Press Statement: May 21, 2020
Coalition of Rutgers Unions Representing 19 Unions and 20,000 Workers Asks Administration to Commit to Saving Jobs, Protecting Rutgers’ Future
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing faculty and graduate workers at Rutgers, has joined with other unions at the university in presenting a people-centered approach to confront the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.
In meetings with Rutgers officials, this coalition of 19 unions representing 20,000 faculty, staff, and health professionals put forward progressive proposals to protect the vulnerable, save jobs and livelihoods, and safeguard the university’s core mission of learning and research. The coalition has been working together on a humane alternative to layoffs and cutbacks, based on the principles of fairness, solidarity, and common sense.
A graphic illustrating our people-centered approach can be found here.
“This crisis requires new ways of thinking,” said Todd Wolfson, president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. “We believe the sacrifices need to come from those at the top who can afford them, so we can protect the vulnerable among us while also shoring up Rutgers’ financial health.”
The unions are proposing that the administration adopt a novel work-sharing program as one means of upholding Rutgers’ responsibilities to its workers and the people of New Jersey. Under work-sharing, nearly all furloughed Rutgers employees could replace their lost income with state unemployment benefits, plus the $600-a-week federal supplement passed by Congress in March. Workers’ incomes would be protected, while the university would save as much as $100 million.
“The union proposal shows how thinking outside the box with a people-centered approach can lead to a solution that looks out for everyone in the community and strengthens the university’s financial situation at the same time,” said Wolfson. “But time is of the essence. The federal booster will expire by the end of July, so administrators need to act quickly to seize this opportunity.”
In exchange for committing to work-sharing, the unions have proposed that Rutgers devote some of the savings, along with a portion of the university’s nearly $600 million in “rainy day” reserves, to help those suffering the brunt of the crisis. The funds would aid affected students, faculty, and staff, but extend into the communities beyond Rutgers’ three campuses.
In addition, Wolfson said, “management has to take a hard look at their priorities, which look more questionable than ever now that people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line. The highest-ranking administrators at Rutgers gave themselves raises over the past few years that were many times bigger than anyone else got. And at the first sign of trouble, they threatened to lay off 60 percent of staff in housing, dining, and other student services. This would devastate hundreds of New Jersey families.”
Unfortunately, the administration’s strategy has been haphazard at best so far. At the start of April, an email announced that, to fill a budget hole estimated at more than $100 million, some 20–25 percent of all Part-Time Lecturers (PTLs, or adjunct professors) would not be rehired in the fall.
“None of us know whether we’ll be teaching in a few months,” said Amy J. Higer, president of the Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. “PTLs teach over 30 percent of classes at the university, and so we did a lot of the extra work—without any extra pay—to transition from in-person classes to online learning. And our reward for these good deeds was an administration email at the start of April instructing deans and department chairs to reduce the PTL workforce by up to 25 percent.” (Read Amy Higer’s op-ed article at NJ.com.)
Medical workers have joined the union coalition to ensure their members receive the safety measures and equipment they need to survive the epidemic and care for the people of New Jersey.
“As an internal medicine resident, I was admitting a large volume of patients who were either known to have or highly suspected of having COVID-19,” said Dr. Victoria Kalamur, a member of CIR-SEIU. “I had been reusing the same three N-95 masks for five weeks. Seven days later I developed respiratory symptoms and tested positive. We deserve relative compensation and adequate protection as we willingly put our families at risk to help those in need.”
Wolfson said the unions’ proposal on work-share furloughs is a solution that would protect the incomes of Rutgers employees while also helping to ensure the university’s financial health in a time of crisis.
Work-sharing isn’t well known in the United States, but New Jersey has one of twenty-seven state unemployment systems that sanctions it. The model is celebrated in Germany, where it is credited with saving jobs and stabilizing the economy during economic downtowns. At the University of Wisconsin, the athletic department is proposing to save $2.8 million without layoffs through voluntary pay cuts by the highest-earning employees and furloughs of some 350 employees, who would replace lost income under a work-share program. (Unions at several news organizations recently proposed work-sharing.)
“We have an opportunity here, but the clock is ticking,” said Christine O’Connell, president of the URA-AFT. “The federal supplement that would allow almost every Rutgers employee to fully replace their income will expire at the end of July if Congress doesn’t extend it. For every day that Rutgers delays, it misses a chance to bolster its financial position.”
“Our union proposal saves the university resources while protecting workers and serving the common good,” said Wolfson. “The administration has to hold up their end of the bargain—by working transparently and collaboratively to make sure everyone in our community, on campus and beyond, is kept whole during this crisis.”