Rutgers University strike brings education to the picket line

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A teacher’s work is never done, whether in class, at home, or on the picket line. 

On Monday, faculty at Rutgers University — the oldest public university in New Jersey — officially went on strike. Following a year of unsuccessful bargaining between university officials and three unions representing faculty and staff, it is the first walkout in the school’s 257-year history.

Students soon joined nearly 9,000 educators who had formed picket lines at the three main Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden. True to form, organizers have turned the action into an opportunity, imparting lessons through a series of organized teach-ins and educational events hosted online and across campus — bringing the classroom to the picket line.

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Michael Smart, associate professor of urban planning at Rutgers’ Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, is a union representative and the organizer of the Bloustein Teach-In, a week of online evening lectures and conversation opportunities about topics related to organizing, labor, and economic and social justice. 

“We don’t love teaching under bad conditions, but we do love staying connected to our students,” he said of the effort to provide teach-ins. “I think the teach-in is an act of love toward our students. All of this is about them and ensuring that they have good learning conditions. Our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Each conversation is led by a faculty member who researches the topic at hand, structured in quick, 24-minute segments, followed by 24 minutes of discussion — an ad hoc labor seminar, of sorts. “The idea is that it’s as long as your favorite TV show, but better for you,” Smart explained. 

Monday’s teach-in, “Organizing for Community Control of Land in New York City,” led by Dr. James DeFilippis, saw about 60 students in conversation with faculty, and Smart expects even more to show up throughout the week. The planned teach-in topics include “The Ends of Freedom: Reclaiming America’s Lost Promise of Economic Rights,” presented by Dr. Mark Paul; “Public Sector Unions & Black Americans: The Case of Public Transportation,” presented by Smart; “‘Share Your World’: Mobilizing Free Labor in the Spatial Data Economy,” presented by Dr. Will Payne; and “Co-ops, collective advocacy & affordable housing: wins & challenges across the world,” presented by Dr. Bernadette Baird-Zars.

Smart says faculty will continue offering the lectures as long as an agreement isn’t met. “We’re encouraging people from all over the world to join if they want to stand in solidarity with us, learn about these topics, or be there for our students to show support.”

The teach-ins add a focus on labor rights and organizing to other department initiatives across the campuses, like an MFA Reading Series put on by grad students on the picket line in Newark.

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“We’re not abandoning our students,” Smart said. “We’re ensuring that the reputation of the university they’re getting their degree from continues to be good — that the university doesn’t degrade to a point where telling somebody that you’ve graduated from Rutgers is a mark of shame.”

In the days preceding the mass walkout, Rutgers spokespeople expressed their desire to work with union representatives to ensure the school remained open. “Our students’ ability to complete their coursework and earn their degrees is the university’s highest priority,” the university asserted in a statement about the strike. “Every effort will be made to ensure that the strike does not affect our students’ progress toward graduation.”

By Monday evening, however, the college’s leadership was suggesting legal action against organizers. In a Monday evening update addressed to the university community, Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway wrote, “If there is no movement towards an agreement, we will have no choice but to take legal action to assure the continued academic progress of our students and prevent irreparable harm. This is especially important for the thousands of students who are finishing their academic careers at Rutgers and are only a few weeks away from earning their degrees.” 

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The unions contested that the university had no legal grounds, saying, “Our picket lines have been and will continue to be a peaceful, nonviolent expression of our determination to make a better Rutgers for our students and workers.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called all parties to the Statehouse in Trenton shortly after, hoping to mediate a potential legal course.  

“The precarity that the university puts people in is a race to the bottom,” Smart said. 

Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Meanwhile, union educators, faculty, and staff have been met with awe-inspiring support from the student population, Smart said, part of what appears to be a growing pro-labor wave of youth support and involvement. 

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“I’m totally blown away,” said Smart. “It’s been so surprising how much support we’ve gotten from students, who are out in full force. They’re not at all on the sidelines, but a big part of it.”

More information and updates about the ongoing action can be found online or on the strike’s Twitter account.

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