By Kressent Pottenger
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Hank Kalet, a part-time lecturer in the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He is a member of the PTLFC-AAUP-AFT (Part-Time Lecturer Faculty, American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers), and vice president of the PTLFC executive board of the union at the New Brunswick, New Jersey campus. On April 9, 2023, the three unions representing faculty went on strike for the first time in the university’s 257-year history.
I teach journalism in the School of Communications and Information at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. I have taught there for almost a decade, after spending most of my adult life as a working journalist, primarily at local newspapers in New Jersey: The Princeton Packet newspaper chain, Patch when it was launching, and as a freelancer for New Jersey Spotlight News as well as The Progressive Magazine. I serve as vice president of the PTLFC executive board of the union at the New Brunswick, New Jersey campus. Rutgers has three primary campuses: New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden. The New Brunswick campus is the largest and considered the flagship campus. Of a total of twenty unions at Rutgers University, three represent faculty: AAUP-AFT (American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers) represents tenured/tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates, and EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) counselors; the PTLFCAAUP-AFT (Part-Time Lecturer Faculty, American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers) represents adjuncts; and AAUP-BHSNJ (American Association of University Professors-Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey) represents one thousand five hundred faculty at the merged Rowan University-Rutgers-Camden campus.
Adjuncts teach in most departments. I teach at two other schools besides Rutgers. That is the norm for adjuncts. Many teach in multiple schools across state lines. I teach on average about six classes: two classes a semester at Rutgers, and the rest at two different community colleges in the area. It is about fifty-five hours a week total of prep work and hours in the classroom. This excludes additional hours preparing for the fall and spring semesters in August and January.
There is no compensation for commuting, and we pay for parking. I live about six miles from the Rutgers campus, but also commute down Route 18, a major highway that runs from Central Jersey down to the shore area, to Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County. That is about two hours in traffic. I spend a lot of time in the car, which is incredibly unproductive. During the last contract period, most of us were making less than $6,000 a course. If we were teaching a seven-course load over a year, that would come to about $40,000 a year. That is roughly half of what a non-tenure-track full-time faculty member earns, and full-time tenure-track faculty make significantly more. They do have responsibilities we do not, for example, public service.
During the last contract period, most of us were making less than $6,000 a course. If we were teaching a seven-course load over a year, that would come to about $40,000 a year.
The county community colleges pay poverty wages. At the community colleges, I was making less than half what I earn at Rutgers. Rutgers administration, and the management of New Jersey state health care, has not deemed us important enough to get health insurance. Under the current contract, we are not eligible for health insurance. We can buy it on the open market or get it through a spouse. My wife has a pretty solid insurance plan at her job, which covers me. I am sixty years old, and we are close to retirement. The adjunct union wants to be in the state plan, which would take that pressure off spouses to provide health coverage.
We also lack access to stable, regular office space. I often meet with students at Starbucks. My department provides a room we sign up for, but if I am not teaching in our main building, it is a hassle to use the space. If I had my own office space, I could keep office hours. I have to give out my cell phone number to students because I lack an office where students can leave a message. This has a tremendous impact on us, and our students.
As an adjunct you tend to be isolated. In most departments, we are not part of the faculty governance structure or invited to department meetings. In many cases, we do not even know the other people who are teaching the same classes we teach, although in journalism it is a bit different as many of us know each other as professional journalists; but the isolation means we do not know what problems others are facing.
When Covid-19 hit, I think full-time tenured faculty probably felt fairly safe in terms of their jobs, and they remain so to a degree. But the contingent faculty feel less secure. During the pandemic, there was a big layoff of PTLs (part-time lecturers) at Rutgers. In practice, that meant larger classes for full-time professors. There was no added compensation to teachers for preparing online courses. During Covid-19, the previous university president Richard Barchi declared a fiscal emergency which was used to then delay or prevent the faculty raises agreed upon in the contract at that time. That was an epiphany for many: not only were they forced to go online and teach more students, they simultaneously had their raises withheld. It was a wake-up call.
I was teaching two classes when Covid-19 hit. In one class, students were incredibly engaged. In the other, they were not. That particular group was hard to teach in person, and many did not interact online. I tried live lectures first and ended up doing mostly asynchronous. [Asynchronous means the learner is accessing the materials, for example, pre-recorded lectures, at their own pace]. Recording lectures on the fly in a two-week period is difficult. That class did not respond well to asynchronous learning, as they were already struggling in person. Every class has a student survey at the end of the semester. Those surveys could be used to judge faculty, which means they could also determine whether we could move into a fulltime position or whether we would be able to stick around at all. It worried me: How is this going to ultimately affect what we are teaching? A lot of colleagues had similar problems during the first semester of Covid-19. My course was writing-intensive, and not one that functions well online. A lot of students would disappear for weeks on end. Even after we came back, they had gone through a year or two of isolation. I had a lot of students who suffered. We had to find ways to help them: whether directing them to the mental health program at Rutgers or finding ways to allow them to finish incomplete work and still get credit.
