Opinion: Fighting for a More Democratic Rutgers

By Hank Kalet

It feels like we are inching closer to a direct confrontation with Rutgers’ management. Management’s negotiating team appears uninterested in our chief demands —chief among them  the shift from piece work to fractional appointments.

In its counter proposals, management has deleted our job-title change from “part-time lecturer” to “fractional non-tenure-track faculty” that is core to our efforts for better pay and better working conditions. And it is now questioning a central element not only of our negotiating strategy, but the core of our union’s philosophy — which is that we are open, democratic, and fully accountable to every member.

We have made open bargaining a central tenet of our approach, moving away from the back-room style common in most union negotiating efforts in which union leadership decides for members what is in their best interest. Open bargaining gives everyone an equal stake, allows everyone to participate, and offers a show of power by our side by making everyone part of the negotiating team.

Management sees this as inconvenient. It says there are too many faces on Zoom, where our sessions are taking place, and that they cannot be sure who is participating. If this were a Hitchcock film, this argument would be the MacGuffin, something seemingly important but really designed to misdirect. In this case, management may claim security concerns, but what it really wants is to cut membership out of the process. Doing so benefits management, because it maintains a power imbalance.

“The typical collective-bargaining process in the United States,” write Jane McAlevey and Abby Lawlor in their report, Turning the Tables: Participation and Power in Negotiations, (https://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/unions-worker-organizations/turning-the-tables-participation-and-power-in-negotiations/) “involves a small committee of mid- to lower-level management and their lawyers negotiating with an equally small committee of workers who are selected to represent the majority.”

The members of these union committees are typically paid, and they negotiate during the hours they’d normally be clocked in and working. The lead negotiators for the union are either negotiation specialists within the union (this can be worker members or union staff) or, quite commonly, lawyers hired to lead the negotiations with a small committee. Most union committees are not elected, except in the sense that they involve elected union officials or position holders who, per the union’s constitution or bylaws, are ex-officio members of the negotiations team. The mechanics of collective bargaining are typically governed by ground rules legally negotiated by the parties. These rules often dictate confidentiality—gag rules—throughout negotiations.

Rank-and-file members, in this kind of negotiations, are only involved when asked to vote. This guts labor’s power, sidelining workers when we need to be fully engaged. McAlevey and Lawlor point to “a collective-negotiations process” as a strong alternative. We are engaging in open bargaining, one of many they cite. Open bargaining, like other collective processes, “invites, if not directly engages, the entire unionized workforce.” It makes “radical transparency … the starting point for the negotiations process,” which “can ultimately transform a union and lead to greater overall worker participation in the life of the organization.”

Meghan O’Donnell, who teaches social and political history at California State University Monterey Bay, told me recently that open bargaining offers members a chance to see “the other side” in action. O’Donnell serves as an associate vice president of lecturers for the 29,000-member California Faculty Association, which represents all faculty in the California State University system, and is part of its statewide bargaining team.

“Having opportunities for folks to participate and see and bear witness to the negotiations, making sure that everybody has a voice and opportunities,” she said. It’s not “ the theater of democracy, but real democracy.”  This is “critical to both building solidarity across all of our different experiences as faculty, and strengthening the union, but also ensuring that you’re getting good contracts.”

This is why we are committed to open negotiations and why management sees it as a threat. Rank-and-file power is the key to winning our most transformative demands and to balancing the power between management and all faculty.

Management opposition to this effort, of course, was not unexpected. The current PTL system benefits Rutgers’ administration by keeping its costs low and providing flexibility for management. The system, however, does not benefit the PTL. As every PTL knows, flexibility and cost containment are one-sided benefits that have little to do with our lives and even less to do with providing a quality classroom experience for our students. When management deletes references to “fractional NTT,” or slashes our rather minimal requests for development funding, they are making plain their priorities, which are purely financial and tied to the larger shift in public higher education toward a financialized model. We are debits on the accounting sheets for them and nothing more. For university administrators, the bottom line is all that matters.

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway has bemoaned the growing “adjunctification” of the university, and has promised to make changes to stem the trend. I’m not a fan of the term, “adjunctification,” because it implies we, the PTLs, are at fault and pits us against other contingent faculty. We are not at fault. We are the victims. Our focus needs to be and has been on the rapid “casualization” of university labor, which includes not just PTLs, but all non-tenure-track instructors and researchers, all employees who work at will and who face the prospect of having their jobs outsourced or eliminated to cut costs. Hence the merger.

Our proposal addresses this by flattening the tiered faculty structure and treating all non-tenured faculty the same — providing equal pay for equal work, job security through longer-term appointments, and healthcare. Our demands are transformative, but not excessive. They recognize the work we do and the important role we play at Rutgers. They are designed to make Rutgers better for all of its faculty and all of its students. They are the essence of a democratic workforce.

A more democratic Rutgers will only be achieved by a democratic approach to bargaining, which is what open bargaining is. If we can’t fight for this, what are we willing to fight for?

Hank Kalet is the incoming New Brunswick vice president of the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT, Local 6324).