How ‘Labor Spring’ Organizing Movement Is Impacting College Campuses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey

This national organizing effort is set to reach campuses from coast to coast, with demonstrations, labor organizing workshops, and other events focusing on worker justice.
Photo courtesy of Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

A massive labor movement is sweeping colleges and universities across the country as professors, graduate students, and other faculty members organize unions and prepare to strike. This national organizing effort, dubbed Labor Spring, is set to reach campuses from coast to coast, with demonstrations, strikes, and labor organizing workshops scheduled to take place in a number of schools in New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington D.C., and Hawai’i, among several other states. 

For instance, the Georgetown Coalition for Workers’ Rights at Georgetown University held a panel with organizers and workers on March 1 to discuss the rights of both part-time and full-time employees on campus. New York University’s Coalition for Labor Action by Workers and Students also recently hosted an event on March 23 to talk about the ongoing labor struggles students and academic workers are facing and faculty’s efforts to unionize. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, however, some colleges have already mobilized and put forth their demands.

READ: Why Student Debt Cancellation Is Reasonable, Not Radical

In late January, graduate students at Temple University went on strike for six weeks, demanding higher wages, better working conditions, longer paid leave, and more affordable health insurance for dependents. As teachers and research assistants, hundreds of graduate students in the Temple University Graduate Students Association withheld their labor until the university agreed to amend their union contract. Prior to the new contract, graduate students only made around $19,500 a year on average, which organizers say is not nearly enough to live on. 

While TUGSA ultimately struck a deal that addressed their core demands, getting there was a bumpy ride. Just over a week into the strike, the university retaliated by withholding tuition aid and health benefits for more than 100 students participating in the strike. News of this retaliation went viral on Twitter after a student posted a screenshot of an email they had received from Temple administrators detailing the loss of funds and benefits. At the time, Matt Ford, a doctoral candidate and lead TUGSA negotiator, called the move “needlessly cruel,” adding that it only “angered” and “energized” those students affected by it. 

In the subsequent weeks, union organizers continued negotiations with the administration, rejecting the university’s first tentative proposal on February 18 before finally voting to approve and ratify a new contract that more closely met their demands nearly a month later. Under the new agreement, graduate students will receive a one-time payment of $500 and earn an average base pay of $24,000 a year, which will increase to $27,000 in four years. TUGSA initially sought an annual salary of $32,800 per year. 

The university also agreed to pay 25 percent of health insurance premiums for graduate students’ dependents and increased the number of paid parental leave days from 16 to 21. In addition, Temple will restore the tuition aid and health benefits it stripped from some students during the strike. “Despite unprecedented retaliation and intimidation, not to mention the cowardice and cruelty of Temple University admin, we won transformative changes to our CBA that allow us to keep building and organizing in the years ahead,” the union tweeted on March 13. 

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, workers at Rutgers University are poised to strike if ongoing contract negotiations with the university’s administration prove unsuccessful. Members of two unions – Rutgers AAUP-AFT and Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union – voted to authorize a strike earlier this month after asking for a new contract for nearly a year. Rutgers AAUP-AFT represents full-time faculty, postdocs, and graduate students, while Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union represents part-time instructors. 

According to Todd Wolfson, an associate professor of journalism and media studies and vice president of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, academic workers at Rutgers don’t want to strike, but are prepared to do so in the event that Rutgers refuses to meet their demands. Both unions have been bargaining since May 2022 and have been working without a contract since July. Wolfson says the university failed to even respond to their proposal for increased wages until December. 

“We just have a really cruel administration that runs this university,” Wolfson told the Bucks County Beacon. “We want to teach. We want to do our research. We want to serve our communities and our fields, and they are forcing us into a corner where we will fight back.” In addition to higher pay, workers at Rutgers are fighting for better health insurance, longer teaching contracts for adjunct faculty, more job security for non-tenure full-time faculty, and a rent freeze on all university housing. 

“Everything we’re fighting for, we’re really prioritizing the most vulnerable workers in our workforce,” he said. Currently, adjunct faculty at Rutgers only make between $5,000 and $6,000 per class and do not receive any benefits or health insurance. As a result, many instructors have to teach as many as eight classes to barely scrape by. Wolfson says adjunct faculty are also required to do extra work outside of the classroom that they are not compensated for, like writing student recommendation letters or meeting with students after class. 

“They have no desk, no place to regulate work from. It’s unconscionable what the university does to our adjunct faculty,” he said. “They deserve equal pay for equal work.” To union organizers, that means adjunct faculty would earn the same amount of money per class as non-tenure full-time faculty. Similarly, graduate students currently earn an average pay of $30,000 a year, but organizers want to increase this annual base salary to $40,000. “Many grad workers have families and we want them to be able to work and live in dignity while they’re both teaching and researching and pursuing their PhD,” Wolfson said. 

He also notes that a rent freeze on all university housing for both undergraduate and graduate students would help ease financial burdens, especially during a period of high inflation. “Given the amount of money the university has been saving and pocketing over the years and  the money they’ve put towards athletics, it’s clear to us they could pay for both the needs of their employees and not turn the burden over to students,” Wolfson added. 

Despite facing pushback from the university, he hopes Rutgers administrators will work with the two unions to avoid a strike and create collaborative solutions to the problems academic workers are currently experiencing. If they’re ultimately forced to strike, however, participating faculty and students are more than willing to cancel classes and withhold their labor to let “the administration know who runs this university, which is us, the workers.”

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Catherine Caruso

Catherine Caruso is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer with a focus on culture, politics, education, and LGBTQ rights.

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