The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Field Notes

The New ‘Old’ Unionism: The Strike Campaign at Rutgers University

Courtesy the author.
Courtesy the author.

It’s not quite true that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Advocates of today’s New Unionism are fully aware of the past, and yet they repeat it anyway. The 1960s radicals looked to the Russian Revolution of 1917 for inspiration, a backward glance of a half century. The new unionists think in terms of the organizing drives of the mid- to late-1930s, a near-century’s worth of hind-gazing. It’s a perspective that interferes with their ability to act in the here-and-now, a perspective that misses opportunities to reimagine what a union can accomplish.

This was the case for the part-time faculty (adjuncts) union at Rutgers University in New Jersey, whose strike recently ended in a major victory. A lucky, and to some extent unanticipated, confluence of factors helped win the clash with management. The union’s focus on bargaining and a strike led to a series of decisions that in slightly altered circumstances could have proved fatal to the contract campaign. The separation between the union leadership and members, not to mention the non-members who represented over fifty percent of the adjuncts, influenced all aspects of the campaign. If, for example, the non-members at first represented a group that might be organized, at other key points they became a group that was ignored altogether.

These various factors at play at Rutgers surfaced in piecemeal fashion. The mix of healthy impulses and structural impediments mostly appeared as missed opportunities, initiatives not properly thought out, or even naïveté due to inexperience, but not necessarily as part of a larger pattern. What they revealed was a union leadership that treated both management and membership as groups it needed to bend to its will. It was a dynamic that also repeated the many tensions that account for the rather depressing history of unionism in the United States.


The proposal to turn adjuncts into fractional appointees—that is, to convert adjuncts who are hired one course at a time into partial full-time (teaching1) faculty who are entitled to a percentage of the salary and benefits that full-time faculty receive—reached far beyond the workplace demands customary at academic establishments elsewhere in the United States. Not simply a pay raise for part-time employees, fractional appointment represents a revival of the demand that has been so important to women for the last century and a half: equal pay for equal work. At Rutgers, this would have translated into a huge boost in adjunct compensation—$9900 for teaching a three-credit course rather than the $5800 paid currently. An increase of this magnitude would push the most vulnerable part-time employees above the federal poverty level.

Most adjuncts don’t need health benefits; they are already covered through spouses and partners, alternative employment, or Medicare. Those who do need health coverage, however—really need it. For the lowest paid, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) form a safety net. There is also a group that earns too much to qualify for these programs but not enough to pay for coverage on their own. This situation is particularly difficult for anyone with ongoing health issues, or with children or other dependents. It is indicative of the sorry state of affairs that allows the university to rely on federal subsidies for its employees because it pays so little.

Longer contracts were the third issue under negotiation. Adjuncts are hired one semester at a time, and consequently do not know their income from one semester to the next. A considerable number of adjuncts are long-term employees of the institutions at which they teach. At Rutgers, some 80+ have taught there for twelve years or longer. The popular image of the adjunct as a one-semester employee is largely a myth, except in employment contracts. Precarity from the low pay is heightened because teaching assignments can be altered (classes canceled) right through the first week of the semester. Planning for the future, even the next few months, is constrained.

At the outer edge of precarity are the adjuncts who teach anywhere from six to ten courses per semester, cobbled together from three or more separate institutions (or schools within a single institution). Rutgers pays 1/16th of the course salary if cancellation takes place within seven days, before or after, the start of the semester. This clause was a concession introduced into the last contract (2018), a provision that speaks to the cynicism guiding the university’s treatment of its adjuncts—a token payment for a last minute termination.

Besides fractional appointments, open bargaining was another innovative peg of the Rutgers campaign. Online (Zoom) negotiating because of Covid meant that the union could open these sessions to anyone who wanted to attend. Attendees were instructed: no interrupting, onscreen physical gestures or grimacing (!), or comments in the chat, with the exception of negotiating team members. Regardless of the restraints, everyone else had an opportunity to witness first-hand the brutish posturing by the university’s negotiators—arriving twenty minutes late and not offering an explanation or apology, eating and talking off-screen during the sessions, checking phone messages and typing during presentations, disappearing from the screen for long stretches of time, not commenting on contract proposals despite having had them for weeks and sometimes months, or absenting themselves from negotiations for multiple weeks for vacation and then bragging about it upon return.