There is a large international presence at Rutgers and a large Chinese national population on campus. Many of those students went back home during break and were forced to stay home because of pandemic restrictions. Others, who remained in the United States, were forced to stay on a nearly empty campus because they could not travel. I offered several different opportunities for office hours, but overseas students could not partake in that because of the time difference. Even students who went back home on the West Coast were struggling with that. But it was much worse for international students because they were either further away or—if they stayed—on lockdown and basically trapped on campus. Covid-19 really affected students’ ability to function in the classroom. Covid-19 for grad students was a nightmare. They lost a year or more of research time, were forced to be on campus, and some had to work to maintain their academic status. They struggled to get PPE (personal protective equipment). Grad students in the humanities and social sciences, whose research might have been archival or anthropological and were normally expected to be out in the community, lost a chunk of time. As part of this contract, grad students can apply for a Covid-19 academic extension program that helps them make up for the time lost. Is it going to cover all of those who are affected? No. It is certainly not going to cover those who already dropped out because of the damage done in their efforts to get their PhD.
The unity that we created during the strike started with a shared sense of being beset by the administration and by Covid-19 at the same time.
The three faculty unions—AAUP, PTLSAAUP-AFT, and AAUP-BHSNJ—went on strike on April 9, 2023 for five days. The grad students were very committed to it, I think partly because of their experience during Covid. Those who stuck around saw their funding run out, and now are scrambling. Some of them were adjuncts. Many of these adjuncts were in PhD programs getting paid very little, and not allowed to take outside work. There was a question about whether they would be able to complete their research in the allotted time. The unity that we created during the strike started with a shared sense of being beset by the administration and by Covid-19 at the same time.
There was a lot of prep work and organizing that took place with our eye on the contract expiring and the likelihood of a strike. That preparation included a lot of cross-union discussions and a lot of outreach to students. We did something called “Adjuncts Speak Week” and asked PTLs to make a short presentation during their classes: tell our students what an adjunct is, talk about Rutgers financing, and show the research that explained that the school had money. The Rutgers president [Jonathan Holloway] gave a budget speech in which he discussed a deficit despite there being a record surplus of almost $900 million. We knew they were trying to establish a certain kind of austerity narrative and were prepared for it. We invited union representatives in other higher education institutions that had recently struck—New York University, University of California, and Cal State—to help us understand how they had organized and won their contracts. They were “paying it forward.” Now that our strike is over, we are prepared to do that as well. We want to make ourselves available. We really invite people to reach out to us. Adjunctification is a major national problem we are dealing with. We are fighting it school by school, across the country. Each of us should keep in mind that we are all stronger if we talk to each other.
Start the conversation with students. Many of us started talking regularly in our classrooms. Students knew our demands, and what was going on in bargaining. It was important to create unity, but also, students were going to be affected if we walked out. I wanted them to understand that this was about them in a positive way. If instructors were better compensated, and had better benefits, we would be better teachers. Students will benefit from that. That open and honest conversation I think resulted in support. They heard from us on a regular basis. The only time they heard from the administration tended to be through press releases, filled with half-truths at best. The full-timers started doing some of the same. I encouraged all of my students, not just to listen to me, but to talk to their other instructors. I will do this again when we go back in the fall. I will challenge them: you need to know if your professor is a PTL or tenure-track. You have a right to ask that. It will give you a sense of what instructors may be dealing with outside of the classrooms.
Another aspect of strike preparation was conversations among the union leadership early on aligning timelines and goals. Initially we had organizing committees for each union; slowly we became one big organizing committee. We merged our media committee. We engaged in open bargaining as an organizing method: any member could attend the bargaining sessions, live or on Zoom. The more members could see what was happening at the bargaining table, the more they could see that, until the strike, the administration was unwilling to do much of anything. They became more engaged, willing to work on the phone or in text banks and show up at various protests during the school year. In 2023, all three faculty unions were in one bargaining session together. We came out with separate contracts for each of the three unions representing faculty.
We invited union representatives in other higher education institutions that had recently struck—New York University, University of California, and Cal State—to help us understand how they had organized and won their contracts.
