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Profile / Solidarity lays the foundation for an extraordinary strike

Profile / Solidarity lays the foundation for an extraordinary strike

Rebecca Givan garnered national attention in the U.S. last April when she led her union along with two others in the first strike at Rutgers University in the institution’s 257 years. The strike, involving 9,000 academic staff, was one of the largest in the history of U.S. higher education.

As president of Rutgers American Association of University Professors– American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), Givan advocates for equity and better workplace conditions. Her union represents 5,000 full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and counselors.

Givan delivered the keynote address at the CAUT Contract Academic Staff conference in October and shared the story of the Rutgers strike with attendees.

In 2020, Givan recalled, some U.S. universities used the pandemic as a pretext to cut the workforce. Rutgers University had an emergency fund available for crises like the pandemic, but the administration chose instead to lay off precarious workers.

“We very quickly came together as a coalition of Rutgers unions,” said Givan. Upwards of two dozen unions representing 20,000 workers, including adjunct faculty, united to oppose layoffs. They brought forward the idea of a “work-sharing” program to prevent layoffs where the university would furlough workers for a small part of their hours and government funding would make up salary shortfalls.

The proposed furlough program, Givan said, would save hundreds of millions of dollars and allow precarious workers to continue to support their families. But the unions faced resistance from the university.

The unions also worked to achieve a balance between tenured faculty speaking to the administration and the most precarious academic staff speaking for themselves. “My preference would always be for people to speak for themselves, but, if there's a strategic advantage to me doing it and we can make a material gain, I’m going to be open to doing that,” Givan said.

began in May 2022, the three campus unions were already preparing for a strike. “We always knew we needed to be ready to strike,” Givan said. “We knew what our management’s approach was. We had been through this pandemic bargaining experience. We knew we had to build for a strike.”

The union coalition adopted a transparent and inclusive bargaining process where up to 75 members could observe negotiations. By March 2023, it became clear to Givan and her members that the university did not want to negotiate. “By the time we went on strike, we didn't have a choice,” said Givan.

The strike included every academic worker on campus and shut down the university after a year of bargaining. Givan noted that the unions bargained full-time for six weeks. The week-long strike involved workers covered by six different contracts and 70,000 students across 8 campuses.

“I was on five or six picket lines during the first hour or two of [the] strike. Then other than that, I was in bargaining rooms the entire time. There was massive student support,” said Givan.

New Jersey has no legislation prohibiting public sector strikes, but there is strong case law supporting injunctions. Givan recalled that some union members, especially militant graduate workers, were willing to stay on strike and risk arrest if the university sought an injunction.

The unions had a strategy if the university chose that path. “We would just create chaos that maybe people would still teach their classes or do enough teaching that the university wouldn’t really be able to monitor if they weren't teaching, but we would still have what looks like picket lines, and student activism we knew would be likely to ramp up.”

Governor Phil Murphy stepped in to bring the university and the unions back to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, on the picket lines, union leaders sent ice cream trucks and drag queens showed up. The strike even had an anthem that a student band created on the picket lines. The strike received a tremendous amount of favourable media coverage.

of favourable media coverage. After a week, “we achieved an economic framework and suspended the strike. Then we had to bargain some more to close out the contracts.” The unions negotiated contract gains including a 43% increase for adjunct faculty. Non-tenure track faculty gained renewable contracts. Graduate workers gained a 33% pay increase up to a living wage.

“The biggest win was the solidarity across our ranks — we went on strike to win improvements for our adjunct colleagues, our grad workers, and our postdocs. Full-time faculty understood that we need to stand together if we are truly going to build a better Rutgers,” Givan concluded.

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