Episode No. 1
Who Are We and Where Are We Going?
In this episode, hosts Ihsan and Mich talk to Senior Staff Organizer Sherry Wolf and Staff Organizer Jacob Chaffin about the history and future of the Union.
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About the Episode
For our first episode, our hosts Mich and Ihsan reached out to RUAAUP-AFT staff members Sherry Wolf and Jacob Chaffin to talk about the history and the future of our union, and the possibilities and challenges of Academic unions in fighting for social justice beyond the university.
Sherry Wolf describes how the events of the last 19 months and corporate responses to the pandemic have set the stage for “Strike-tober” and the substantial union movements (and wins!) around the world.
We then look at Rutgers’ response to COVID and the administration’s declaration of fiscal emergency in the midst of the pandemic, framing the layoffs and cuts as part of a policy of “shock doctrine” common to many corporations. We consider how unions like ours can work beyond the university in solidarity with social justice movements.
Sherry and Jacob walk us through the particulars of our union’s unique model of grads and full time faculty in one bargaining unit and coalitional work with our adjunct faculty and other unions on campus and some of the challenges of organizing.
Finally, we hear from members and organizers of the AAUP-AFT and the PTLFC about how they came to be active organizers, and how you can get more involved.
About Our Guests
Sherry Wolf (she/her) is the senior organizer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and has worked organizing a faculty and grad leadership and shop steward network at Rutgers since 2013. Author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2009). Wolf has been active organizing for racial, social and economic justice as an organized socialist for more than three decades and lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Jacob Chaffin (he/him) has worked as an organizer with the Rutgers AAUP-AFT since 2016. He loves people and hates bosses. He is also the resident banjo player and singer of labor songs for the Rutgers AAUP-AFT.
Ru Listening? is hosted by:
Produced and edited by:
Our Research, Production & Publicity Team:
Graphic Design by:
Music is from Blue Dot Sessions:
A special thanks to the RU-AAUP/AFT for their support.
SHERRY: It’s been a very clarifying 19 months, it’s been a dystopic 19 months, but it’s been very clarifying about the way systems operate, about the way corporations operate, about the way states operate. I think people have been through a sort of COVID class struggle university, you know, in which, they’ve had Class 101 of late Imperial decay, Class 201: your boss doesn’t give a shit about you. I mean, people have, have really been through hell in this last year and a half, everywhere. So I think we have, we have our work cut out for us as a union. It’s not just about what we’ve done before, if the very vastly different context in which we’re about to build an organizing campaign and a vision for the next stage of this fight…
MICH: I’m Mich.
IHSAN: And, I’m Ihsan. We’re grad workers and organizers with the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers Union, RUAAUP-AFT for short. And this is RU Listening? A podcast for members to learn more about our union.
MICH: If you’re skeptical of unions or just an exhausted worker who wants to fight, but is super overwhelmed and can’t figure out where to start, this podcast is for you.
IHSAN: Today, we’re talking to union staff organizers, Jacob Chaffin and Sherry Wolf, who you heard at the top of this episode. We reached out to them to learn more about the past and future of the RUAAUP-AFT and unpack some of the benefits and challenges of being in a union with tenured, non-tenured faculty, and grad workers on varied timelines who have different material needs. We want to discern how we’re connected to wider labor struggles happening all over the United States and internationally.
MICH: So to ground, it helps to take a step back and see our union struggles in the context of a much broader fight over working conditions that became impossible to ignore during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the labor uprisings that have unfolded from there.
MICH: You just heard clips from organizers of the South Korean general strike and John Deere workers who recently ratified a contract that includes hefty raises after a third vote earlier this month. That’s a 20% total increase in wages over the next three years. The wins of these workers undermines the myth that labor organizing is ineffective against corporate bureaucracy.
IHSAN: That brings us here, to Rutgers. A public university with a mission centered around “education, the generation of new knowledge and engagement with society or the community.” And that’s how it talks.
HOLLOWAY: We are training tomorrow’s workforces. We are preserving the world’s cultural heritages. We are addressing the most difficult societal challenges through research, advocacy, and the education of future leaders. We are community builders and connectors. From where I stand, we are the best hope for a better tomorrow.
IHSAN: That was Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway, speaking to our so-called “beloved community.” But if we look at what Rutgers does, rather than what it says, we can see that in a lot of ways, it acts like a corporation.
MICH: After the pandemic hit, the university declared a fiscal emergency despite having $583 million in unrestricted reserves.
IHSAN: When we say the school declared a fiscal emergency, what does that mean?
JACOB: They sent a letter that basically invokes a clause in our contract that allows them to break selected economic obligations, but almost exclusively salaries. And they did this in order to get ahead of the July 1, 2020 raises that were supposed to go into effect. When the university declares a fiscal emergency, they’re unilaterally breaking our contracts and attacking unions. And really what that means is the most vulnerable of our members in particular. But of course, Rutgers wasn’t in a true fiscal emergency. From data that we have, Rutgers barely touched their $600 million in unrestricted reserves, which for all these years has been understood as the rainy day fund. It was flooding everywhere, financially, and the university basically said this wasn’t like the economic crisis to use their unrestricted reserves.
MICH: And since then the Daily Targum reported that Rutgers has yet to utilize the bulk of $365 million in emergency grants it received from the federal and state governments. The slow rollout of this allotted aid took place after the university laid off hundreds of workers in order to freeze on what they consider to be non-essential spending. Meanwhile, top officials refused to lower tuition and waive fees in the last year for students and grad workers who were forced to transition to online classes with no real pause.
IHSAN: This is a classic example of shock doctrine, a concept framed by Naomi Klein. She’s a journalist and the former Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media Culture, and Feminist Studies here at Rutgers.
NAOMI: For those of you not familiar with it, this refers to these well-worn, tactics we see our elites use time and again, capitalizing on states of crisis and collective trauma and dislocation. Not to actually solve the underlying drivers of crisis, but to exploit those moments when we are in pain, when we are focused on the day-to-day emergencies of life in order to ram through their preexisting wishlist of pro corporate policies.
IHSAN: Can y’all frame for us some ways Rutgers has used this moment of crisis to impose austerity on workers?
SHERRY: Not paying out the contractually agreed upon equity raises in the ways that we, you know, and, and the vast delays and the chicanery really pulling, the enormous expense they’ve put into their own managerial ranks and athletics, while people have suffered and, you know, a new president steps in, and I’m sorry, he has to wear some of this, a thousand people were laid off under his watch. And, you know, and, and choices have been made by this corporation called Rutgers, which is a $4.8 billion a year institution that is expanding every year, you know, into healthcare and other fields and is being exposed as yet another corporate entity, even though it’s a public entity, it’s a corporate entity and it’s making decisions about who will thrive and who will not, and who will be conceived as expendable while speaking language about adjunctification and reversing the sort of precarity that has galloped off at Rutgers, just as it has throughout higher ed. They are creating the conditions, certainly from my vantage point of expanding contingency.
MICH: And from the vantage point of faculty and grads, this messaging where you’re getting of our extendability often masks, how we create value for the university, especially when neo-liberalism conditions us to see ourselves as only thinkers and not workers, but the pandemic has helped reveal this truth.
SHERRY: It’s much, much harder in 2021 to be somebody who works in the professoriate at Rutgers and not see yourself as a worker. I would say it is much, much more difficult today than it was when people might have been able to see themselves as standing somehow above that, the treatment, the behavior of the, of management and the choices, and the priorities have been exposed as being, you know, just as kind of crass and ill conceived as they are in private corporate America as if it were Google or Amazon or whatever and I think that that’s a space that the union needs to step in and build around and organize around and agitate. Um, I don’t see a lot of happy people right now. And it’s not just about what’s happening out there. It’s what’s happening in their own workplaces and their own lives.
IHSAN: So, it sounds like there’s an opportunity for us as an academic union to mobilize ourselves?
SHERRY: I think that we have to figure out ways as a union, and when I say as a union, I mean, as department reps, as elected leaders, as staff who work alongside of those, people how we’re going to step into this moment of great fear and trepidation, but also kind of “pisstivity”, you know, people being pissed off and angry. You know, this sort of strike- Tober that we’re living through right now, this bit of a strike wave, certainly an uptick is also going to, you know, what happens in all of this John Deere workers, too, you know, people who work behind the camera in Hollywood, you know, threatening strike, you know, all these, these are feeding into, how faculty and grads are seeing their world and seeing their own role as workers in a large corporation. I think that’s probably harder today.
