatory’ issues the union was pushing onto the bargaining table?

Todd: The biggest issues we aimed to win that were not mandatorily negotiable had to do with demands for our students and community. We had a series of demands that stop the practice of blocking student transcripts and diplomas for internal Rutgers fines and fees, we had a demand around a rent freeze on Rutgers rental properties and we had a demand for a community fund. We were able to win some protections for students and a community fund but we were not able to win the rent freeze. This is the first time we brought demands on behalf of students and community that were outside contract provisions, so we have many new lessons about how to negotiate on these non-mandatory issues.

Bryan: Speaking of obstacles, because the threat of our strike was so potent, the Gov. Murphy Administration intervened in the eleventh hour to request we continue negotiations in Trenton where his top staff could oversee them and (it was implied) place pressure on Rutgers to be more responsive to our demands.. This was a welcome development, but it created physical distance between the bargaining teams and our striking rank-and-file. That unanticipated obstacle contributed to disagreements about the strength of our lines and the best strategy to pursue once a framework for agreement was on the table.

Joe: Yes, that seems like an acute version of a more general challenge for unions building strike militancy:  How to keep the bargaining team and the rank-and-file activists on the same page, especially as things heat up and when deadlines loom?

Todd: We have more to learn and do on this front. The main thing we did was create a space where bargaining and organizing interfaced during the campaign to stay aligned on strategy. And we kept as many sessions as possible completely open and we had observers in many sessions that reported back to membership.

Bryan: It’s normal for people to have different assessments of the strength of a strike while it’s going on. Ideally, those who are bargaining could rotate out onto picket lines and take part in demonstrations for a day, or a part thereof, when possible. At minimum, there should be nightly assessments shared by different stakeholders to give those at the table a clear sense of how much support there is for the strike.

Joe:  Looping back to earlier in the process: what did your union leadership or bargaining team do to survey or gather ideas and interest from members in the lead-up to bargaining?

Todd: In the Fall of ’21 we had a contract campaign survey that was filled out by thousands of members and then we had a series of town halls.

Joe: I’d love to hear more about what that survey looked like and what the results were.  Is there a particular approach you all used? After all, different approaches to surveying can produce very different results.

Todd: The central goal of the survey was to find out what our members wanted to fight for in the contract campaign. We saw the survey as both informational and agitational as it got our members excited about the upcoming campaign and our ability to transform the workplace.

Bryan: A large percentage of our membership also participated in our contract survey, and our core demands reflected our members’ top concerns.  Additionally, we encouraged rank-and-file participation on our article committees - these were the committees where we formulated our various contract demands. We wanted members to feel maximum ownership of the bargaining proposals we made, so we worked to keep our article committees operating throughout the contract campaign in order to respond to management counters as democratically and as effectively as we could.

Joe: Could you say more about these town halls?  How were they organized?  How did they work?  What did they produce or provide that the contract survey itself did not?

Bryan: Our town halls were meant to be both informational and participatory. We offered bargaining updates, but we also used them to solicit member opinion on developing issues at the bargaining table and also to attract members to bargaining sessions. Adding transparency to bargaining meant members got to see management’s obstinacy up close, which clearly built their resolve for the job actions we ultimately took. Town halls were also valuable for “taking the temperature” of those who were plugged into the contract campaign by soliciting feedback from them about what they were prepared to do to help that effort.

Joe:  That sounds really important.  How did you all relate the core bargaining team efforts to the broader efforts of your contract action team? 

Todd: We had a committee made up of the Organizing and Action Team and the Bargaining Team at least once a month. And we had a few people on both. For instance I (Todd) chaired the organizing team for Rutgers AAUP-AFT but I was also on the bargaining team. The same structure was in place for the PTLFC.

Joe: That overlap between the teams seems key.  Can you say more about the importance of integrating these two groups in this way?

