Three unions representing about 9,000 Rutgers University faculty and staff have gone on strike after nearly a year of gridlocked contract negotiations, marking the first educator strike in the university’s nearly 257-year history, according to the unions.
Picket lines are expected to continue Tuesday on Rutgers’s three main campuses in New Brunswick, Newark and Camden, New Jersey, to demand salary increases, improved job security for adjunct faculty and guaranteed funding for graduate students, among other requests.
After New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy implored the two parties to meet in his office Monday for a “productive dialogue,” representatives for the governor’s office, university and unions met around noon Monday and were still engaged in negotiations late Monday night, according to Alan Maass, a spokesperson for the union Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
In response to a question about raising tuition to support contract demands, Murphy said during a Monday press conference that he would not be a fan of a deal “that takes it out on the back of the students.”
“I’m not happy it’s gotten to this point. I said this to them – both sides,” the governor said, noting he is optimistic that all parties will reach a fair resolution.
Union leaders expected the action to halt instruction and “non-critical research,” as clinicians at the university’s health facilities “will continue to perform patient care duties and critical research, while curbing voluntary work,” the unions’ release said.
Still, the university has insisted classes will proceed. “The university is open and operating, and classes are proceeding on a normal schedule,” the school’s website read late Monday, though another page noted: “Many classes will continue to meet during the strike.”
In guidelines posted in case of a strike, the university advised students to continue to attend classes and complete assignments as normal. It also stressed “it is the university’s expectation that all faculty and staff continue to report to work in order to fulfill their job duties and responsibilities.”
The unions’ action comes just weeks after a massive three-day strike by Los Angeles public school workers demanding increased wages and better working conditions and amid a surge of short-term worker strikes nationwide.
It is unclear how long the strike at Rutgers will last.
The university said it may seek a court injunction to end the strike and “compel a return to normal activities,” though union leaders have strongly resisted the university’s claims that the strike is illegal.
“To say that this is deeply disappointing would be an understatement,” Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway said in a letter to the community, noting the two sides agreed to appoint a mediator just two days before the strike was announced.
“For the past several weeks, negotiations have been constant and continuous,” the president said. “Significant and substantial progress has been made, as I have noted, and I believe that there are only a few outstanding issues. We will, of course, negotiate for as long as it takes to reach agreements and will not engage in personal attacks or misinformation.”
Union representatives, however, insist the university has refused to meet their central demands.
“After sitting at the bargaining table for 10 months trying to win what we believe to be fair and reasonable things, like fair pay, job security, and access to affordable health care, and getting virtually nowhere on these core demands, we had no choice but to vote to strike,” Amy Higer, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers and president of the Adjunct Faculty Union, said in a statement.
“We’ve heard management say that a strike will harm students,” she continued. “But you know what really harms students? The high turnover that results from paying teachers poorly and making them reapply for their jobs every semester.”
The striking unions are Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral researchers and counselors; the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, which represents part-time lecturers; and AAUP-BHSNJ, which represents faculty who teach at the university’s medical and public health facilities.
Nine other unions are seeking new contracts with the university, according to the unions’ release.
Where negotiations stand
The unions and university representatives have been negotiating since the prior contracts expired last summer, the unions’ release said. But while both sides acknowledged some progress in recent days, union leadership said Sunday that their essential demands were still far from being met.
Rutgers AAUP-AFT and AAUP-BHSNJ have united their bargaining efforts and are jointly negotiating a single contract for all full-time university faculty, while the Adjunct Faculty Union is independently negotiating a new contract for part-time lecturers who must be reappointed to their teaching positions after a set number of semesters or years.
Here are some of the unions’ demands:
• A university-sponsored affordable housing program and freeze of campus housing rates
• Salary increases for full-time faculty, graduate and postdoctoral workers
• Increased protections for immigrant and international workers
• Up to five years of guaranteed funding for graduate workers
• Child care subsidies for graduate and postdoctoral workers
• More paths to teaching tenure for professors and librarians
• Health care eligibility for members who teach 50% of the full-time equivalent
• Longer-term contracts and more advance notification of appointments
• Caps on size of writing-intensive classes
• Promotions based on years of service
In response, Holloway said the university has offered, in part:
• 12% salary increases for full-time faculty by July 2025
• Approximately 20% increase in per-credit salary rate for part-time lecturers
• More than 20% increase in minimum salary for postdoctoral fellows and associates over the contract period
• Commitment to “multi-year university support” for teaching and graduate assistants
“To say it’s just about wages is an understatement,” O’Malley, the masters student, said Sunday. “This fight is the fight between our university’s mission, between its promises and its reality. This is why this fight is central to students and community.”
University threatens legal action
Faced with a possible strike, Holloway said in a letter last week that the action would leave leadership with “no choice but to make every legal effort to ensure that any job action does not affect our students’ academic progress.”
In its posted strike guidance for faculty, staff and students, Rutgers said it would consider seeking a court injunction to force a return to instruction and work.
“The university may go to court to maintain university operations and protect our students, patients, and staff from disruptions to their education, clinical care, and workplace,” the guidance said.
The university and union leaders are at odds over the legality of the strike, as Rutgers has warned its workers that it would be illegal for them to participate in the action as public employees.
In a note advising participants on their “right to strike,” the unions pushed back on the university’s claim, saying, “The NJ Constitution and statutes are silent about whether strikes by public-sector workers are legal. In some instances, courts have issued injunctions against striking public employees.”
If Rutgers administrators do petition a court for an injunction, the unions said, “It would signal the start, and not the end, of a legal process.”
CNN’s Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.