The initial responses from the administration to any of the union proposals was negative—a refusal to acknowledge an amalgamation of the full-time and part-time faculty unions into a single unit (1100+ merger cards had been signed by adjuncts) and a refusal to continue the open bargaining sessions. Several months were lost as talks stalemated. Finally, a hybrid schedule of meetings was agreed upon—half the sessions were reserved for the negotiating teams alone, the remaining ones open to union “observers.” This was a significant compromise by the adjunct union. Surprisingly, it was an issue that the university relented on in the weeks that preceded the strike.


Remarkable, too, was the openness of the full-time faculty union to organizing alongside the adjuncts, having ignored them for nearly a half-century. Full-time faculty unions, like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), helped pioneer the two-tiered wage system in the United States. The corporate world watched and learned as lesser-paid adjuncts substituted for full-time faculty. Why, then, the sudden change in how adjuncts are viewed, the hugs, and the desire to sing Solidarity Forever together?

Over the last half century, full-time faculty, while paid more than ever, have declined in terms of influence (faculty governance) and as a portion of the overall faculty. Even though the number of full-time faculty has increased nationally, it has not increased nearly as fast as part-time faculty. For publicly-funded institutions like Rutgers, this was a matter of financial survival. Dwindling state subsidies (as a portion of the overall budget) meant enrollment growth as an antidote, and this induced colleges and universities to hire part-time, lower-cost instructors. Meantime, graduate programs produced underemployed academics in record amounts under the same financial compulsions. Competition for any sort of academic employment escalated. Some thirty percent of the classes at Rutgers are now taught, by nearly 2000 adjuncts.

Adjuncts are, with some exceptions, ghosts. They arrive on campus in time to teach their classes and leave immediately afterwards. Save for a few emails each semester with their department chair, they do not get to see other faculty, are not appointed to faculty committees, are not invited to departmental meetings (oh, what a yawn they are!), are not asked to advise students (they do so anyway, informally and without compensation), are often obliged to teach curricula already developed (academic freedom notwithstanding), do not have voting rights at faculty meetings, are not listed on departmental websites, are not rewarded for scholarship (presupposing they have the time to continue the work that had begun in graduate school), do not receive awards for excellence in teaching, nor are they mentioned in university publications. Besides the department chair, department administrative assistant, and the students in their classrooms, no one other than the clerks in the payroll offices knows they exist.

Fractional appointments have the potential to alter this situation dramatically. Full-time faculty seem oblivious to the conditions that surround them, except when they impede their own levels of independence, maneuverability, and privilege. That they have now embraced the part-timers as colleagues-in-arms, no matter how gingerly, is testament to the alarms set off by political interference in the internal affairs of publicly-funded institutions. The right-wing campaigns against CRT (Critical Race Theory) and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives have driven a new-found camaraderie, since “we must all hang together, or we will all hang separately.” Vulnerability breeds familiarity. Whether it would also breed sufficient solidarity remained to be seen. There was always the danger that the full-time faculty union would come to an agreement with the university and abandon the adjuncts. This had taken place during the 2018 negotiations.

The Class System

Of all the institutions of higher education in New Jersey, Rutgers (as the state university) is among the highest paying. The two-year community colleges pay their part-time instructors roughly half to two-thirds as much. Only the privately-endowed Princeton University pays at rates higher than Rutgers, but Princeton hires a limited number of adjuncts, mostly academic stars and individuals well-placed within the private, nonprofit, and government sectors who are paid double or more than the Rutgers adjuncts. If Princeton is an outlier, so is Rutgers. The relatively high pay at Rutgers is one reason adjuncts are difficult to organize. The alternatives are less remunerative.

At the top, Rutgers has become a feeding trough for several hundred people. The university’s president received base pay of $803,400 in 2021; with bonuses and incentives, total compensation equaled $922,364. Non-cash amenities include housing, car, and driver (who doubles as security), chef and kitchen staff, and travel and entertainment budgets. Number two (chancellor of the medical school complex) had a base of $903,348 and total compensation of $1,313,627. The football coach clocked in at $4,034,393, the athletic director at $1,313,759. Their earnings mimic behaviors in the private sector, where elite compensation follows rules that disregard the wellbeing of other employees.