IHSAN: How do you see our work as a union connecting with these social justice struggles, and how does union organizing perhaps differ from social justice organizing?
SHERRY: It’s a difference between social justice movements, as we would normally think of them and unions, because in the social justice movement world, you make an intentional community, a group of people come together around, fighting to end a war or to boycott you know apartheid goods, or whatever it is. That is the goal in a workplace in a union is people who don’t necessarily share, an ideological framework or common. Anything other than you have common employer, and that’s a very different thing, right? Because that means some of your let’s face it. Some of your colleagues do not agree with many of the political ideas that you employ you and I, and everybody, in this conversation hold dear, and yet, if it were to be successful in a workplace struggle, you have to get people who disagree with you around a whole series of questions. But agree around the labor v. Management issue, um, to, you know, to, to come on board. And that requires, a degree of patience, a degree of listening, a degree of social exchange. I think that these are different problems to solve, right? You have to create comradeship among people who don’t agree on a whole host of things, but do agree at least on certain central have to be some point of agreement. Otherwise you’re not going to get together to fight for anything.
JACOB: We, as a union acknowledge that we live in a very contentious political world and we have to engage in those struggles that are, typically sometimes labor can see, you know, struggles around, immigration around LGBT rights, black lives matter as like outside struggles. It’s not an outside struggle. These things are connected and that’s actually the way we raise political consciousness of, with our membership is through engaging in, in struggle, inside and outside of the workplace. Cause we all exist inside and outside of the workplace. Right. So it, it would just say a shift towards orientation towards the social movements and towards our own membership in terms of what they’re capable of and, and finding out from them and working with them to do that.
MICH: For example, we can look at Rutgers Camden, a historically black city with three times the number of black students than the new Brunswick campus. And it’s been systematically underfunded.
SHERRY: The Camden, and Newark faculty is disproportionately, paid less And if we didn’t address that, then we weren’t doing our job in this moment. And I think we very much, benefited by the fact that there was also just as we were, you know, in these negotiations, the UTLA strike the Chicago Teacher’s Union also went again on strike and even a wild cat day of action. All of these kinds of broader, stuff happening in the world, the black struggle, the immigrant struggles and the fights around DACA our union threw itself into and attracted, a new generation of younger faculty and grads who wanted to fight back. And all of that is reflected in the archives of our union in the early seventies. In fact the 2018/2019 contract campaign was kind of this union returning to its roots of the early seventies, which, um, it was born in a much more radical time.
JACOB: I think one of the things that as a, as a union that we’ve tried to do and continue to try to do is bring people in to see that they are a worker for people who don’t necessarily believe that, but also that their union can be a vehicle for social change. I think a lot, particularly, you know, all of us who came up from occupy, um, And even before that there was a lot of what we call like self-selecting organizations or just like, even now you see it, like you go to a protest and it’s like a lot of individuals and not like organizations mobilizing and organizing for a goal. Couple of years ago I was at a DACA protest in Newark and it was huge. But everybody was there individually. There were no contingents. There was no sense of like, I am with my colleagues, my comrades. No, it was just like, if you knew about it, you went. And what we’ve tried to do is to bring people in to say your union can be a refuge from the Drudge of every day and, the constant political attacks. I think like the, the Trump era really sharpened this for a lot of people as well. Your union can be a refuge and a fighting force. And that’s, that’s what we’ve, we’ve tried to continue to expand doing that. Bring people in to see that their union can be a vehicle for social change.
IHSAN: I do really appreciate that. Like conception of it, Jacob, because I think that in kind of conversation with folks outside of the union or folks who are not as heavily involved in the union, or members who are just like, not as active, sometimes it gets tricky trying to explain to people like my investment in it. And why I, and my colleagues and my friends spent so much time in this space when, it is not quote, unquote the real world. But that’s not true. Our realities are our labor. This is a moment of broad interest in and support for social justice movements and many people attend actions, but it’s harder to get involved in these issues as a part of a longer sustained struggle.
