By Brielle Bryan
Professors, librarians and professional staff members of the College parked themselves outside of Green Hall on Wednesday, April 12, wielding picket signs in order to send a potent message.
“What do we want?” asked John Krimmel, criminology department chair and president of the College’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Contract,” the College’s faculty replied.
“When do we want it?”
The College’s faculty members were protesting working under expired contracts for almost two years. However, they were not the only protesters that day, as Wednesday was a “Day of Action” for public universities across New Jersey, which held similar protests at the same time.
Most faculty members, including professors, adjuncts, librarians and professional staff, are members of AFT, a national union of teachers.
AFT membership is optional, and if an employee does not want to belong to the union, they still have to pay an agency fee that is 85 percent of the dues that members are required to pay, Krimmel said. However, all employees still benefit from the union’s efforts in negotiating a contract.
Within that union exists the College Council, a state union that represents all nine state public universities, excluding Rutgers, which negotiates separately with the state. Each state university has its own union that is a part of the College Council.
Dave Prensky, vice president of the College’s chapter of AFT, said that in addition to the College, the College Council represents Rowan, Stockton, Kean, New Jersey City, William Paterson, Montclair State and Thomas Edison universities as well as Ramapo College.
The College Council negotiates contracts with a New Jersey state government agency called the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations. Krimmel said negotiations have been taking place since July 2015.
The Office of Employee Relations did not wish to comment on the current state of negotiations with the College Council.
“It seems that every time our contract is up, there is a delay. Since I’ve been here, I think this is the longest,” said Todd McCrary, a professional staff member for the Educational Opportunity Funds Program for 15 years who teaches a freshman seminar entitled “African American Gospel Music.”
Contract negotiations are supposed to happen every four years for AFT members, according to Susanna Monseau, a business law professor.
The Public Employment Relations Commission asked New Jersey’s State Supreme Court on March 13 to reverse an appellate court ruling that found that PERC overstepped its authority when it disregarded a four-decades-old doctrine that says step increases outlive the term of a contract, according to an NJ.com article.
Step increases are raises in pay that workers receive every year to help adjust for inflation.
The provisions of the old contract state that step increases for public workers should carry on even if the contract is expired, however, this hasn’t been the case recently for New Jersey public workers.
James Beyers, the elementary and early childhood education department chair and mathematics education professor, said step increases have been frozen since 2009 when Gov. Chris Christie took office.
“I should have had about six increases in the last nine years, and I’ve had only one,” Beyers said.
Charles Wowkanech, president of New Jersey’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, was a guest speaker at the College’s protest.
“Taxes are going up. Utilities are going up. Auto insurance is the highest in the nation,” Wowkanech said. “Everything you look at — food, gas — is going up. You’re paying more for your health care. How do they expect you to afford this?”
The professors and staff members of the College agreed that they have seen their pay stay stagnant while not adjusting for inflation over the past few years.
“Just the beginning of this year, my biweekly paycheck went down $150,” Monseau said. “It’s a lot. That’s $300 a month.”
Beyers calculated how much money he is being cheated of using a few mathematical models.
“My pay is about 15 percent lower than what it should be,” Beyers said. “Over the course of my career — over the next 25 years — that equates to me making about $200,000 less.”
The biggest complaint among the College’s public workers was that health insurance has gone up.
“On average, it costs us about $8,000 or $9,000 more a year for health insurance,” Beyers said.
Beyers added that on top of not being compensated the right amount, public workers are being asked to volunteer more over the summer when their contract is only for 10 months out of the year.
“We understand that we’re appreciated here, but part of the appreciation is how you are treated as an employee,” Beyers said.
College President R. Barbara Gitenstein believes not reaching an agreement is hurting the College.
“There is no doubt that the failure to come to agreement is having a very negative impact on morale for employees,” Gitenstein said.
Gary Fienberg, a music professor who has been teaching at the College for 16 years, said he did not think the faculty’s morale was a crisis, but could see how it could easily begin to unravel.
“As you begin to see things break apart, people begin to question, ‘Why should I do this?’” Fienberg said. “Why should I answer emails at 9:30 p.m. at night? Why should I be at a meeting with a student on a Sunday afternoon? Why should I do some of these recruitment events on Saturday afternoons?”
Professors at the College were initially planning to protest Accepted Students Day on April 1 by not showing up for the event. However, Krimmel called off the protest because he knew how much that would hurt the incoming freshmen.
Art Hohmuth, a psychology professor who has been teaching at the College for almost 50 years, said he was primarily concerned about hurting the students.
“Sometimes when you get into labor disputes, faculty will start doing what’s called, ‘working to the contract,’” Hohmuth said. “This means you meet your classes, but you don’t do things like write letters of recommendation.”
Hohmuth said the faculty realized that working to the contract would be very hurtful to the students, and that they’ve carefully chosen not to do that, but this doesn’t mean that faculty at other colleges aren’t doing that.
The faculty agreed that while they love teaching their students and working at the College, they all have bills they need to pay and find it unfair how the administrators have been compensated fairly.
“The president of this university has a contract and her staff gets a raise,” Wowkanech said to the crowd. “Why shouldn’t you?”
Hohmuth agreed that it’s frustrating to watch administrators get raises while the faculty haven’t seen any.
“It rubs salt into the wound a little bit,” Hohmuth said.
Gitenstein has control over her staff’s wages, but not over the raises of faculty at the College since members of a union have to negotiate explicitly with the state.
“Rather than this structure where statewide councils negotiate for all members of a unit from every campus, I would welcome local negotiations,” Gitenstein said. “My rationale is simple. The state college campuses are very different, both in institutional needs and culture and in the relationship between employees and administrators.”
Some members of the national AFT disagree with this point of view.
“I know that the president of Rowan University is thinking about or keeps insisting that what he wants to do is bargain with us as individual schools and divide and conquer and break it up and say, ‘Oh, if you just come to me, I’ll happily give you everything you want. Divorce yourselves from the rest of these people,’” said Andrew Dixon, an English adjunct professor at Rowan who spoke at the College’s protest. “Should we take that deal? Would we do better if we all bargain individually? No.”
Krimmel’s speech during the protest went into detail about the differences between being inside and outside of a union in the field of education.
“About a third of the faculty in this country that have union contracts have provisions for academic freedom, and we’re one of them. But, the fact is that we’re losing ground,” Krimmel said. “This shift is occurring in institutions across this country and they are losing their light for academic freedom.”
Wowkanech agreed with Krimmel, adding that the strategy of most state agencies is beating unions down to the point where they start to fracture and separate, relinquishing any hope for a good deal by agreeing to take a bad one.
The AFT members of these state public universities are not the only ones working under expired contracts.
About 30,000 employees in one of the largest communications and media labor unions, called Communication Workers of America, are working under expired contracts, Wowkanech said. New Jersey State Police have also been working under an expired contract for about four years.
Campus Police have been working under an expired contract, with no provisions for a discount for their kids to attend the College.
“We’re all workers — no matter if you’re working at a college university, if you’re staff, if you’re a nurse, if you’re a construction worker, a state worker — we’re all workers,” Wowkanech said. “So, stand tall, stand with the leadership of your union and fight for what you deserve: a fair contract.”