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Administration must address labor contracts

On Nov. 10, a group of Rutgers-New Brunswick doctoral students went for a scheduled meeting with Peter March, the newly appointed executive dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, intending to discuss the SAS’s executive decision to cut the number of teaching and graduate assistant lines assigned to departments for the 2014-2015 academic year. The meeting was to be between Dean March, SAS Executive Vice Dean James Masschaele, Dean of Humanities James Swenson, Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences Rosanne Altshuler and three doctoral graduates — all of them international students and women.

The meeting never took place.

As union members employed by Rutgers, we brought a union representative, Sherry Wolf, to act as a silent observer to this meeting. Dean March refused to speak with us with a union representative present. March also stated that he was willing to see “graduate students who want to share their concerns,” but he could not discuss any issues regarding our status as university employees. Before respectfully leaving the meeting, we asserted our right to be represented by the union and reminded the deans that most doctoral students work during their degrees as teachers or administrative assistants for the university. We are therefore both Rutgers students and employees.

This refusal on the part of the Rutgers administration to talk with its doctoral students illustrates broader issues within the University — namely, a lack of transparency and shared governance, the devaluing of academic labor, disinvestment in the humanities and social sciences and the prioritization of corporate and managerial interests over academic ones. Undergraduates, faculty, staff, graduate students and the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers have been organizing around these issues, especially since Robert L. Barchi became president in 2012. More specifically in this case, the refusal to view doctoral students as University employees dismisses the labor that Ph.Ds do across the Rutgers campuses and allows the administration to dismiss our calls for fair compensation, better benefits and appropriate support toward completion of our degrees.

Everywhere across each of the Rutgers campuses, doctoral students are teaching courses (as instructors, assistants or part-time lecturers), grading papers, conducting research for faculty, tutoring, working in campus offices and delaying their own research and dissertations to work multiple jobs while receiving wages that neither reflect the amount of labor we put in nor allow us to properly provide for ourselves and our families. We write this article to remind the campus and particularly the administration of the work that we do for and alongside other students, faculty and staff and to demand that we finish this semester with a fair labor contract.

One of the things that can be discussed in the current contract negotiations between the administration and its employees is the number of teaching assistant/graduate assistant budget lines available for doctoral students across the University. The Rutgers administration is cutting our lines to force us into taking fellowships without good benefits and weakened collective bargaining power, or into teaching as part-time lecturers where we are expected to teach at a fraction of a TA’s salary with no health insurance. 

Faculty at Rutgers — including doctoral students — haven’t seen raises in over three years, even to account for the rising cost of living and the skyrocketing costs of health insurance. Meanwhile, the upper administration and the football coach are getting astronomical raises. That’s why the Reclaim Rutgers coalition of unions is calling for a mass rally on Dec. 9 at noon at the Rutgers Student Center. All Rutgers employees deserve dignity and respect, and a fair contract is a way to ensure that. We, graduate student workers, will be at the rally on Dec. 9. We will also be “grading in” at Old Queens on Dec. 11 at 11 a.m. where we will do our work in public (grading, reading, writing) to demonstrate the labor we do and to remind the administration that we have strength in our union. We invite you all to participate in these events and join the collective struggle in higher education against the corporatized public university. We know Rutgers works because we do — they need to know it, too. 

This commentary was written by the Rutgers Graduate Organizing Committee, a self-organized group of doctoral students working to improve their labor conditions.

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