Thousands of workers at universities have gone on strike in 2023 amid new union contract negotiations in demand of pay increases that align with the effect high inflation rates have had on the cost of living.
The strikes are a continuation of wave of industrial action in higher education in the US last year. In late 2022, 48,000 graduate workers and post-doctoral researchers went on strike throughout the University of California system, the largest strike in US higher education history. There were 15 academic strikes in the US in 2022, the highest number of strikes in academia in at least 20 years.
This uptick in strikes coincides with a surge in union organizing at US academic institutions. Since early 2022, graduate and undergraduate workers at 20 private academic institutions, representing over 25,000 workers, have won union elections filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
This strike surge has continued into 2023. Around 700 graduate workers at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went on strike on 31 January before reaching a new union contract agreement in March 2023. And 1,500 faculty members at University of Illinois Chicago went on strike in January 2023, winning a new contract after several days on strike.
Over 9,000 faculty staff, adjunct lecturers, and graduate workers represented by Rutgers AAUP-AFT, Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union and AAUP-BHSNJ went on strike at three campuses of Rutgers University in New Jersey starting on 10 April. The unions reached an agreement to end the strike on 15 April, which was the first strike in the school’s 257-year history as union contract negotiations stalled after 10 months of bargaining without a contract.
The unions criticized Rutgers’ role in soaring rent costs in the area given the university is the largest landlord in the New Brunswick, New Jersey, area. The university system has also been criticized for poor investments of endowment funds and overspending on sports programs.
“At the core of our fight is privileging just contracts for the most vulnerable workers and for us, this contract fight is the graduate students and the adjunct track, they are the lowest paid,” said Donna Murch, an associate professor of history and New Brunswick chapter president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
Murch estimated around 70% of the university had shut down due to the strike. She cited the strike and picket protests have received an outpouring of support from the community, students and local unions.
“We’re committed to a vision of intersectional organizing, where we figure out how to bring together a broad spectrum of people that how to organize, come together to fight for a broad spectrum of the workforce,” added Murch.
The Rutgers University administration threatened to take legal action in response to the strike through a court injunction over claims the strike was illegal but has held off on the action as the New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy, has intervened and encouraged both sides to reach an agreement at the bargaining table. The president of Rutgers, Jonathan Holloway, called the strike “deeply disappointing”.
An open letter from hundreds of scholars around the US was written in response to Holloway’s threat of an injunction to halt the strike and asking him to reconsider his support of David Cohen as the university’s lead negotiator, who has a poor relationship with labor unions following his tenure as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s head of labor relations.
On 11 April, about 280 faculty and staff at Governors State University in Illinois went on strike, joining around 100 faculty at Chicago State University and 300 faculty at Eastern Illinois University who began striking earlier this month in demand for fair pay increases.
The University of Michigan recently lost an attempt to obtain a court injunction against 2,300 graduate workers who began striking on 29 March, after a judge denied the request to issue an injunction to halt the strike.
“We feel this a really precedent setting decision because public sector workers don’t have the right to strike in the state of Michigan, it’s illegal here, but the judge said injunctive relief is not appropriate and we hope it will strengthen the resolve for other workers and make them more willing to go on strike,” said Amir Fleischmann, contract committee chair for Graduate Employees’ Organization 3550, which represents graduate workers at the University of Michigan.
The workers are pushing for wage increases to $38,000 a year for graduate workers, additional support services for international students, parents, and students with disabilities, and stronger sexual harassment protections.
“Many of us are struggling,” added Fleischmann. “We are on strike for a better university. This is a public institution that is supposed to serve the public. We’re putting forward a vision of this university where no matter your economic class, no matter your social identity, you will come here and thrive as a graduate student.”
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