The full-timers did not win the raises they would have liked. They sacrificed some of their potential increases to make sure that the contingent faculty won better raises. That was a commitment they made. Adjuncts got a huge pay increase in this contract—43 percent. We did not reach parity with our non-tenure-track full-time colleagues, but we got closer than management was prepared for at the beginning of this. The per-class pay range for adjuncts is around $7,500 for people just starting out, and by the end of this contract it will be $12,000 a class. We have to change state law to open up the state health insurance plan that faculty is part of. There is legislation on the table now; if it passes, it will benefit primarily adjuncts who teach at multiple schools in the state. It would open up access for a number of people. Non-tenure-track faculty won what could be called “tenure lite.” They have presumptive renewal of their contracts. Before, the university could say “we are not going to renew your contract, goodbye.” They now have to demonstrate someone did not warrant reappointment. Otherwise, adjuncts are presumed to remain in their positions. We have a promise that departments will do their best to provide some kind of office and storage space. We won a significant increase in the Professional Development Fund and a process to increase the funding pool. Until recently, attending a conference or taking a course to better their teaching methods was mostly unpaid for adjuncts. We do not get the same kind of pension as full-timers, but state law requires teachers to pay into a 401 K.
We also won the beginning of job security and will now be eligible for full-year appointments after teaching two semesters. The grad students [teaching and research assistants] are members of AAUP-AFT. They want a gradual increase to $40,000 by the end of the annual contract for a year. There will likely be a fight in contract enforcement to protect that. There is a memorandum of agreement, still in the works, that will give grad students some Covid-19 academic extensions retroactively. They will likely have to apply for that.
As part of the contract campaign, we engaged in what is called “Bargaining for the Common Good.” The idea was to challenge Rutgers to be a better neighbor. The demands were community-based: a city-wide rent freeze on properties owned by Rutgers, which has become the largest landlord in the city of New Brunswick. That would go a long way to stemming the rent increases that have been happening around the city. The second demand was the creation of a community fund designed to aid the largely immigrant and undocumented population in New Brunswick.
The full-timers did not win the raises they would have liked. They sacrificed some of their potential increases to make sure that the contingent faculty won better raises.
For many of these folks, whatever state or local assistance existed was not enough; or they were just not eligible for federal aid because they were undocumented. We tried to build what was supposed to be a dual fund: the expectation was that the union and Rutgers would contribute equal amounts, but Rutgers reneged. The third demand was debt forgiveness: students are subjected to fines for late library books and parking tickets. Those fines and fees add up, and the university can put a hold on class registration, diplomas, and transcripts until the debt is repaid. These fines and penalties can have a longer-term impact on students and their credit rating. We were asking for debt relief, and an end to this practice. [AAUP-AFT did not win these demands. However, a certain amount of state money has been committed to the Beloved Community Fund, a fund created by the unions at Rutgers along with the broader community in New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, in an effort to hold Rutgers accountable as a neighbor].
The reason we were successful at Rutgers was because we broke down the barriers that exist: we marched on the picket line together as grad students, adjuncts, and full-timers.
I would say our wins were impressive but incomplete. The three faculty union contracts were ratified in early May. We were in the range of 93-95 percent voting for the contract. Adjuncts had a large turnout of about 70 percent voting for the contract. This is amazing, as any given semester there are two hundred to three hundred inactive members on our rolls, people who no longer teach at Rutgers. During the vote, which took place over a few days, we went from 48 to 54 percent union density. We had fifty or sixty new dues-paying members, who must have signed up so they could vote. [Under public-sector labor law, employees at a state university like Rutgers are not required to join the union and pay dues, though the union must provide non-members with benefits under a contract.] The voting numbers for all three unions are similar.
This is far from over, as far we are concerned. We plan to keep fighting for health care. Moving forward, we will continue to organize around the tremendous inequity among the three major
campuses. Faculty teaching in the Philosophy department at Rutgers-New Brunswick, considered to be one of the top philosophy departments nationally, receive a certain wage. The
Philosophy department at the Newark or Camden campus—both of which have a diverse, largely low-income student body—is treated as lesser. The reason we were successful at Rutgers was because we broke down the barriers that exist: we marched on the picket line together as grad students, adjuncts, and full-timers. One day I was on the picket line with my department chair. That is an example of what we need. Each class of faculty may have slightly different issues, and students have slightly different concerns as well. The larger concern is: How do we make the schools in which we teach and which students attend fulfill a mission of education, research, and equity? We can only do that effectively if we break down barriers, talk to each other, and start organizing together. Full-time faculty should not see adjuncts as a threat. They do need to understand that the growing use of contingent faculty will have an impact, perhaps not on their individual jobs but on whether their individual jobs are still there when they leave. Universities will continue trying to find ways to replace higher-paid full-timers. Working together to defend academic freedom or to win single-payer health care affects us all.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA labor studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women organizing in the workplace.