The Rutgers University administration has just notified nearly all of its unions that it is taking the first steps toward implementing a fiscal emergency, thereby jeopardizing the futures of our 20,000-plus union members, their families, and communities throughout New Jersey. It is invoking provisions in our contracts that give the university enhanced powers to break its collective bargaining agreements.
By stating its decision to declare a financial emergency, Rutgers is claiming the right to tear up our contracts and unilaterally attack our unions and our most vulnerable members. It is also turning its back on the plan developed by our coalition to confront the COVID-19 crisis with a work-sharing furlough program that would prevent layoffs and program cuts, protect the most vulnerable, and bolster the university’s financial health. We ask President-designate Holloway and the Rutgers Board of Governors to exercise leadership and act now to set a different course.
Despite its recent legal action, Rutgers does not, in fact, face a true fiscal emergency. The latest scant data shared with our union coalition show that the administration has significantly downgraded its previous estimate of a negative change in funds this fiscal year, to around $58 million. Rutgers most recent projections for reduced student enrollment are not as severe as recently anticipated. Meanwhile, Rutgers is barely touching its $600 million in unrestricted reserves generated in large part through hikes in undergraduate tuition from the past several years. These reserves are a literal “rainy day” fund that could be used to balance the budget and provide support for graduate students and other vulnerable groups as we battle the overlapping public health and economic crises in New Jersey.
Our coalition of 19 unions, representing faculty, grad workers, staff and health care professionals, did Rutgers’ homework for it with our proposal for a work-sharing furlough program that relied on federal CARES Act funding to save the university as much as $100 million through the end of July. Instead, the administration is choosing layoffs and cutbacks affecting our most vulnerable members to realize a fraction of the savings that it could get up front from our work-share proposal.
Rutgers’ eligibility for millions more in federal relief funding, the enormous revenue potential of its COVID-19 saliva test, and its hiring of Jackson Lewis, one of the country’s most notorious union-busting law firms, reveals that this battle is not primarily about money. Instead, after squandering $10 million a week in potential savings from work-sharing, the Barchi administration is imposing a top-down vision of austerity on our state university that downplays its responsibilities to Rutgers’ students and workforce. This is all the more troubling given the unwillingness of the Rutgers leadership to take a significant salary cut during the crisis. While 312 high-level administrators make a total of $65.1 million in salary alone, they have only agreed to between a 1–3.3% cut in their total annual salaries.
There is no excuse for the administration’s callous action. The COVID crisis now coincides with an uprising against racism and inequality of unprecedented scale and moral influence. In words, the administration releases a statement announcing its solidarity with George Floyd and calls for racial justice. In deeds, it carries out measures that will inevitably cause greater harm to black and brown students, Rutgers employees, and communities.
With this fiscal emergency declaration, the administration is saying that it doesn’t want to reach an agreement with us. In the time-honored fashion of corporate management, it is trying to exploit the crisis so it can push an aggressive agenda of privatization and union busting. Robert L. Johnson, dean of the New Jersey Medical School, acknowledged as much when he stated: “Maybe COVID has a blessing in it that allows us to restructure in a way that we are much more efficient and more productive.”
The administration is choosing this course so it doesn’t have to make any concessions to democracy and accountability to the wider community. Certainly, that would be the advice of Jackson Lewis, which now advises Rutgers management on “human relations”—at a cost of millions of dollars that could have been used to preserve the jobs and funding of staff, part-time adjunct faculty, and graduate workers already suffering the brunt of Rutgers’ actions. This is all the more unforgivable given that all three Rutgers campuses are nestled in majority minority communities facing acute economic and public health challenges.
Our coalition of unions rejects Rutgers’ declaration of a fiscal emergency, and we will not let them silence us. We will challenge layoffs and program cuts. We will fight to protect the vulnerable, on campus and in the wider community. We will organize to enforce our contracts and pressure the administration to settle outstanding agreements and stop retaliating against medical faculty who speak out on behalf of union members. We will demand that Rutgers preserve and enhance the pay of front-line health-care workers facing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. We will insist that the administration rescind the order that effectively laid off 20-25% of our PTLs, we will fight for a one-year TA/GA funding extension as well as hardship funds for students who can’t receive federal relief and for all affected communities.
We call on President-designate Holloway and the Rutgers Board of Governors to intervene to cancel all layoffs and the fiscal emergency declaration—and to work with our coalition of unions to take a people-centered approach to the COVID crisis.
That is what it means to stand for people and for justice. All representatives of Rutgers and members of our community must have the courage to take this stand.
We will be sending out an email in the next week for a virtual membership meetings. Please make every attempt to get on the call once scheduled.
Ryan Novosielski, Co-President, HPAE Local 5094
Justin O’Hea, Co-President, HPAE Local 5094
Sabrina Brown-Oliver, Vice-President, HPAE Local 5089