Altogether, some 160 people at Rutgers received compensation packages of $500,000 or more. Most of them are faculty clustered in the medical schools, who in addition to their base salaries of several hundred thousand receive payments because of clinical duties and patient care.2 This form of double-dipping is perfectly acceptable (and legal) where the worlds of academia and medicine intersect. It puts the faculty unions in a touchy position, however. How can they attack inequality and elite plundering when their own members are part of the problem? Instead, one hears about “administrative bloat,” a parroting of right-wing discourse.3

Contrast this with the working conditions faced by adjuncts: shared offices—often poorly maintained, computers and printers in various states of functionality, storage cabinets that cannot be locked, libraries that are noisy and overcrowded, and jam-packed campus buildings where empty classrooms are difficult to find and in any case are outfitted with uncomfortable plastic seats (a la McDonalds). Why remain on campus when these are the working conditions (a sentiment shared by commuting students)?

Urban campuses in smallish cities like any of the main Rutgers’ campuses in Newark, New Brunswick/Piscataway, and Camden (with 11,000, 44,000, and 6,500 students respectively) also lack sufficient parking. You don’t just drive to campus in the middle of the day. You are either there relatively early in the morning, or else you venture in around mid-afternoon. In terms of organizing, this puts a damper on the ability to meet face-to-face and conduct anything except online meetings. The adjuncts are split time-wise, clustered either in the early morning or else the late afternoon and evening hours when the full-time faculty prefer not to be there.

Union Leadership

Over the last two years, an inner core of some eighteen people within the adjunct union coalesced into a tight-knit group. This itself was a remarkable achievement, given that most union locals are run in perpetuity by a handful of people. The group at Rutgers referred to itself as the “leadership,” and its members also stressed the democratic foundations of the organization. With the exception of an elected Executive Board, committee meetings were open to all adjuncts. Open bargaining between the union and the administration was complemented by open meetings within the union itself. The union president and vice-president (who led the bargaining committee) received the equivalent of a two-course release spread over the entire year ($11,600). A few people received the equivalent of a half-course. Each dedicated significantly more time than they were compensated for.

Others in the core group volunteered their time. It was an impressive commitment and the only way that the group could function as democratically as it did. An open organization requires lots of coordination—constant communications through email and online platforms (like Slack), phone calls, and many online meetings, frequently several each day, weekends included.

No one in the core group functioned on an ideological level, a huge contrast to the 1960s when discussions were often mediated by means of theory. Here, ideas were taken at face value, with everyone entitled to participate. Impassioned discussions prompted lists of speakers, with gentle reminders when someone jumped in front. These were discussions among friends and colleagues, where people had a deep respect and appreciation for one another. Democracy in action.

The discussions, nonetheless, were remarkably limited in scope and generally focused on tactics and timing, not on the broader philosophical and political implications of leadership and organizing. Given that everyone in the union has an advanced degree, this self-imposed (and seemingly unconscious) limit on conversation seemed out-of-place. It was not, though. There was a narrowness that cloaked the otherwise open discussions that prevailed within the organization’s committees, as if the world had finite boundaries that were never mentioned. Wayne’s World—from a union perspective.

The union model that solidified during the 1930s assumed a visionary leadership alongside a vast workforce in need of organization. At Rutgers among the adjuncts, this took place in stages. First was to get a majority of adjuncts to authorize a merger between the full-time and part-time faculty unions, a move, it was thought, that might avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2018 negotiations when the full-time union and administration mutually agreed to abandon the adjuncts and come to terms on their own.

Next came an extended phonathon campaign to encourage adjuncts to join the union. It was customary for less than half of all adjuncts to belong. Because of COVID-19, the campaign to increase membership included online “town halls”—with presentations about fractional appointments, open bargaining, and the intransigence of the administration—a union newsletter, and occasional updates on bargaining. Despite the hundreds of hours spent in pursuit of new members, only 170 additional adjuncts joined between the end of September and the weeks just prior to the strike in mid-April. Rather than the meager results—not quite seven new members per week—setting off alarm bells, the union doubled down on the very same tactics. No one seemed interested in face-to-face conversations.

Finally, the third step in the campaign focused on creating a strike fund and preparing members to vote on a strike authorization resolution that granted approval for the leadership to call a strike should such a move be deemed necessary.

The Strike Model

The union model assumes a disgruntled, yet largely passive, membership; this mirrors the actual situation. For any number of reasons, adjuncts are reluctant to get involved—they are only on campus when they teach, and other responsibilities (jobs, families, etc.) limit their availability. Many, of course, are nervous about losing the already-tenuous hold they have at the university. A small core of adjuncts are outrightly hostile to the union—often identifiable by their tendency to end phone calls from union members abruptly or use tone of voice to convey their sentiments—but this was not especially prevalent.

Two groups among the adjuncts stood out. The first group was quite vocal. There was a decided lack of enthusiasm for placing students in the middle of a conflict that principally affected faculty and administration—a concern heard often on the smaller campuses in Newark and Camden where significant numbers of first generation, immigrant, and underserved minority students are enrolled. Faculty in technical fields such as the sciences, computing, nursing, and math were leery of jeopardizing instruction that serves as a prerequisite to higher-level courses. The analogy about combatants using civilians as shields, in this view, was not entirely misplaced.4

The largest group of adjuncts, though, simply did not respond to union entreaties, no matter if they were contacted electronically or by phone. Stuck-in-the-muds, but nonetheless a key group when a strike is a real possibility. To not keep track of this latter group until the final few months of the campaign was a missed opportunity, as was the decision to forego in-person organizing. This would have entailed mapping each instructor’s schedule according to the buildings in which they taught and the days and times of their classes, all of which are functions of a properly notated database. Similar information was needed from the union members available to meet non-members as the latter either entered or exited classes. Such encounters would have provided an opportunity to address concerns and ask for support. It might have also provided time for quick two-to-three minute presentations, along with the distribution of information sheets, to students who subsequently could serve as the “conscience” of the union and ask instructors for periodic updates. The adjunct union might have even hired and trained students to do this work, if other adjuncts were not available.5

Into these various voids stepped the “leadership.” The elected Executive Board largely deferred to the subset who were constituted as its Steering Committee. The latter was the real heart of the union, charged with running its day-to-day affairs and in actuality serving as the incubator for all major initiatives. Unlike the 1960s, when such subcommittees functioned in conspiratorial fashion, this Steering Committee worked informally. The decision to move towards a strike gelled months in advance of any discussion with the membership as to whether this was either wise or feasible. Steering Committee members had convinced themselves that, in the face of university intransigence and lack of negotiating progress, a strike was the only path forward. For this, they first needed to convince their own members.

Rather than learn how to dialogue with members, the result was a series of initiatives that were abandoned because they produced results divergent from where the leadership had hoped they would lead. An opinion poll was so poorly constructed, despite the leadership’s background in research methods, that its outcomes were dismissed out-of-hand. Next came pre-planned “open” discussions that were, by intention, too short in duration to produce meaningful results. After an hour’s worth of “talking-head” presentations (bad enough in the classroom, lest a meeting to mobilize members), thirty minutes were allotted to discussion, including a ten-minute breakout session, for a group of forty participants. In both these forums, discordant views emerged, primarily over the impact a strike would have on undergraduates.

Notwithstanding the relatively large size of the leadership group, the same people belonged to each of the union’s major committees—Media, Organizing, Bargaining, and Strike Fund/Preparation (the Legislative and Research Committees were largely dormant). Who took the lead in each varied; their overall composition barely changed from one committee to the next. That the Executive Board met bi-weekly, whereas these other committees met weekly, was an indication of where the real power resided. Consequently, the Executive Board, as the only committee elected by the union’s members, was also the union’s weakest committee. Most of its time was spent hearing reports about the accomplishments of the other committees.

Strike Preparation

The top administrators at Rutgers were barely aware that a strike campaign was underway. Except for occasional demonstrations (some half dozen or so during the year-long build up to the strike), union activity was focused on recruiting new members and building support. It was an odd juxtaposition: militant talk among the leadership and entirely non-confrontational tactics vis-à-vis the university. The top administrators were not called out at meetings for their belligerence and plundering, nor were they dogged by picketers and hecklers whenever they appeared in public—either on campus or elsewhere in the state. Resolutions at faculty meetings and the University Senate were introduced hat in hand. The membership campaign was just as unassuming—occasional union t-shirt and button days, leafletting where students congregate, or posters hung near classrooms and elevators and inside student bathrooms. Phonathons were about as interventionist as the union got. Apart from pledging to support a strike, nothing was asked of the members.

The opening phase of the union’s campaign, when the drive to merge the part-time and full-time unions met with an outpouring of enthusiasm and a burst of new members, had raised expectations unrealistically. Everything the adjunct union had attempted since that initial drive had produced only minimal results. Online meetings customarily drew thirty or forty participants, besides the leadership group. Campus-based groups fizzled—only a few new faces volunteered, so few that a regularized schedule for leafletting had to be abandoned. Departmental liaisons were also a non-starter. The largest academic departments, those that hire dozens of adjuncts each semester, went unrepresented; meanwhile members of the leadership group added those responsibilities to their portfolios.

The in-person demonstrations—organized jointly with the union representing the full-time faculty and graduate students6—were also problematic. The leadership group from the adjunct union attended, but barely any other adjuncts. Turnout by full-time faculty wasn’t much better, one reason their union was eager to work with the adjuncts—to help pressure the administration and also to set an example for their own members. A healthier response was forthcoming from graduate students. Best of all, though, were the undergraduates who showed up in support and who themselves had no direct stake in the faculty campaign—neither union addressed educational quality or cost in their demands. True solidarity on the students’ part.

During Adjunct Speak Week (when adjuncts were asked to inform their students about university intransigence and the plight of its adjuncts), the information that filtered back was just as sobering. One hundred or so adjuncts promised to participate, although the real figure was perhaps a third of that. If the entire one hundred had joined in, this would have only reached some three percent of the student body.

Yet the union remained popular with its members, who were generally appreciative of its efforts on their behalf. They just did not want to be involved. The union was thus both popular and weak, two matters confused by the leadership. It forged ahead with strike plans even though all indicators suggested a lack of enthusiasm. Thus, the two main pillars of the adjunct union campaign—bargaining and strike preparation—failed to gain sufficient traction, despite the enormous amount of time and energy devoted to them. Last minute and entirely unanticipated developments would alter this situation, but on its own, the focus of the union seemed doomed.

It’s because most everything the union attempted produced minimal results that its media committee played such an outsized role. It ran a smart and sophisticated campaign in print and online, called on high-level journalists and experienced media personnel from among the adjuncts, produced a steady stream of newsletters, flyers, and articles in statewide and local papers, maintained a strong presence on social media, and kept everyone up-to-date with news about the latest bargaining sessions. Still, media presence is not the same as organizational heft.


In the face of university intransigence, the adjunct union compromised key demands. Its justification: that an ongoing yet visible stalemate, rather than a breakdown in negotiations, would further energize its members. Open bargaining was replaced with semi-open bargaining (every other meeting); “fractional” appointments were replaced with neutral terminology acceptable to the university’s administration—“Negotiations Unit Member.” With the union on the retreat, the university offered a pay raise of 2.25% (equal to $130 rather than the $4100 the union proposed), with smaller increases in the years following. Nothing was forthcoming regarding health benefits or multi-semester contracts. The biggest concession was a paltry $30,000 extra for the professional development fund.

The union remained trapped within an outdated and stagnant mode of operating—elected officers, bylaws, multiple meetings, innocuous activities, and a leadership that grew verbally more combative in words rather than deeds. The weaker and more frustrated the leadership group, the more tightly it coordinated its activities with the union of full-time faculty and graduate students and its cadre of paid staff, deep backing from its national affiliates (AAUP and AFT), and a membership whose majority cannot be retaliated against (because of tenure). Independence was slowly jettisoned, and joint committees with the full-time union took their place. It was a strategic decision in terms of strike planning—suggesting one big faculty, rather than allow the university to pick off individual subgroups. Whatever was lost in terms of autonomy was gained in terms of potential collective power.

Behind the scenes, the full-time union coordinated the pace, scope, and specifics of the campaign, maneuvering and prodding its own members while it did the same with the adjunct union. It was the same mode of procedure that the adjunct union had used with its members—seemingly open and democratic, but also proceeding along lines already predetermined and scripted, that is, keep bargaining and prepare for a strike. Independent initiatives that contradicted or fell beyond the boundaries of the combined full-time/part-time union strategy were frowned upon.

In principle, the full-time union ought to have been able to paralyze the university on its own. All that was needed was for the chairs of each academic department to refuse all administrative work until a satisfactory contract was reached for full-time faculty, adjuncts, and graduate students alike—in other words, no assessment reports (required for accreditation), scheduling of classes for future semesters, or participation in any of the committees responsible for the functioning of the institution.

Collectively, the chairs have power over the institution in the same way long-distance truckers once had (and perhaps still do) over the economy. This latent power is a vestige of faculty governance, when used effectively. Without the chairs, life at the university would grind to a halt, not all at once as with a strike, but incrementally as one area after another shuts down through inertia. That such a possibility was not discussed indicated that the full-time union did not have the full support of its own constituency, particularly the highest earners among them.

The Strike

If the previous year indicated a less than stellar situation for the unions, the strike vote and the strike itself confirmed the vulnerable position in which they were ensnared. The unions touted the strike vote as an endorsement of the faculty’s readiness to act, a claim that was less than candid. Of the adjuncts, three-quarters of the union members voted, of whom 94% authorized the leadership to call a strike if it deemed necessary. At face value, this represented a huge endorsement—a 75% rate of approval (.80 x .94). Left unsaid was that union members at that point only represented some 47% of the total adjuncts employed by the university. Figure this into the calculation (.47 x .75 x .94) and it was only 33% of the adjuncts who had authorized the strike.

Add in the vote of the full-time faculty and graduate students and the figure rose to 42% overall.7 In sum: after eighteen months of strike preparation, slightly more than two out of every five who taught at the university were strike supporters in that they both belonged to one of the faculty unions and voted in favor of the strike authorization. With the end of the academic year (May) looming a month away, the unions forged ahead. The unions might not have been ready, but they felt they did not have a choice but to call a strike. Everything they had done had led to this point. There was no Plan B.

The first day of the strike prompted a broad rethinking about tactics. In Newark, picketing was scaled back before it began, so slight had been the response to a call for volunteers. The three anticipated picket lines, with an hourly rotation of picketers, was reduced to two picket lines with four-hour rotations, and then a day later to one picket line twice a day for two hours each. At the main campus in New Brunswick, larger crowds were evident, over a thousand picketers on some days. This thousand was split among five separate locations (the New Brunswick “campus” hosts five separate campuses, cross-accessed by motorized vehicles) and were drawn from the 5,500 or so faculty and graduate students who teach there and the 16,000+ students living in dorms, besides the tens of thousands who commute to the university. The picket lines may have been spirited, boisterous, and picture-worthy, but they were underwhelming nonetheless.

Informal estimates from several union organizers placed participation by the full-time faculty at about ten percent of the picketers. Their low turnout was surprising in that nearly three-fourths of them were union members.8 What numerous faculty did, however, was to respect the strike by either cancelling classes or moving them online. This was critical to the strike’s success. Classroom buildings were, by and large, empty, and the campuses became educational dead zones for the entire week of the strike.

This was fortunate because the picket lines concentrated on student unions and administrative offices, not classroom buildings. Despite union insistence about the similarities between universities and factories, these developments at Rutgers indicated that educational facilities can be shut down without an actual work stoppage. The unions conceptualize workplace struggles as types of mano-a-mano, stand-up and duke it out, confrontations that often do not fit contemporary possibilities. It’s why, too, many faculty winced at the labeling of themselves as “workers,” rather than as workers who are also educators and professionals. As workers, they need unions; as workers/educators/professionals they might conceivably be emboldened to run the university on a cooperative basis, thereby helping to eliminate social distinctions rather than further codifying them by means of a union contract.

