With a new contract ratified by 93% of voting members across three unions, the spring 2023 Rutgers strike has formally come to an end. By any imaginable standard it was a sweeping success, winning 40% pay raises for adjuncts and over 30% for grad student workers. The five-day strike holds several claims to significance, being the first faculty strike in Rutgers’ 250-plus year history as well as probably the largest public-sector strike in New Jersey history, with approximately 9000 faculty members withholding their labor. But what has most earned it national attention was not just size but mission: this was a deliberate challenge to the contemporary neoliberal university, built on the rising tide of academic labor organizing and certain to inspire further action elsewhere.
The backdrop to the strike consisted of all the contradictions of contemporary academic labor practices as they intensified and ultimately exploded, heightened by the pandemic and its accompanying strike wave. Jonathan Holloway arrived in July 2020 as Rutgers’ first Black president, touting the university as a “beloved community,” a phrase popularized by Martin Luther King, Jr. A historian, Holloway wrote his dissertation under pioneering labor scholar David Montgomery, with a committee including the prominent leftist Adolph Reed Jr. That influence evaporated the instant Holloway began, as he doubled down on the austerity regime of his predecessor, pumping millions upon millions of dollars into Rutgers athletics while pushing to lay off service-sector employees left temporarily inactive by the early pandemic (in contrast, the Rutgers AAUP-AFT spearheaded an innovative work-share program of voluntary faculty furloughs to save jobs).
Under Holloway, university management simply refused to seriously bargain when the previous contract expired in June 2022. The union meticulously documented ten long, empty months of failed negotiations with a series of blog posts written by rotating members; taken together, they offer a chronicle of disdain and negligence as management negotiators barely show up, refuse to budge, and operate in something discernibly less than good faith. Perhaps this was the advice of the anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis, for whose questionable work Rutgers paid millions of dollars; if so, the university might want a refund
As tensions mounted, academic workers came together. The AAUP-AFT represents fulltime faculty (tenure-track and non-) and graduate workers; Rutgers PTLFC-AAUP-AFT is the adjunct union; and AAUP-BHSNJ covers biomedical and health science faculty and researchers. In late March, the fulltime and adjunct unions, which have moved in the past few years toward a “#OneUnion” merger despite resistance from university administration, voted over 90% to authorize their leadership teams to call a strike. Despite the seeming urgency of the moment, management dragged out negotiation sessions listlessly; around this time, I was appointed by the Rutgers-Newark chapter to replace a colleague on the bargaining committee, and what I experienced was the bizarre cognitive dissonance of a sense of urgency at the beginning of each day that routinely dissipated over the course of endless empty hours. Even on Easter Sunday, we were at the table the entire day, as management barely appeared.
And so, on Monday, April 10, the Rutgers strike began. The three unions acted as one—certainly an unwieldy coalition, but a more powerful one in its unity. The strike itself was glorious, full of anger and joy marked by song, speeches, a drag show, and more. When President Holloway sent a campus email threatening an injunction, he was blasted by his own peers in a ferocious open letter, “In the Spirit of Paul Robeson” (a Rutgers grad more often celebrated on campus for his athletics than his communism), which noted that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speeches was against court injunctions used to suppress striking workers. Signed by the luminaries of Black American history—including his own dissertation committee member Reed—it had to sting . . . but not enough to prevent Holloway from shamefully approving a system for students to report on striking professors.
The ties between the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and DSA run deep and were on ample display in the lead-in to the strike. The union and Central Jersey DSA both belonged to the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex, an effort to save a working-class majority-Latinx public school in New Brunswick from displacement by a Rutgers medical facility expansion. While the school was unfortunately demolished, the coalition partners remained united in turning to other venues for Bargaining for the Common Good, the union/community social-justice collaboration strategy made especially visible in the 2019 Chicago Teachers Union strike. In New Brunswick, where Rutgers is the largest landlord, this meant calling on the university for a rent freeze, funding for workers (often undocumented) excluded from COVID relief, and other demands.