Todd: The contract campaign team and the bargaining team each have critical tasks to undertake during the campaign. However, the work of each often feels distant and it is hard to keep the two core committees on the same page. We recognized this and attempted to create more open lines of communication between the two committees so we stayed on the same page during duress. We have more work to do on this front but it was a critical step forward for our union.

Joe: Zooming out a bit: what important lessons did you all learn through your recent efforts at Rutgers that are worth sharing with others elsewhere?

Todd: When we organize across job categories we can win big. And importantly, higher education workers can transform our institutions if we build alignment across job category.

 Joe: This notion of alignment seems key to your approach.  Can you spell that concept out a bit more?

Todd: For me, alignment is having leadership and members from different job categories on our campuses that have a clear and shared understanding of the problem. In this case, it is the 50 year federal and state divestment from higher education and the outcomes, from contingency and understaffing to student debt, rising tuition, the explosion of higher ed bureaucrats and the attacks on academic freedom and tenure. Once we have that sort of shared understanding, the whole body of the university can see that we have a shared interest in transformational change and we can begin the process of plotting a collective strategy to make that change on our campuses across our states and ultimately across the country.

Bryan: In terms of the big lessons: First, don’t believe those who tell you adjuncts can’t be organized. It’s a matter of reaching everyone in the unit, listening to what they’re most concerned about in their workplace, and then organizing to address those concerns.

Second, I agree with Todd about the need to build solidarity across all academic job categories. It’s hard for contingent faculty and other categories of vulnerable workers to win their demands by themselves. All academic laborers are important contributors to students’ educational experience, and when you create cross-category solidarity, the student body, media and public will respond positively. Having the shared understanding  of what academic labor is facing really helps as well.

Joe: That’s a very interesting point about how a more holistic, united approach has implications for reaching students, media, and the public.  Can you elaborate on that a bit? And for Todd,  I wonder to what degree this point is an important one for even FTTT faculty to hear?  Could it be that this is a key way in which it is actually in the long-term interest of FTTT faculty to build with adjuncts, grad students, staff, and others, despite the challenges such a broad and deep effort involves?

Bryan: Students, their parents, and the broader public are all key stakeholders in higher education. They’re positioned to be our natural allies, which is one reason why so much energy on the right is spent trying to demonize academic unions and cast doubt on the value of the work we do. Among other effects, demonization makes austerity arguments sound more reasonable.

But an educated public is the greatest threat to right-wing ideologies. With this in mind, academic laborers should work together to appeal to those publics - and to students in particular. All university workers are important contributors to student experience, whether we’re faculty, cafeteria workers, maintenance or clerical staff, bus drivers, librarians, or any of several other categories of university employee. Students understand this very well. This gives us an advantage over university administration which is often seen, rightfully, to be an impediment to positive student experience. What this means is that unions need to communicate that it’s our workers who are on students’ side, and that our fights for better contracts mean far better universities for them.

Todd: From my vantage, FTTT faculty have not recognized that they are under attack as well. That is because we are the most privileged part of the sector. That said, it is clear from the battles we are having with the rising class of bureaucrats to the dwindling of our ranks in higher ed overall to the attacks on shared governance, academic freedom and tenure. I think FTTT faculty are beginning to see this more clearly and with that recognition they should be more committed to building the coalition of workers and students we need to transform our campuses. 

Joe:  As you indicated at the start of our interview, among the noteworthy achievements of your recent struggle was the significant gains made for Part-time and NTT faculty.  Could you say more about those wins and what made them possible?  What role did TT to NTT (or FT to PT) solidarity play in this process? 

Bryan: Adjuncts and NTTs strategized together, bargained together, and we structured our demands so that adjuncts were demanding gains that would put us into alignment with current NTT compensation and certain NTT job security provisions. We successfully defeated the pernicious “zero-sum” argument whereby contingent and full-time faculty are needlessly pitted against one another. In other words, we didn’t accept that any gains one unit achieved necessarily meant less would be available for other units, even if at times we were willing to trade gains for one unit so that another could benefit. The fact that our strike forced the intervention by Governor Murphy suggested to us that new state money could be made available to meet our demands if we kept the pressure on, which is precisely what happened. The result was winning the demands listed earlier.

