The First Strike: Rutgers Academics Against Precarity

Sudip Bhattacharya

On April 10th, the first-ever faculty strike in Rutgers University’s 257-year history was just getting underway, after careful planning and organizing by Rutgers faculty and graduate workers. Chants of “New Brunswick is a union town!” and “Will you raise my wage?” echoed down city blocks and campus streets as marchers barreled past Rutgers advertisements: billboards with stock photos of smiling researchers and students.

Over 9,000 faculty and graduate workers would take part in the week-long strike. Their contributions to solidarity ranged from participating on the picket lines, which buzzed with anxiety and excitement, to canceling classes. Rooms sat silent, blank projection screens devoid, for once, of PowerPoints.

Charlotte Olsen, a doctoral candidate in the physics department and a graduate worker, immediately volunteered to serve as a picket captain. Her role was to sustain enthusiasm on the front lines as strikers marched and chanted from dawn till dusk. On her third day, her migraines returned with a vengeance as the sun loomed over her, causing her to lose her vision.

“I literally couldn’t see anything anymore,” she told me with a laugh. Much of her migraine symptoms are similar to what people go through when dealing with a stroke, she explained, from losing their vision to mumbling to not being able to speak at all. Fortunately, someone was able to take her to her office, kept cool and dark. After a few hours recovering, Olsen popped open her laptop, and promptly began following the ongoing Zoom sessions held between the Rutgers faculty unions and the administration.

“I got some rest, and then went back to watching the bargaining sessions online. The fight continued!” she exclaimed.

Rutgers is a giant, sprawling academic system. It has campuses across New Jersey, from Camden to New Brunswick and Newark. In each, throughout the week, pickets were held, marches went on, and people shouted union slogans as loudly as possible until their voices gave out. For some, this was their first time participating in any such action or protest.

“It’s been exciting to see so many people who never really spoke or interacted with each other before, because they’re from different departments, finally meeting each other at the pickets for the first time,” said Soili Smith, a doctoral candidate and graduate worker in the American Studies program in Newark. She described the picketing and other strike-related events as joyous, not unlike the atmosphere one would find at a festival, with cars and trucks honking their support; with every passing hour, the crowd grew, spilling onto the street. “I’ve seen people talking about forming musical bands together,” said Smith, her voice hoarse, the result of days of chanting through a bullhorn.

As an adjunct faculty member, and someone who is trying to complete their dissertation in political science, I too joined in with the singing and marching. We swarmed administrative buildings, encouraging friends to come along and see for themselves what a strike actually looks like. Music pumped from speakers as some volunteers distributed food and water, while other attendees spoke to the crowd about the danger of neoliberalism in the university.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed with a sense of solidarity, with the sense of something new is on its way. Sometimes, as I stand amidst the crowds of people, everyone singing off-key but clapping and laughing, the anxiety I’d been feeling, the stress—which seems to bore holes in my brain and is surely driving hair loss, starts to fade.

“I think for a lot of us, those of us in the working class, this is when you get to feel you’re not trapped by the system anymore,” Smith said, commenting on why undergraduates and non-faculty workers have felt drawn to taking part in the strike. “So much of your life is so decided for you and it feels so impossible to overcome. But these are moments when you get to feel like it’s not impossible anymore, when you feel and know you are powerful, that this is where power really is. That’s a big reason for me personally for why I’m here every day.”

The origins of this strike lie in the decades-old process of imposing austerity, a core feature of neoliberalism. Since the rise of Reagan, beginning with his time as California governor, state funding for public universities has been assiduously slashed. Administrators, instead of fighting back against such cuts, saw fit to accommodate the neoliberal turn, led by a resurgent right, on college campuses. The result has been the precaritization of the academic workforce.

“We’re all future adjuncts,” as Smith put it—and for many graduates, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities, it does indeed feel like that future awaits all but a miniscule fraction of budding academics.