Three somewhat unanticipated factors saved the strike—the participation of undergraduates, widespread media coverage, and the sudden intervention of the governor. If full-time faculty were missing from the picket lines, the outpouring of undergraduates more than made up for them. Previous agitational work among the students had been aimed at winning their acceptance of the strike situation; their active participation lent the picket lines a bulk and respectability that faculty alone would not have achieved.

The extent of media coverage was just as unexpected and included social media, local and state-wide news outlets, regional and national news programs, and some international programming. The strike was newsworthy—a major state-supported institution in a highly populated metropolitan region, within a wave of organizing drives and strikes that have proliferated across the country, and occurring at a time when unions are seen as an institutional bulwark against the far-right.

It was the intervention of the political establishment and the New Jersey Governor’s invitation for the university and unions to negotiate at the state capital that prompted the tentative agreement between them. A short week of intense bargaining, often lasting into the late night hours, were all that was needed to end the previous years’ worth of fruitless discussions and produce enough of a settlement for the unions to call off the strike.

The suspension of the strike signaled the effective end of the unions’ campaign. Having shown little interest in the situation prior to the strike, the Governor suddenly played the part of the great benefactor, forcing the university to negotiate in good faith and offering to supplement its monetary concessions. But he also broke the strike just as it was gaining momentum, pressuring the unions to tentatively accept what had been offered even though many issues remained outstanding. It was a keen reminder of the liability attached to any movement that links its fate to support from that world.

That the unions’ decision to halt the strike was made without consultation with their memberships produced considerable bitterness in the subsequent weeks, especially in light of the university’s retreat into its previous belligerent stance. What ensued might have been the modus operandi during the entire campaign prior to the strike: bureaucracy-focused skirmishing that included attempts to use the university’s own governance mechanisms to introduce votes of no confidence at faculty meetings and the normally placid University Senate, visits to the homes and workplaces of key administrators and Board of Governors’ representatives, marches to nearby business districts, calls for the removal of the university’s chief negotiator (as suggested in a letter signed by hundreds of prominent academics from across the country), discussions among law school students and faculty about legal defense teams, threats to leaflet the university’s annual open house for newly-admitted students and their parents, and heckling university representatives (only undergraduates had the courage to do this).

These last-minute activities, however, were organized as much to keep the radical and dissenting members of the unions busy as they were to keep pressure on the university. It was already too late in the semester to revive the strike (the university could easily sit it out) and suggestions of grade strikes and similar measures were unpopular because they targeted students rather than the university.

In this charged situation in which hours became critical, the adjunct union was slow to embrace these new protests (at their forefront were the graduate students). Satisfied with the gains in the tentative agreement, it shutdown dissent. Information sessions, which had always included an open chat function, required that questions and issues be submitted in advance. “Talking head” presentations were followed by breakout sessions that were limited to a handful of participants. This was a familiar pattern. Free-floating discussions among a broad audience had never been how union officials defined democratic discourse. If the strike campaign had been scripted, so was its aftermath.

Winners and Losers

Adjuncts were the major winners, with a 44% pay increase over the four years of the contract. Winter and summer session instructors likewise benefitted from this, with additional provisions that included salary bumps and longer contracts based on seniority. Graduate students were also big winners, with compensation increasing by one-third over the course of the contract. The contracts also included dozens of other positive provisions.

The full-time faculty, in contrast, were held to a pay raise less than the current rate of inflation (the contracts were retroactive to the expiration of the last contract in July 2022). And now that we have entered an age of inflation, the subsequent increases of 3.25-3.5% per year may at best put them at parity or represent an ongoing pay cut. That adjuncts did so well and the full-time faculty not at all constitutes a major (according to the unions, ‘historic’) resetting of internal faculty dynamics. It remains to be seen if this becomes a general pattern, such that better paid workers sacrifice themselves for the sake of the less fortunate colleagues. In the immediate situation, it provoked quite a bit of grousing but also did much to reset relations between the various parts of the professoriate.

