The following is a transcript of the video above, from our November 16, 2022, roundtable, “Building a Movement for the Common Good.”
Todd Wolfson: I think the first strategy for us was to step back and actually think about the whole working community at Rutgers. Rutgers is a big university with about 30,000 workers— 25,000 union, spread across 20 different unions. And when the pandemic hit, the university, as it always has, as all our bosses do, aim[ed] to split the workers by attacking the more vulnerable parts of the workforce, which were disproportionately women and people of color. And historically, Rutgers has done this. Historically, all the institutions we’re fighting against aim to do this. And so, for us at that moment, what we realized was, we had to build more of a wall-to-wall or industrial vision of what should happen at Rutgers.
We realized that we had to step back and create a vision and platform that was for all workers.
And before we could even think about what to do with the community, we had to think about what needs to happen among this massively diverse workforce with dining staff, coaches, counselors, postdocs, grad workers, 50,000 undergrads, and then faculty of the full-time and part-time variant, et cetera. And we realized that we had to step back and create a vision and platform that was for all workers. And what that meant was demanding that the most privileged of the workforce sacrifice during a moment of crisis to safeguard the needs of the most vulnerable, which were the ones that the university aim[ed] to ride the pandemic out on.
And so that’s how we approached it. We created a people-centered approach to the pandemic, which really asked faculty to consider a workshare program, which is like a furlough, but you make [it] back; you get made whole both by the federal COVID programs and by state programs. But in doing this furlough program, we were making savings [that is, saving the university money], and we demanded that they don’t lay folks off with that money, and particularly, don’t lay off our staff that have been serving us meals, cleaning students’ rooms, et cetera, et cetera, for decades upon decades. And I think in shifting towards that: one, we were able to fight back much more effectively than any one sector of workers in the university would have been able to do. And two, it helped us realize the power when we think wall-to-wall or industrial versus thinking about craft—at least in the university setting, where we’re all geographically located in one place.
And so that really was a shift for us in thinking about what is to be done. And it’s changed how we approach organizing at the university—and, also, what we think needs to happen at higher ed institutions across the country.