Because of this growing crisis, this overreliance on the highly educated and highly exploited, the Rutgers unions—there are three involved, Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, and AAUP-BHSNJ—have demanded higher salaries for graduate workers, from the shamefully low rate of $30,000 to at least $37,000 per year. Union leadership, buttressed by the rank-and-file (who have been newly mobilized in ways I have never seen during my entire time at Rutgers), is also demanding an increase in how much adjunct faculty would make for every class. 

This still won’t account for the intensifying costs of living in the New Jersey area, the land of freeways and crowded shopping malls. With average grocery runs hovering around $180 every week, and with rents spiraling out of control even for studios in the most out-of-the-way communities, the requested raise will lighten hardship but is far from a sea change in academics’ living conditions.

Concerns have also been raised regarding the negative impact that the sprawl of Rutgers facilities has had on the surrounding community; the university’s large-scale purchases of property have contributed to gentrification and higher rents.

“This fight goes beyond academia, and our campus,” Olsen emphasized. “I am very old school in that sense. This is a state university. They’re providing a public service that should be accessible to everyone, and should lift up and enrich the community around it. If Rutgers doesn’t change course, then the rest of society will suffer, and continue to also be shaped this way for private interests rather than what works for the public good.”

As of right now, after a week of effectively shutting down the day-to-day operations at Rutgers, the major unions and Rutgers administration, who’ve been bargaining at the statehouse in Trenton, have agreed to suspend the strike. There is now a “tentative framework” that our bargaining unit and the administration have agreed upon as a start to negotiations. This does include some pay increases for much of the workforce, who have languished in precarity and been bound up with incessant anxiety about our futures in academia’s hallowed halls.

“We’re drawing a line in the sand,” said Paul O’Keefe, assistant teaching professor in geography and member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT executive council. “This is not an acceptable path for the future.” Unacceptable indeed—the consequences of the neoliberal infection that has taken root at Rutgers and other public universities have had drastic consequences at a national scale.


What is happening at Rutgers is both a reflection and a reinforcement of broader economic and political patterns. The concept of the “public good” has been increasingly replaced with the policymaking mentality that society should be run by and for private interests,. Hence, why government itself, with figures like Carter and Reagan and of course, Bill Clinton leading the way, has become so invested in helping subsidize and promote the welfare and interests of said private businesses.

At institutions like Rutgers, private funding has become the primary means for researchers, aside from teaching, to continue their work. Of course, as one could surmise, the research that is oftentimes rewarded is the type of research that is legible and translatable to the private market. At the very least, it is research that doesn’t challenge U.S. hegemony across the world, or that doesn’t produce ideological concepts that obscure the real history of capitalism.

It certainly is not the passion and dedication of faculty and students that is in question. “Faced with the sheer expanse of something, being stranded in the middle of the ocean, contemplating the vastness of space, it can be intimidating. But it’s more of a happy place for me,” Olsen said about her work as a physicist, which focuses on questions about the universe and the evolution of distant galaxies.

Olsen, who left home at fifteen and spent some years unhoused, had always wanted to be a physicist; she had long sought to seek out answers to cosmic mysteries. It was only much later in life that, encouraged by her spouse, that she decided to return to community college, earn a Bachelor’s in California, her home state, and subsequently travel across the country for her Ph.D. “Rutgers has such an amazing physics program that I desperately wanted to be part of,” she said.

Soili Smith, originally from Canada, had come to Rutgers for its excellent humanities programs after a class on borders and colonialism convinced her that she wanted to pursue higher education. Her focus is on untangling the ambiguities within the Canadian sense of self-understanding—the narrative that Canada is a land friendly to refugees, while its power structures continue to deny the sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Indigenous people face systematic persecution and social injustices, including the disproportionate murder of Indigenous women. Smith is engaged in critical research that punctures the Canadian national mythos.

