Giving Compass' Take:
- Here are insights and trends seen from the Rutgers strikes and other coordinated union activity against universities across the U.S.
- During the Rutgers walkout, three bargaining units went on strike, representing faculty members, adjuncts, graduate student employees and medical staff. How can universities improve working conditions and protections for these groups?
- Learn more about the power and importance of labor unions.
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Faculty members and graduate students at Rutgers University suspended their five-day strike on April 15 after agreeing to a settlement framework with the administration. The strike was somewhat unusual for American academia due to its high level of coordination among different university unions.
Experts, however, say colleges in some regions can expect more of these kinds of actions as higher education emerges from the pandemic.
In just the first few months of 2023, there have been 9 strikes at colleges and universities, including those by clerical and service workers, said William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, in New York City. By contrast, there were only 13 strikes at American colleges in the whole of 2018 and only five in 2017.
“There’s certainly a post-pandemic strike wave which the Rutgers strike is one of many,” Herbert said. “The data for the first quarter of this year shows a clear spike in strikes in higher education from prior years.”
Part of the newfound militancy by workers is likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic changed how many faculty members understood their relationship to their employer, said Jacob Remes, a labor historian and professor at New York University.
In the early days of the pandemic, when administrators were embarking on spending cuts and trying to get educators back in the classroom, there was no goodwill or assumption of good faith from faculty members, Remes said.
“There had been years and years of corporatized universities running in really harmful ways, and when they needed some goodwill, there wasn’t any. The well had run dry,” he said. “It’s the result of administrations using COVID to impose austerity.”
During the Rutgers walkout, three bargaining units went on strike, representing faculty members, adjuncts, graduate student employees and medical staff. Many of the issues being fought over concerned contingent and graduate workers more than their tenured peers.
That sort of coordination isn’t dominant yet in higher education, but it is growing.
“We’re seeing a trend nationwide involving a renewal of what used to be called industrial unionism, which is now referred to as wall-to-wall unionism,” Herbert said. “You’re seeing a greater degree of trying to build a broad coalition of people on campus within the union structure.”
Read the full article about strikes against higher education by Lilah Burke at Higher Education Dive.