What is a strike?
A strike is a concerted work stoppage or slow down in order to improve working conditions. It might be a refusal to teach classes for a single day or for an indefinite length of time. Or, it might be withholding essential labor, like submitting final grades.
A strike can be a powerful way for a union and its members to win a fair contract. However, it is always a weapon of last resort. The results of a successful strike can lead to significant, even historic, improvements in work conditions.* Strikes can also be an effective means to advocate for the public good** or to persuade management to address long-standing inequities in pay and working conditions.*** It’s important to note too, however, that a strike can also lead to a protracted period of conflict and disruption, if management digs in its heels.
*Such as the victorious 2022 walkout of 48,000 UC academic workers, where increases in minimum pay from $23,250 to $34,000 ($36,500 at Berkeley, UCSF, and UCLA) were won, giving the lowest-paid workers an 80% pay boost. The settlement also provided enhanced child care funds, healthcare for dependents, pandemic pay, and more.
** As in the case of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in 2019, where the chief demand was reducing classroom size and increasing the number of support staff, such as nurses, librarians and social workers.
*** Like the Minneapolis teachers’ strike last winter, where the majority white teachers fought for and won equity for the lowest paid job categories in their schools, mainly people of color.
What is a strike authorization vote and who decides whether we take a strike authorization vote?
The authority to call for a strike resides in our membership. Article VIII of our PTLFC union’s by-laws stipulates that “the decision to strike must be democratic and shall be authorized, in a secret ballot sent to all Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union members by a majority of those who vote.” That ballot is a “strike authorization vote.” It empowers our bargaining team to call a work stoppage, if and when it is necessary.
A strike authorization vote by a significant number of members can sometimes send a powerful enough message to management to cause them to bargain in earnest and reach an agreement without the need for a work stoppage. This was the case at both the NYU and Barnard College last fall where major gains were won after strike authorization votes.
If we vote to authorize a strike, does that mean we must strike?
No. A vote to authorize a strike does not mandate that a strike will occur. A vote to authorize a strike gives our union officers the ability to call a strike should they choose to do so at some future time.
Are public sector strikes against the law in New Jersey?
The State Constitution and the NJ Employer-Employee Relations Act are silent on this issue. There is no state statute that prohibits strikes or work stoppages by public employees, including faculty employed by Rutgers. However, courts in New Jersey have ruled in some cases that walkouts by public employees are unlawful.
Although there is no statute that bars strikes, state courts may issue injunctions requiring public employees to end a strike and return to work. The administration would have to petition a court for an injunction. If a union does not comply with a court order to return to work, the employer can go back to court for an order holding the union in contempt of court. At that point a union could face legal penalties if it fails to comply with an order.
In 2018, public school teachers in a number of states where public worker strikes are illegal, including West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, went on strike. It is notable that in none of these cases was there an attempt to to enforce the law against the many thousands of educators who took part in these walkouts.
Is it illegal for union members to vote to authorize a strike?
No. Strike authorization votes by public sector unions have been held to be protected speech by New Jersey courts.
What would a strike look like at Rutgers?
If the membership authorizes a strike, and if the union leadership then determines that a strike is necessary, it will likely be in alliance with our sibling unions. Both our union and the full-time faculty/graduate workers union would ask ALL faculty and graduate students who teach to cancel all classes, both in-person and online. Union leadership would also ask any faculty conducting non-essential research work to also join the picket line. It is important to note that moving classes to online formats would be the equivalent to crossing a picket-line.
Would a strike irreparably harm our students?
No. We are fighting for our students. Strikes are effective because they are disruptive, and disruption inevitably causes short-term inconvenience. But the harm to students from our not striking may be far greater than short-term inconvenience. Over the past few decades, Rutgers students have been getting less and less of their education from full-time, secure faculty and increasingly more from part-time instructors. Adjunct faculty currently teach over 30% of Rutgers courses–tens of thousands of students every semester. We are paid so little and have virtually no job security that many of us have to work multiple jobs to survive. This makes it difficult to spend necessary time with students to provide the quality of education they deserve. We would strike only after we concluded that doing so would be the only way to get management to prioritize student education.
I don’t have any classes this semester. What would I be asked to do?
Even if you don’t have teaching responsibilities or departmental work on the days of a strike, we would ask you to join your colleagues on picket lines and help support our collective goals.
I’m concerned about participating in a strike because I am not a US citizen.
The union will not ask vulnerable faculty and grads to be in harm’s way, particularly those who are here on visas. If the union leadership should call a strike, we will ensure that you are in a position to make a fully informed decision about your level of participation. In addition, the union will vigorously defend all faculty who either participate in or support a job action.
What about other campus employees? Would they participate too?
Our union is in coalition with nearly all of the 20,000 unionized employees at Rutgers, and meet regularly to collaborate. If our union went on strike, we would ask all employees to honor our picket lines and fully support our efforts, in order to maximize our impact. This includes departmental support staff, parcel deliveries, and everything that normally comprises the workflow of our campuses.
Can a strike be brief, and if so, are there any risks from calling for a one or two day strike?
Yes, strikes can be brief, and yes, workers always take risks when they withhold their labor. Management can refuse to pay us and/or take disciplinary action. They could also seek a court injunction to prevent us from taking such action.
What would be the point of a strike?
The consistent message from all of our faculty unions during the many months-long campaign to win a fair contract is that we are fighting for equal pay for equal work; quality, affordable public higher education; and prioritizing teaching, research and service. We are also standing up against the wasteful spending and the misguided priorities of the current administration.
We would strike if it becomes clear that withholding our labor is the only way we can put sufficient pressure on management to win our demands for a fair contract and the respect we deserve as vital members of this academic community.