“All it took was one class for me to realize I needed to do this research,” she said. Despite right-wing diatribes and public cliches about “useless” degrees, Smith’s work—like the humanities in general—is deeply meaningful and valuable to society at large. Her specific work offers value to, for example, organizers and policymakers, Indigenous or otherwise, in strategizing how to develop counternarratives to win short-term demands, as well as gathering momentum to advocate for systemic solutions.

My own research explores the potentiality for effective coalitions to emerge among various groups of color. It is very much intended for organizers and other activist-scholars to learn from as we grapple with the opportunities and obstacles we will face in attempting to develop such coalitions. The purpose is to find a pathway toward forging alliances that can help us win critical material demands, especially demands that matter to working-class and low-income people of color, who are being ignored or left to fend for themselves—even as minority groups attain representation in some halls of power.

Although passionate and meaningful research embodies what academia should be, it’s difficult for many academics to stay and continue their work, as the pay remains well under what researchers and educators need for even a very modest standard of living. There are people at Rutgers right now who’ve been working as adjuncts for decades. Others might find have to cycle through underpaid teaching jobs, commuting from one campus to the next, while trying to write books and conduct research to expand our understanding of the social and material world around us.

I attended the strikes because I love academia, and I intend to stay. I want others to be able to stay as well. I attended because public universities should be prioritizing the education of their students and the research that they ostensibly exit to support—not increasingly bloated administrations and investment vehicles. All of that requires a well-paid and secure workforce.

So far, momentum is on our side: a week-long strike was heretofore unheard of at Rutgers. Now, it’ll be easier to call on one another, and workers across the state, in future acts of solidarity—they’ve witnessed the power of a strike, both its efficacy and its joyfulness. Still, negotiations continue, and before the ink dries, much can go awry. Governor Murphy’s administration, like most Democrats, are themselves implicated in neoliberal privatization, stripping away public goods and services, to be replaced with the cold and cruel profit-seeking of private industry and the “free market.”

Murphy had at one point pushed back against the Rutgers administration’s attempt to obtain a court injunction that would have forced us to return to work. But since then, his administration has by and large remained neutral. Of course, by remaining neutral, the Murphy administration has now implicitly chosen a side. Now that the strike is suspended—which allows the Rutgers administration to recover momentum—one wonders how willing the Murphy administration, a nominally progressive administration that is “pro-business,” will resist the urge to intervene in further negotiations on the side of the Rutgers administration and the so-called economic peace. Regardless, we can be sure that Rutgers administration will continue to seek out ways to maintain the status quo.

“The worst thing that could happen is that we win these gains, and Rutgers creates a new category of exploited worker,” O’Keefe said, “This is not a win that solves everything, but it will lay down a marker.”

On a lunch break in between pickets, Smith emphasized just how desperate the times have been. “It’s getting more and more difficult for people who really care about academia to stay,” she said, her voice still hoarse from chanting.

The previous day, I’d driven over an hour to attend my second day of pickets and marches. Cheering and chanting echoed across the New Brunswick campus. I joined a crowd that surrounded one of the main buildings, signs held in the sky. As the sun bore down, and I looked into the darkly tinted windows of one of the main administrator’s buildings. There was so much at stake in all of this. A loss would feel like the stamping-out of some of our last remaining hopes.

Before long, though, I’d found friends and colleagues, everyone in their bright red union shirts. Suddenly, my legs felt lighter, my chest less constricted with stress. This was the particular liberating jouissance of the strike, the spiritual elevation that I always felt when taking part in acts of solidarity. I imagined narrowed eyes peering out at us through the windows above, and some nervousness lingered within me. But I was starting to feel like I could yell and march for days and days. ♦

Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers University, where he studies the potentialities and obstacles in forming progressive political coalitions among Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinx populations in the United States. He is also a writer, with a background as a full-time reporter, and you can find some of his work at outlets such as Truthout, Monthly Review, Reappropriate, The Aerogram, among others.

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