Joe:  What would you say to FTTT faculty as to why it's appropriate or necessary to prioritize the issues of PT and NTT (or Adjunct) faculty in the current situation?

Todd: We need to build a wall-to-wall formation at all of our institutions. In order to do that we must prioritize the demands of the most vulnerable as a platform for winning long term alignment. And, we must challenge the core contradictions in higher education, which include our institutions’ addiction on short-term contingent contracts, rising tuition and growing student debt, and the emergence of a very powerful managerial class of bureaucrats that run our institutions.

Joe: Speaking of those core contradictions reminds me of another one, the crucial issue of state budget austerity–and how this climate is often tacitly accepted by higher ed admin “leaders” (even when in some cases there are major budget surpluses and record numbers of millionaires!).  Would you say that building a wall-to-wall approach on campus helps to advance this struggle for state budget re-investment as well?

Todd: From my vantage, the wall-to-wall method is the only real way to address state divestment. We will never have the power to really push back and fight for a fully subsidized higher ed if we continue to fight in silos, because we will never have the power necessary to win. The only way forward is industrial organizing on our campuses as it is the only model that gives us the power to change the 50 years of divestment.

Bryan: In keeping with Todd’s remarks, we should emphasize that 1) organizing to win greater job security and a living wage for contingent faculty is the right thing to do; and 2) winning those things for contingent faculty is also a gain for everyone. Tenure is under attack in many places. Administrators basically see full-time faculty as contingent faculty-in-waiting. We know the financial assumptions imposed by the debt financing model many universities are beholden to penalize universities for offering job security to faculty, and may reward them for keeping us precariously employed.[1] This is deeply harmful to the mission of public education, because it incentivizes universities to adopt regressive labor practices in pursuit of the financial “flexibility” that lenders and ratings agencies adore. Pushing back against this effort at casualizing instructional labor raises the floor for all current and future faculty, which is vital.

Joe:  Wow. That is a quite perverse and profound revelation. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.  To close our discussion for how: What remains to be won at Rutgers that couldn't be achieved (yet) under the most recent settlement? And how do you think you can win them?

Todd: We have so many things to win. We need to improve our demands around job security. We need to accrete all grad fellows and post doc fellows into our union and the grad fellows need better health care. Our adjunct faculty need health care and stronger job security protections. We also need to win greater control over broader aspects of our work, including developing a works council. We need to stop tuition hikes and we need to win a rent freeze for our students and community.

Bryan: However long it takes, ultimately the fight is to remake public education in New Jersey. We need to build the political power to reset our public educational priorities, something we can achieve once we can win real and permanent union participation in the way work happens at Rutgers. In the short run, winning stronger job security and subsidized healthcare for contingent academic workers will put all of us at Rutgers in the best position to fully participate in that transformation.

Joe:  Any other advice for those organizing in the FSU at UMB right now (a 50/50 TT/NTT union of faculty plus librarians; our next round of bargaining starts next Spring/summer)?

Todd: This is not a time to settle. This is a time when the wind is at our backs and we must set our horizon high and organize to win contract provisions that can transform our institutions for workers and students.

Bryan:  Build solidarity between job categories. Educate members to everyone’s demands. Involve as many rank-and-file members as you can in your campaign. Structure test your units often, and press as hard as the support your members offer will allow for. There’s a whole world to win.


[1]  "Rating agency algorithms also consider a university’s ability to control labor costs, in terms of both employee unions and faculty tenure. The more unionized and publicly regulated a university, the weaker its credit rating. Moody’s credit rating methodologies for higher education suggest that political pressures to keep tuition low may limit institutions’ market strength. Similarly, pushes to maintain staffing, especially amid an economic downturn, might weaken universities’ financial power. When universities keep tuition low, workers securely employed, and are democratically governed by non-investment bankers, Moody’s warns, credit ratings may suffer." More here: