Rutgers Unions Call On Administration to Put People First
“We Stand Together to Assert that Rutgers Works Because We Work. Not One of Us Is Disposable”
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers University faculty, staff, students, grad workers, and health care workers stood together at a press conference Thursday to send a message to the administration: after a year of cuts, layoffs, and austerity, Rutgers needs to put its people first.
The press conference was organized by the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, which represents 19 unions and nearly 20,000 workers. Speakers included members and leaders of the unions as well as two Rutgers undergraduates.
“What’s been going on in the last year has been pretty grueling and difficult for a multitude of reasons,” said Ihsan Al-Zouabi in introducing the press conference, “and the folks who are going to be speaking today are the ones who know what’s been going on.” Al-Zouabi is a third-year PhD student and Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union that represents full-time faculty and grad workers.
Two of the speakers slated for the press conference know from painful personal experience the impact of the more than 1,000 layoffs at Rutgers since last spring. At the end of the fall semester, Joshua Fesi, an adjunct faculty member who began teaching in the Rutgers Writing Program in 2007 as a graduate student, lost their regular courses.
“We who have worked loyally for the university for many years have been treated as disposable and unwanted,” said Fesi, a member of the Part-Time Lecturers Faculty Chapter. “I’ve looked to Rutgers not only for my livelihood. I’m invested in Rutgers and the student body. I love teaching English and writing at Rutgers, and I’m good at it, because I’ve done it for more than a decade. So why would Rutgers lay off people so dedicated to the university?” (The video of another laid-off adjunct, Tom Decker, which could not be played at the press conference because of technical difficulties, can be seen here.)
Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-AFT, which represents administrative staff, also sounded the Coalition’s theme that #WeRNotDisposable. “We stand together—staff, faculty, grad students, the community of Rutgers—to assert that Rutgers works because we work,” O’Connell said. “Not one of us is disposable. We are the backbone of this university.”
O’Connell spelled out the proposals of the Coalition for confronting the pandemic crisis, including an innovative work-sharing program put forward last spring that would have saved the university more than $100 million while protecting the incomes of workers through unemployment benefits. The administration of former President Robert Barchi rejected the offer. President Jonathan Holloway’s administration has yet to act on another work-sharing proposal made this year.
“When you devastate lives, there is a human cost, not only to those who lose their income and benefits, but to Rutgers and its core mission of teaching, research, and service at the highest levels,” O’Connell concluded. “Rutgers can and should do better. Together, we commit to helping them do so—if they allow us to.”
Charles Dismukes, a distinguished professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, talked about the impact of a single layoff—a machinist and URA member in a shop that designs and fabricates scientific instruments. Despite a six-month backlog of work at the shop that serves not only Rutgers but other universities and private companies, the administration of the College of Arts and Sciences in New Brunswick, without consultation with staff or faculty, laid off one of the three people who worked in the shop.
“I would submit that Rutgers is acting in a very frivolous or careless way in the firing of this machinist,” Dismukes said. “The bigger picture over the course of decades is one in which they have reduced our ability to act as research scientists to serve the research needs of the country, as well as the local services of the community.”
Sarah DeGeorgis, a third-year PhD student and member of the graduate steering committee of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, highlighted another dimension of the crisis for Rutgers workers. For many graduate students, the pandemic has severely disrupted and delayed research. The Coalition has called on the administration to extend funding for grads so they can afford to complete their programs.
“If the administration gives us inadequate funding or kicks us off our health insurance, it will be impossible for me to finish my degree,” DeGeorgis said. “Health insurance is always important, but of course the ongoing pandemic makes it that much more important. I rely on Rutgers’ health insurance, and so does my family. Rutgers needs to give us a universal graduate funding extension so that those of us without family or inherited wealth can finish the degrees that we’ve worked so hard for.”
The effects of the last year have hit health-care workers in the Rutgers system in different ways, said Justin O’Hea, a clinician for Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and co-president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5094.
“Our members have been buckling under the pressure of drastically reduced staffing levels as well as increased demands for care,” O’Hea said. “Rutgers had the money to prevent all this from happening, but instead they used it as an opportunity to reduce our ranks to skeleton crews, contributing to further employee burnout and turnover during a health and mental health emergency. Our most vulnerable community members are left to deal with longer waits and slower response times, putting them at risk of lower quality care as a result.”
Dr. Tulsi Patel, a resident physician at the Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School in Newark and member of the Committee of Interns and Residents-SEIU, underlined the question of why the administration has rejected Coalition proposals such as the work-sharing program, losing more than $100 million in the process.
“Rutgers preaches fiscal austerity but continues to ignore the most financially advantageous plan that we know of,” Patel said. “Rehiring adjunct faculty and providing grad students with extensions could easily be covered by using just 1 or 2 percent of the university’s unrestricted emergency reserves and would certainly cost them less than the deficit caused by the athletics department this year.”
Donna Murch, an associate professor of History and Executive Council member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, sounded the same theme.
“An opportunity is presenting itself for an innovative solution that would draw on the monies of the federal government, at a time when it’s difficult to get federal funding,” Murch said. “This is a way for our university to draw on that support and protect its workforce at the same time. A university is not just a place where people come to learn or receive degrees. Rutgers is also a major employer and is core to the communities in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark, which are majority populations of color. It’s very important we support these communities through these kinds of protections.”
Murch stressed the unity of the union coalition in confronting an administration that has disappointed faculty, staff, and students alike with its priorities. Those priorities, Murch said, “tell us that this battle is not just about economics, that it’s really a question of power.”
In bringing the perspective of undergraduate students to the press conference, Nicholas LaBelle, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly, likewise questioned those priorities.
“There’s something called the Knight’s Call at Rutgers, which is four main values: responsible, resilient, inclusive, and authentic,” LaBelle said. “So I’d like to ask the folks here: Is it responsible to lay off those most in need? That answer is pretty obvious. Is it inclusive to keep those who are most vulnerable from different people of color communities out of our university? You can do that one for yourself.
“Is it authentic to our mission statement as a university to hurt education and educational outcomes?” LaBelle continued. “And finally, is any of this resilient? We could argue that the resilience is being shown by these PTLs and grad students who have been suffering the most and are still showing up for it.”
Returning to LaBelle’s questions, Ihsan Al-Zouabi concluded the press conference with a challenge: “As Nicholas said, Rutgers University has the opportunity and the means to be standing on the right side of this.”