MICH: I hear you. When I went to New York in 2011 as an undergrad at NYU, it was Occupy. And, then the next year, Hurricane Sandy, and the year after that Ferguson erupted, and the Movement for Black Lives took shape. A lot of the people I was organizing with were people who had all of this energy, and who were young. But, who were always also being hyper professionalized under capitalism to immediately enter into the workforce to think of their time within the university, as a space in which they were supposed to be preparing for that. And so they saw themselves in some ways as consumers. As young people who were like, oh my, my parents were paying this hefty bill, or we are a working class family, and I am completely massively in debt now. And so there was this sense of, of kind of waiting to enter into the corporate space and then feeling like they had to organize their activism around their working time. It’s like, well, I’m working nine to five. And then afterwards, I’m going to try to join the protest or I’m going to do this. And that and unions are really this central hub that kind of disrupts that timeline, right. That says that actually your time on the clock. Is your time. Capitalism is telling you that it’s not. And because of that, it’s also a place in which, as a working person, you, you can and should intervene, right? Like you’re. And I think I just see this as a millennial because I. I want to be clear that the kind of brainwashing that has happened for my generation of, of thinking of yourself as a consumer of thinking of yourself as always on somebody else’s timeline on somebody else’s clock under somebody else’s watch, um, it’s incredibly demobilizing. I think the way y’all have framed the union has been a way to understand my time and my labor is incredibly valuable as opposed to this time that I’m kind of just giving away to an entity that I know doesn’t care for me.
IHSAN: I’d argue our union is weakened when we don’t see the overlaps between these modalities. Some of the most militant and dedicated leaders at NYU during their last strike were also the ones who pushed for radical demands, like ICE off campus, which they won by the way.
JACOB: I think we’re following a model of other unions who said we’re going to forefront community demands, we’re going to fight alongside with community, but we are the community at the same time. It’s not a separation. And I agree 100%, I think very few people now could claim that they’re somehow separate from it, given the attacks on higher ed in the last 10 years. I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is saying you exist outside of this world outside of your job, but you can also use all of your leverage as a worker, through your union to fight for all the things that you care about. That also has attracted a larger layer of members because people separate it for so long. And our goal is, we believe it’s not like labor is a magical or unions are a magical entity that can fix problems. But what it does do is it brings people together around a common experience. So in 2012, when they went to negotiate that contract, they had incredibly low density. And that determines what you’re able to win. And in that contract campaign, they were unable to win pay increases. So, from 2012 until the contract ended in 2018 grads didn’t see an increase in their pay. By the end of the contract had been five years since grads had seen even a cost of living adjustment. And that was because management refused. Then this last contract campaign through a drastic increase in membership, on the ground, talking with people, finding out what they care about, what matters most to them, getting them involved in the bargaining process, getting them involved in actions, grads were able to win significant pay increases for the first time. And then we can strategize around anything to figure out the solutions for it. Contract campaigns also offer a heightened sense of struggle with a timeline and a sense that this is how you do it. But for us, it’s like, okay, we can do that during that timeframe. And it’s, I think what other unions might do is they try to. Get people during a contract campaign or at the end of a contract campaign, they try to get more people involved. We want people involved throughout the entire process and then afterwards as well. Your union can be a center of struggle fighting alongside your colleagues, your comrades and your community is something that should be seen as normal. And we’re trying to build a culture where that is normalized and that as a sense of like, we do this together.
IHSAN: The union, as you have heard comprises multiple job categories, grad workers, full-time faculty, and post-docs were built around the structure of department reps across job categories.
JACOB: Part-time lecturers were originally organized into a union at Rutgers in 1988. It represents 1300 part-time lecturers or PTLs or commonly referred to as adjuncts and they teach at least 30% of undergraduate courses. Plus other work at Rutgers. They’re in a separate contract or separate bargaining unit, and the work that PTLs do is so integral to the work that anyone who does academic work or is a student, PTLs are absolutely central to that. As they’ve seen the number of tenure track positions freeze over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a proliferation of part-time lecturer positions. And that really makes it crucial that we work alongside PTLs in all of our organizing and you know, really making it central that the demands of part-time lecturers or adjuncts at Rutgers are also the demands of faculty and grads. Cause it’s about improving the working conditions and the learning conditions for students.