When North and Central Jersey DSA organized a May Day rally in 2021, the union endorsed and sent a speaker in support of the Green New Deal, which it formally endorses (along with single-payer healthcare). When the strike began, DSA members showed in droves on the picket lines (Sudip Bhattacharya wrote a particularly insightful firsthand report), and DSA Labor comrades helped coordinate appearances by Starbucks workers, whose inspiring unionization drives in New Jersey have been heartily supported by DSA members as well.
Holloway’s efforts at repression were no match for the groundswell of support from students, community members, other unions, and even politicians, including state legislators and Newark mayor Ras Baraka. New Jersey is a state governed largely by reactionary, county-level Democratic machines, but as frustrating as its antidemocratic structures are, Jersey Dems still maintain at least a nominal commitment to labor. Which is how the union bargaining team wound up sequestered in Governor Phil Murphy’s office in the Trenton state house for the duration of the strike.
This was perhaps the most controversial feature of the strike, and too complex to fully unpack in a brief piece, but the core dynamic involved Murphy supporting the unions, while undeniably applying pressure to end the strike too. On the whole, the bargaining team considered the move to Trenton a net benefit, primarily because Murphy’s pressure cut both ways and surely forced more movement from the administration than we had seen in ten months at the table, and also because Murphy injected new funds—somewhat opaque in precise amount at times, but at a public university, the line between the school and the state is porous anyway.
When the bargaining team reached a “framework” to suspend the strike late on Friday night after five days of picket lines and protest, many were understandably suspicious, especially after the fulltime executive council had to vote on it with very little lead time. The resulting debates reflected the difficulties of maintaining cohesion across such a varied coalition. Tenure-stream faculty generally stayed impressively on-message when quoted in the media, openly acknowledging that this was effectively a solidarity strike in which the greatest gains would be passed on to the most marginal rather than hoarded at the top, but at times they expressed classic trade-union sentiment in wondering why, for instance, we were taking smaller raises than we might have. On the other end of the spectrum, some militant grad voices endorsed the long-haul strike seen last year at the University of California and even welcomed injunctions, thinking it would strengthen the strike and expose some of the contradictions of relying on elected Democrats, though they frequently overstated the extent to which they spoke for any discernible rank-and-file consensus (and generally failed to acknowledge that this approach would place easily-fireable adjuncts at the most risk). When the strike was suspended, it registered to them as a betrayal, and some of the resulting fractures will require time and trust-building to work through.
Still, after two weeks of continued post-suspension bargaining, a tentative agreement was finally reached, and, as The Nation reported, the unions had “run the table.” In addition to the sizable raises, beginning in 2024 incoming doctoral students will have five years of funding and a pathway toward joining the union while on fellowship—that is, recognizing that grad students are also grad workers (this was an incomplete win but nonetheless an important foothold). Full-time non-tenure-track faculty won presumptive contract renewals, and adjuncts a new set of levels that include one-year and eventually two-year contracts, in place of the old system whereby they were required to re-apply for their own jobs each semester. This may not overturn the adjunctification of academia in one fell swoop but it represents a sea change in the cruel downward spiral of labor exploitation and, to paraphrase something AAUP-AFT president Rebecca Givan said at the bargaining table, it challenges the nature of contingency at Rutgers.
We fell short on some important measures, including campus equity (faculty at the Newark and Camden campuses are paid less than those at the main hub in New Brunswick) and some of the Bargaining for the Common Good demands. But those struggles will continue, with a renewed sense of purpose. It is already clear that academic workers across the nation are looking toward the Rutgers strike as a model of organizing across rank and based on ideological vision grounded in concrete bread-and-butter politics. The Rutgers strike is surely the new exemplar for the academic labor movement—one based on the union work that preceded it, and one whose superseding we will all cheer when the next strike takes things even further.