Dr. Lenna Nepomnyaschy is an associate professor at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a participant in the current faculty strike at the university. She is a member of the board of directors of the Social Work Democracy Project. I have known Lenna since our days together in the Ph.D. program at Columbia University. I reached out to get her perspective on the strike that began on Monday.
Charles: What are the specific demands of the striking faculty?
Lenna: A little background, Rutgers AAUP-AFT represents more than 5,000 full-time faculty, graduate workers, post-docs, and Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) counselors on our three main campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden. We are one of the oldest university unions in the country, representing faculty since 1970 and grad workers since 1972. We are partners with the coalition of Rutgers unions representing 19,000 workers throughout the entire Rutgers system. We are also partnered with and striking in support of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT), representing over 3000 adjunct faculty, and the Union of Rutgers Administrators (URA-AFT), representing 2,500 administrative workers.
At this point, we are fighting for the lowest paid and least powerful members of our community, specifically: an increase in grad workers’ salaries to raise them to a living wage, an increase to the postdoc minimum salary commensurate with NJ standard of living, guaranteed five years of funding for grad workers, equal pay for equal work for adjunct faculty, greater job security for non-tenure track faculty, fourteen weeks of parental leave, the forgiveness of outstanding fees and fines for current and former students, greater funding for diversity initiatives, and commitment to affordable housing for students and our communities.
Charles: How long has the strike been going on?
Lenna: The union membership voted to authorize a strike about one month ago with a 94% vote to authorize. We hoped to avoid this outcome, but the administration continued to reject our demands. The strike officially started on Monday (April 10), so it has been going on for three days. However, it is important to remember that we have been without a contract for nearly a year, and the union has been negotiating with this administration for that entire time.
Charles: How is the strike impacting students, faculty, and the university?
Lenna: Obviously, this is a stressful time for everyone in our community. Faculty are doing all they can to communicate with our students to assure them that their well-being and academic progress are our primary concerns. A more equitable and just contract benefits all of Rutgers, primarily the students. Every faculty member is free to make their own decision about withholding their labor during this action. Students are assured that their graduation and progress will not be in jeopardy. Many students have joined the picket lines over the last two days and fully support these efforts. The Rutgers AAUP-AFT Twitter feed has many videos demonstrating our community’s power and the support of students across all campuses. This video of the hundreds of marchers in New Brunswick Tuesday is particularly powerful.
Charles: What are the university’s plans to address the demands of the striking faculty?
Lenna: On Monday, Governor Murphy, who has been highly supportive of the union effort, called both sides to restart bargaining at the state house in Trenton, and that is where our union representatives have been working well into the night on non-stop bargaining efforts. From the updates that we have received, it looks like we are getting close. Hear Governor Murphy on WNYC discuss the strike, stating his strong support of all unions, “New Jersey is a union state!”
Charles: What are the chances that the strike will be resolved soon?
Lenna: From everything I have heard, I think the administration has no choice but to bring this to an end very soon.
Charles: What are the long-term implications of the strike for the university and higher education?
Lenna: The long-term implications are that all Rutgers workers, including those who are most vulnerable and have the least power, will have much better pay, job security, and respect for their work, which will, of course, make all our students and communities in which we live, work, and operate better off. And this strike is a signal to other universities and institutions of higher education that improving working conditions for all workers is something worth fighting for across the country, particularly during these very dark and dangerous days of threats to higher education across the country.