"When we fight, we win": Rutgers strike shows rising union militancy as Dems push moderation

While beltway Democrats push their party toward the middle, the labor movement is willing to disrupt the status quo

Published April 11, 2023 11:00PM (EDT)

Rutgers students and faculty participate in a strike at the university's main campus on April 10, 2023 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Rutgers students and faculty participate in a strike at the university's main campus on April 10, 2023 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This article was originally published by InsiderNJ. Used by permission.

Negotiations between Rutgers University's striking unions and the administration continued into the night Monday in Trenton under the auspices of the Murphy administration. Midday on Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy told reporters he was "hopeful" that the parties could resolve the outstanding issues "ASAP."

The Governor's most significant contribution appears to have been to convince the Rutgers administration to not race off to court to get an injunction against the strike and deepen the adversarial divide.

Murphy referenced his concern about just how late in the semester the strike had hit for the students "with the clock ticking toward the end of the school year" and said that he told "both sides" he was "not happy" that things had "gotten to this point."

What's disconcerting is that the union contract expired 284 days ago, and that Rutgers leadership and Gov. Murphy failed to connect the rising tide of union militancy around the country to events unfolding on the Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick campuses of one of the nation's oldest universities.

In Murphy and Rutgers leadership we have a cadre fixated on projecting a national image but out of touch with the circumstances of working families in their own backyard unable to grasp just how disrespectful it is to work month and month without a contract.

For months the AAUP-AFT, the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union and the AAUP-BHSNJ, the three unions that represent the 9,000 professors, adjuncts, and support staff made their case to anyone who would listen. Their key issues included higher wage, equal pay for equal work for adjuncts, affordable housing and forgiveness for students' overdue fees and fines.

Nicole Rodriguez, the president of New Jersey Policy Perspectives, a non-profit progressive think tank struck the right tone of respect for Rutgers' workforce.

"We stand in solidarity with the Rutgers grads and faculty on strike across the state. These workers are the backbone of the university and have dedicated their lives to educating and inspiring the next generation of leaders, Rodriguez said. "They deserve to be recognized, respected, and fairly compensated for their contributions to the university and the state. In New Jersey, there is no place for a higher education model that underpays faculty, reduces tenured positions, and does not guarantee job security."

Clearly Trenton and Rutgers C-Suite weren't paying attention to what was going on in California when 48,000 University of California employees went out on strike for six-weeks, in what the New York Times described as "the largest among university-based workers in national history."

"Key to the strike was California's notoriously high cost of housing," reported the New York Times back in December. "The union had sought relief from soaring rents by demanding that the university tie compensation explicitly to the cost of campus-area housing. The workers also had asked the university to raise their base pay for part-time work to about $54,000 a year."

While professional beltway Democrats urge their party to be more moderate as the country steels itself for 2024, there's evidence the labor movement, which acts as the arms and legs of the party, is growing increasingly militant and more willing to strike to upend the status quo.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations confirm the uptick in unions willing to walk out on management. According to Cornell's Labor Action Tracker , 224,000 workers walked out in 2022 across 417 strikes and seven lockouts — a spike of more than 50 percent from the prior year.

The BLS data follows actions that involve of 1,000 workers or more and last year the agency reported there were 23, the second most strikes since 2002. One of those major strikes was the one at the University of California.

"Between the years 2002-2022, there have been an average of 16 work stoppages beginning in the year," the agency reported. "The lowest annual total of major work stoppages was 5 in 2009 and the highest was 470 in 1952."

Decades of growing wealth inequality capped off by a pandemic which exacted its deadliest toll on healthcare personnel, first responders, transit workers and other essential workers have the unions that represent many of them much less amenable to concessions they made that management banked on for a generation of historic profits.

And this upsurge in strike action has to be appreciated in the context of a 57 percent increase in the first half of 2022 to the National Labor Relations Board for applications for union representation. At the same time, there's an upsurge in larger scale street protests sparked by the Supreme Court's stripping away of women's reproductive rights, mass casualty school shootings as well as police related homicides.


Earlier this year, 7,000 nurses with the New York State Nurses Association went out on a four-day strike against Mt. Sinai and Montefiore Hospitals which won widespread public and political support. Going to the mat produced results like a 19.2 percent pay raise over three years as well as groundbreaking and enforceable patient nursing staffing ratio requirements.

At a press briefing after a deal was struck, NYSNA President Nancy Hagans, told reporters the contract wins came without any health care coverage concessions along with several new incentives to encourage and promote nurse retention.

Hagans credited the broad-based community support her members had received during the strike "which raised the profile of our struggle…the same struggle nurses and patients face everywhere. A struggle for dignity and for healthcare as a human right…Yesterday on the picket line we were chanting 'one day longer-one day stronger. Today, we are saying that when we fight, we win."

Last month, at the Triangle Fire commemoration in lower Manhattan that honors the 146 mostly immigrant young female garment workers that perished in the 1911 conflagration, Hagans referenced the awful price paid by her members during the pandemic when hospitals lacked basic PPE and staffs were strained to the breaking point.

"After losing dozens of our colleagues in the deadly battle against COVID and after seeing so much pain and loss that was preventable, NYSNA nurses gained the courage to fight for what we know is right," Hagans told this year's large crowd. "I can't think of a better way to honor the legacy of the women and the girls who perished in the Triangle Fire. Like they did over a hundred years ago, we turned tragedy into action. We fought for a better world for ourselves and those who will one day walk in our shoes."