The strike campaign at Rutgers, nonetheless, represents a missed opportunity to tease out important issues.9 The strike campaign and the strike itself were predicated on the ongoing passivity of union and non-union faculty alike. We don’t know any better now than before how to breakdown the gap between activists and supportive, yet uninvolved, members, or how to prevent the few from determining for the rest what is best for them, especially when the latter provide neither consent nor guidance. Are action teams of anywhere from two to two dozen individuals a realistic alternative to the endless phonathons? Certainly, open-ended and long-winded conversations are needed to generate ideas about activities that correspond to the wide range of comfort levels, availability, and commitment to be found among the faculty.

In the union scenario, the membership is expected to suddenly awaken from its slumber, accelerate 0-to-60 in order to strike, and then—win or lose—return to sleep and leave matters to the union’s paid staffers. Sure, they are encouraged to join one of the union’s committees; a successful strike entails a build out of the union bureaucracy in order to monitor the settlement and maintain the union’s institutional status. Otherwise, the members have been through a strike but have had few opportunities to learn how to think and act on their own behalf. All the important decisions were framed for them.

Come September, the adjuncts will return to the university, still as ghosts, albeit better compensated ghosts who are also a bit more secure in their employment prospects. Other aspects of their precarity and vulnerability within the grander scheme of things, nevertheless, will have hardly altered.

  1. Rutgers distinguishes between research-oriented faculty (tenured and tenure-track) and teaching faculty (all of whom are untenured). The latter are devoted entirely to teaching and service. There is no expectation of scholarly research and publishing, as is true for tenured and tenure-track faculty.
  2. Of the ten highest earners during 2021, three were athletic coaches, and seven were faculty members at the university’s medical schools. Compensation ranged between $1.4 and $4 million for each. Twenty-nine individuals received compensation greater than $1 million (together, $43,923,069). DataUniverse Rutgers Salaries (
  3. The situation is further complicated for the unions because faculty also double as administrators by holding positions as department chairs and clinical chiefs. This rotation of faculty into administrative positions is one of the pillars of faculty governance. The Rutgers President, campus Chancellors, and academic Deans and Associate Deans, as well as other senior officials, are tenured professors who will return to the faculty when they step down from their administrative positions.
  4. Bus drivers have gone on strike, not by refusing to drive (and thereby leaving their riders without a means to get to and from work), but by refusing to collect fares. Public transportation thereby became a free good and elicited widespread support for the strikers. For an example, see: Brisbane bus drivers refuse to collect fares amid industrial dispute stalemate - ABC News. This level of class consciousness was missing from the Rutgers strike.
  5. The adjunct union pays annual dues to both the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers (some $30,000-$40,000 each), who with their vast experience and large staffs ought to have been providing technical advice at every step. A lack of resources for a part-time database administrator was not the issue. The adjunct union had investments of over $120,000 in 1- and 2-year CDs.
  6. Unionized graduate students are those who receive funding by the university in the form of stipends, health benefits, and tuition remission in exchange for work performed in research labs or as graders, discussion section leaders, and instructors. Not included are the majority of graduate students—everyone pursuing a master’s degree and unfunded doctoral students.
  7. For the total faculty: .56 x .80 x .94. Strike vote figures from 10 March 2023; membership figures from 17 March 2023.
  8. Some academic departments rotated responsibilities, so that one or two members of a, say, twenty-five to thirty member department would be present on a picket line at any given time.
  9. For the union perspective: Hank Kalet, “Rutgers University Workers Waging Historic Strike For Economic Justice,” Higher Education Inquirer, April 12, 2023, Higher Education Inquirer : Rutgers University Workers Waging Historic Strike For Economic Justice (Hank Kalet); Mel Bienenfeld, Hank Kalet, and Sebastian Leon, “We shut this place down because everybody walked out,” Tempest, April 23, 2023, Tempest “We shut this place down because everybody walked out” (; Bryan Sacks and Michael Reagan, “Rutgers Strike Wins Big But More is Needed to Change Higher Education,” Labor Notes, May 11, 2023, Rutgers Strike Wins Big But More is Needed to Change Higher Education | Labor Notes.


Gary Roth

Gary Roth is a long-term employee at Rutgers University, for many years as an administrator, then as a full-time faculty member, and finally, currently, as an adjunct. He was a member of the adjunct union’s Executive Board for part of the period described in the article.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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