MICH: The breadth of our coalition makes us stronger, but it also means that our internal conversations and contract campaign demands should be driven by the basic premise of raising the floor. This podcast is created by members of our coalition that have shorter contracts, less stability, and therefore a different sense of the organizing timeline of this union. Grad workers, NTTS, PTLs and our producer, who is a recent undergrad alum. There are different paths to joining the union and different ways to contribute. We asked some folks we work closely with, to tell us a little about how and why they came to this work.
SEAN: I’m Sean T. Mitchell associate professor of anthropology and director of peace and conflict studies at Rutgers university Newark. I got involved with the union back in 2017 after I had been here at Rutgers for a few years and became increasingly aware of and concerned with the inequalities, precarity, and structural problems of the university. I love Rutgers. I attended Rutgers as an undergraduate and being a professor at Rutgers Newark is significantly working class and highly diverse university. That’s also a great research university and that’s actually a pretty rare combination in the highly unequal U.S. Educational field. And I’m deeply grateful that I get to teach and do my research here. But the university suffers from problems that are deepening throughout our society. Increasingly precarious labor conditions for the people who do the work at Rutgers as the money for administration grows. And as administrative decisions are increasingly constrained by the dictates of finance. So I joined the union to help build the kinds of solidarities that would push for a more just model for this university and working alongside graduate workers and other faculty members towards of more just university has been great.
HEATHER: My name is Heather and I am a PTL faculty member in the department of political science in new Brunswick. PTLs at Rutgers are definitely among the most exploited workers at the university. On top of the struggles we face over our material conditions—such as our lack of job security, denial of health insurance, and we basically make poverty wages to perform a core function of University’s mission, which is educating students—being an adjunct at Rutgers is also just incredibly isolating. Most of us don’t have dedicated office space on campus. We’re often left out of department communications. We’re typically not invited to faculty meetings or social gatherings. So we tend to be disconnected not only from our own departments, but also from each other, which can present unique challenges for organizing. So my path to union activism actually started when I was just seeking out connections at Rutgers. I ultimately found that sense of community that I had been looking for in these shared union spaces with full-time faculty and grads like the Media and Narrative Committee. I didn’t know anyone at Rutgers and having to endure such shameless exploitation of my labor, while also being made to feel like I was an outsider in my own department, was very lonely and a demoralizing experience. So I began to seek out more connections at the university, and that’s when I found the PTL unions Facebook group, and began getting engaged in some of the conversations that were happening there. I reached out to our professional organizers, including Sherry and Jacob, and just tried to learn as much from them as I could. I was then elected to a two year term in the summer of 2020, and so I’m still serving that term now on the executive board. I think the path I took was not necessarily ideal. There are better ways to get initially involved and gain experience at a more reasonable pace by doing the hands-on work of our unions, such as joining a committee or serving as a department rep. And for any listeners out there who are PTLs, the current leadership of our union has also been working to expand participation in committees and in our department rep network as well. I think both of these present good opportunities for anyone wanting to get involved in the PTL union and to help build our collective power.
BRIDGET: I’m Bridget and I’m an NTT in Anthropology at New Brunswick. I was one of the many people at Rutgers who lost their job early in the pandemic. I think that involvement with the union really helped me to reframe that experience from what could have just been a really isolating commentary on my self-worth to a kind of, um, Politicized framing where it was about these larger issues of contingency and disposability at Rutgers. I found that in our faculty union, even though at that point, it wasn’t clear like how much of a future I had as a faculty member at Rutgers. So this story does actually have a happy ending, because of the grievance procedure that we won in bargaining in the previous contract campaign in 2019 or 2018, I was able to fight to successfully get my job back. And I think that that process of fighting the grievance really took any fear that I might’ve had as a contingent person organizing and just broke it.
