In the URA-AFT membership meeting on Monday, April 11, URA members elected our contract bargaining team. As URA’s previous report noted, the team includes members from a wide range of locations and departments.
“The diversity is planned and strategic,” said Christine O’Connell, president of URA. “It’s important for us to be representative in as many ways as we possibly can, so we encourage folks from all over our union to get involved.”
The bargaining team thus not only includes members from New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden, but also a member from the off-campus membership of URA.
“It’s a very exciting thing to be involved in,” said Alexandra DelCollo, who works as a senior program coordinator for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “I’m looking forward to giving a voice to the off-campus community in this upcoming contract.”
However, while each member has their own particular experiences with their individual managers and departments, the team shares the belief that management has failed to hear and meet the needs of workers.
“Upper management is incredibly out of touch with the actual workers at Rutgers,” said Barbara Nowakowski, a program coordinator in New Brunswick. “I don’t think that they understand the disparity between our lives and theirs, for example, the need for some people to work second jobs in order to make ends meet.”
Ryan Csordas, an administrative assistant in New Brunswick, echoed Nowakowski’s words.
“Rutgers management just views us as a cost, and, ultimately, they lack empathy for workers. They always put profits before us, even though they’re supposed to be a non-profit.”
This distance between management and workers was accentuated during the pandemic. For example, despite the success of remote work situations, many union members found themselves returning to workplaces that failed to meet health recommendations.
“I felt like we were all guinea pigs at a time when we didn’t have to be,” said Charles Basden, a senior academic program coordinator in New Brunswick.
“Many members were working in buildings that were too hot, too cold, or not properly ventilated. It seemed that management was meeting their need for in-person work schedules at the expense of membership health.”
At times, the work conditions were not only unsafe but entirely arbitrary.
“The sorts of conditions you were placed under came down to your supervisor, to what your supervisor thought was a valid thing to be doing, or what your supervisor thought was safe or unsafe,” said Joshua Eaise, an academic counselor with Newark’s NJ-STEP program. “There wasn’t really a lot of recourse for folks who found themselves put in unsafe situations or contexts.”
On top of health and safety issues, management laid off a great number of employees during the pandemic. Though some eventually returned to Rutgers, the experience created negative feelings toward management and URA.
“There really is animosity and resentment among our membership,” said Justin Esperon, who serves as URA treasurer and who was out of work for over a year during the pandemic.
“Even though we did what we could during the pandemic, people hold both the university and the union responsible for their experiences, and it’s going to take time for them to get over it all.”
Despite the layoffs, however, the strong language in the URA contract has ensured that all dining workers who wanted to return to Rutgers have been recalled to their positions with their sick bank, vacation accrual rates, and salaries intact. Additionally, both annual raises have been applied to their salaries, even if members were out of work when the raises took effect.
In their upcoming negotiations with management, the bargaining team plans to introduce proposals that address key points, including across-the-board and longevity-based wage increases, fair pay for additional work, telework options, and health and safety safeguards, among others.
Each member of the bargaining team has their own perspective on URA proposals. For example, for Mikaela Maria, who is a coordinator of administrative services in Camden, telecommuting is the most important issue on the agenda.
“The last two years of telecommuting have changed my relationship to work in a really positive way,” she said. “I have more time at home, more time for my family and my friends, and that work-life balance is really important to me and to the other members that I’ve talked to.”
For others like Barry Bailey, however, wage increases, along with health and safety protections, are the most important points of contention, especially in the context of rising inflation.
“I’m towards the end of my career here at Rutgers,” said Bailey, who works as a foreperson for Cook-Douglass grounds. “The world is a different place than it was four years ago, and I’m thinking that I can help push our raise to be bigger than it usually is.”
The main priorities of our union are largely informed by a member survey, by monthly membership meetings, and by grievances filed between the last contract and this one.
“Our union is a democracy,” said Alessandra Sperling, who works as a department administrator in New Brunswick. “When we sit at that bargaining table, we’re sitting at the table with our entire membership behind us, and that’s what gives us the collective power to even out the scale between us and management.”
Members of the bargaining team consistently emphasized the need for URA membership to be involved in the contract process and in our union as a whole.
“In everything that we do as a union, we act as a collective support system,” said Greg Rusciano, who serves as the URA director. “During and beyond these contract negotiations, we need to maximize that supportive structure, so, whenever the next pandemic or whatever comes our way, we’re that much more ready for it and can help each other out.”
Bailey agreed. “This union is our backbone,” he said. “We’ve got to stand behind it.”
The first bargaining date between management and our union is set for Wednesday, May 11. The URA bargaining team looks forward to bringing bold proposals to the negotiating table on behalf of our members.