On March 27, Shawn Fain, the recently elected president of the United Auto Workers, told 1,000 delegates gathered in Detroit for the union's Special Bargaining Convention the era of signing off on givebacks and tiered waged workforces was over.

"We're here to come together to ready ourselves for the war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion-dollar corporations and employers that refuse to give our members their fair share," Fain proclaimed. "The UAW is ready to get back in the fight for good jobs, for economic justice for our families and our communities."

Fain's election follows a sprawling federal criminal prosecution that resulted in at least 15 felony convictions of national and regional UAW officials, as well as a handful of auto company executives.

During the campaign Fain said he was running because he was "sick of the complacency" of the UAW leadership who had come to see  "the [auto] companies as our partners rather than our adversaries" and in the process gave themselves  "wage increases, early retirement bonuses, and pensions," even as the rank-and-file failed to be made whole after major concessions made during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

In his recent post-election address, Fain quoted extensively from the last book Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community", perhaps his most radical volume.

"Dr. King was speaking to a new divide in the civil rights movement," Fain said. "The movement had won the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They had won the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but social, economic, political discrimination against African Americans had persisted" and there was "no such assurance of the right to adequate housing or the right to an adequate income. Achievement of these goals would be a lot more difficult and require much more discipline, understanding, organization and sacrifice."

Fain continued. "We have not yet won racial and economic justice in the workplaces for all of our members.  We have not yet won equal pay for equal work with an end of [wage] tiers that divide our members. We have not yet won an end to plant closures that destroy our working-class communities and tear our families and members apart. "

The UAW leader expressed a broader societal vision that echoed the union's progressive legacy that had been tarnished over the last several years by multiple corruptions convictions culminating in the appointment of court supervised independent monitor and the first direct election by the union's rank and filed and retired members.

"We have not yet won a higher education system that creates good jobs and provides free education as a public good," Fain said.  "We have not yet won retirement security and healthcare and pensions for all. We have not yet won rights on the job for the hundreds of thousands of unorganized auto workers and millions of other workers across the country."

Fain closed with King's conclusion. "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late."

"There is nothing to prevent us from paying adequate wages to schoolteachers, social workers, and other servants of the public to ensure that we have the best available personnel in these positions which are charged with the responsibility of guiding our future generations," wrote King in "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community". "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer."


John Samuelsen is international president of the Transport Workers Union which represents 150,000 workers in the airline, railroad, transit, university, utility, and service workers including thousands in New Jersey.

It's Local 100 represents tens of thousands of workers that run New York City's transit system that's operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In an interview with Work-Bites, Samuelsen said that one of his union's top state priorities was to end New York's Taylor Law prohibition against public transit workers from striking to increase workers' leverage at the bargaining table.

"Under the Taylor Law we lost the right to strike, and we were compelled to represent everybody– even if they opted out of the union, but we got their dues money. After the U.S. Supreme Court Janus decision, we lost the ability for those agency shop fees but still have to represent the people that don't pay dues," Samuelsen said. "Now, it's a totally an unjust structure."

In the New York State Assembly, the bill to remove the prohibition was introduced by Assemblywoman Stacey Pfeiffer Amato. In the State Senate it's being advanced by Sen. Jessica Ramos, chair of the Labor Committee.

"I legislate for workers," Ramos said in a statement. "When the workers of TWU came to me saying they need this tool to be able to fight for a fair contract that can support their families, I was more than happy to agree to champion their legislation. This adjustment will result in a strong contract for workers, which in turn will mean better service for New Yorkers."

The TWU leader noted that workers doing the same kind of work on the LIRR or Metro-North Railroad, who are covered by the Federal Railway Act, have the right to strike even though they are both part of the MTA.

"It's the same employer, same geography—one group can strike—the other can't," Samuelsen said. "It's no coincidence the suburban rail carriers have the right to strike but inner-city transit workers can't. This means with New York City Transit all of the leverage goes to the employer side of the table because they know we can't strike so they do things like screw with our retiree healthcare."

Samuelsen, who endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, believes that President Biden made a political miscalculation last year when he asked Congress to deny the nation's rail workers right to strike and to accept a contract a majority of them had rejected that lacked sick days.

"It was a mistake," Samuelsen said. "If they had retained the right to strike, they would have had a settlement with the sick time they were looking for."

Samuelsen believes that February's Norfolk Suffolk's train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that resulted in a catastrophic release of vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals was "an eye-opening experience for working people" across the country.

"I don't think working people had any idea that these privatized freight rails were carrying ridiculously dangerous chemicals through America's backyard while not being compelled to maintain the equipment in a state of good repair as the heinously pursued profits over the safety of the American people," Samuelsen said.

For Samuelsen, King's half-century old critique of American militarism and its prosecution of the war in Vietnam still resonates today.

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." King wrote in "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community".

"It does echo what Martin Luther King said-a different war but the same concept," Samuelsen said. "So many people are making money off of this war and it's not only this war—for several years we sent billions and billions into Iraq week after week. It's just insane. Working people are not liberal anti-war– they support Ukraine against Russian aggression– but they want to assure Americans don't continue to get shafted."

The TWU leader said he was struck that there was political pushback over forgiving college student debt but no controversy over "30 years of war funding feeding an industry enriching every corporation involved in what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex," Samuelsen said.  "It's crazy that we can't invest in the American people, but we can invest relentlessly in overseas wars."

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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