ANJALI: I am Anjali Madgula, a 2021 graduate of Rutgers with a degree in English literature. I was a senior last year during the pandemic. I attended a talk called the corporatized university hosted by Sherry Wolf and the take-back or education coalition. I got involved after the talk because… the creative writing department, seemed like it was being treated as sacrificial. And I knew that a lot of students would, would care about this. So when things were happening during the pandemic, I realized just how much of a haze there is over the student body when it comes to the behind the scenes stuff that’s happening at Rutgers and what the administration is talking about and making happen. And to me, that’s why organizing and having this coalition with unions is really important. Now I’m involved as a student outreach coordinator with the adjunct faculty union. And to me that allows, me as an alumni to not just leave, but to try to use whatever I’ve observed and learned from the kind of coalitions that we were building before the pandemic to have like a continuation of that and to, to hope to see the actual long-term changes and movements that are being built here.
IHSAN: Our union is in solidarity and coalition with unions across Rutgers encompassing, 20,000 university workers, something we will talk about in future episodes.
JACOB: One of the things that makes Rutgers really unique is that almost every worker at Rutgers is represented by a union. You really don’t see this at other workplaces. By building a coalition with as many unions as possible. We’re able to have more leverage at the bargaining table because it’s literally, these are the people that make the university run. It’s not a bunch of bureaucrats and administrators and old Queens or Winats Hall. It’s every worker at Rutgers.
MICH: Much of what we do comes out of committee work, like this podcast, created by the Media and Narrative Committee. Other committees focus on organizing, bargaining for the common good of the local communities around Rutgers campuses and climate justice, which holds the university responsible for its environmental impacts. There are many more we’ve listed on the RU Listening website.
IHSAN: Our union is our membership. Becoming a member, printing out flyers, attending town halls, joining committees, building towards a strike. All of these are ways organizing is a part of our lives. Our working conditions change when we build collective power. Folks from all job categories are a vital part of the union. As we’ve heard from Jacob and Sherry. All are welcome.
JACOB: Some unions throughout this country, it’s really common. Maybe send out a survey to find out what their members want to see in a contract. The bargaining consists of lawyers and maybe leaders, it’s done a lot in the bargaining meetings. And in terms of membership participation, there is none really. It’s like, they’re lucky if they get a survey. What we’ve tried to do. And I mean from the union leadership, the elected members of this union have said we want to find out what members care about, but we also want to get them active in the entire process. It’s not enough to just find out what people want. You have to find out what are you willing to fight for? How are you willing to fight for it? So for us, it’s a shift more towards the CTU or UTLA or a lot of what’s coming out of nurses unions in this country right now, where we want a more transparent and open process and there’s struggles within that. It’s a tension. I think that a lot of unions struggle with and we certainly have as well. But even the vision of saying we want greater participation in the planning of a contract campaign. Once we’re looking at the long-term goal of a contract, everything for us is about the power that we have to withdraw labor. If that’s not part of the discussion as workers, then we kind of start with this philosophy is like, we’ve already kind of lost. That’s our strength, ability to withdraw our labor. But you don’t get there by saying we got to go withdraw or labor or go on strike. We have to be able to plan how do we raise the expectations of members, how do we get them involved in the planning? And then the agitation we all have to go through those same steps. And we have to acknowledge that not everybody comes in ready to go fight their boss, but instead come into it with a much more mixed kind of understanding of how that even works and what that looks like. Solidarity is incredibly important, the bare minimum of our power as a union is the number of people who are signed up.
MICH: That’s our show. Thanks for trusting us with your time today. Visit the website or email us to learn more about how to get involved. You can also subscribe to, RU Listening? On Spotify to catch more episodes.
IHSAN: Are you listening is hosted by us. Ihsan Al-Zouabi and Mich Ling, and produced and edited by Jade Stepeney and Danyel Ferrari. Our research production and publicity team includes Heather Pierce, Bridget Purcell, Dylan Simpson, and Mi-Hyun Yoon. Music is by blue dot sessions. A special thanks to the RU-AAUP/AFT for their support. We’re really excited about the season of RU- Listening? And hope you are, too. We’ll be asking questions about union myth-busting coalitions and what it means to be strike ready. Stay with us on this journey by visiting our website, RU-Listening.org or follow us on social media. See y’all next time.