By Rebecca Heath and Ally Uhlendorf
Over the past three months, the College’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has engaged in ongoing state negotiations in an effort to secure a fair and equitable contract. Members of the union, which includes faculty, adjunct faculty, librarians and professional staff, have been working without a contract since July 1, according to biology professor and AFT President Matthew Wund.
While AFT members have continued to receive their paychecks and health benefits amid this “demoralizing” period of uncertainty, Wund said the union is especially frustrated with the lack of cost-of-living increases despite rising inflation.
The AFT operates in conjunction with the Council of New Jersey State College Locals, which comprises every N.J. public college and university with the exception of Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology. While some terms are negotiated with each institution’s respective administration, the council works collectively to negotiate health benefits, pay structure and employee disciplinary processes, in addition to other terms, in a statewide contract every four years.
At the College, the AFT holds general membership meetings and executive board meetings once a month, as well as professional staff meetings various times throughout the semester. The professional staff includes members from student account services, ARC and program assistants, in addition to other positions.
The union has been meeting with the state one to three times per month since February. Representatives from each of the state colleges meet to discuss the changes to the contract they plan to ask for and to create proposals. The state is represented by the head of the Office of Employee Relations.
During the meetings, which take place at Thomas Edison State University, proposals are passed back and forth between the state and each college, after which the state discusses them for one to two weeks before returning a response. Currently, there are two separate contracts being negotiated: the adjunct contract and the full-time contract. The adjunct contract only covers adjunct faculty, while the full-time contract includes faculty, librarians and professional staff members.
According to interdisciplinary business professor and union member Susanna Monseau, the AFT has been advocating to compensate adjunct faculty equitably, implement paid maternity leave provisions and provide all union members with pay increases “to bring us at least in the direction of making up for the ground that we lost during the pandemic,” as part of their negotiation efforts.
“They've been progressing, but really slowly and we've been hopeful that we would have a contract much sooner,” Wund said. “There are just times where we would hope the state would be moving faster on some of our proposals — I'm sure they probably feel the same way about us. But I think we're trying our best to meet their demands without necessarily giving up lots of important things, and it's just frustrating.”
While a number of N.J. state colleges, including the College, have recently faced significant financial challenges, Wund said he’s hopeful the council and state negotiators will ultimately settle on a “better” contract than in previous years, as the state is not currently in the midst of a “financial crisis.”
“I've never experienced what I would consider a good contract in the sense of even keeping up with inflation, so hopefully this one will be better,” Wund said.
Four years ago, faculty and professional staff members worked without a contract for two years, sparking demonstrations held on campus by a group of faculty. Union members marched around Green Hall chanting and banging on lockers, making as much as an effort to get their voices heard as possible.
“We just want to do our jobs and we tend to be well behaved, we don't want to harm the institution,” Wund said, regarding the previous strike. “But it got the point where we were so frustrated that we were having campus demonstrations, people just got really angry.”
They worked without receiving various benefits for two years, such as cost-of-living increases and health benefits. There were no attempts by the state to negotiate these benefits and reach a formal agreement, according to Wund.
“That seemed like a bad precedent was set where for two years we were working entirely without a contract and without any clue when we would get one,” Monseau said.
“It was really demoralizing to have no way for two years having an increase in your salary to be accumulating years of service but not getting that credit, not getting cost of living increases while you're still paying for your healthcare and healthcare costs are going up,” Wund said.
The uncertainty of working without a contract can detrimentally affect the teaching environment for professors. However, faculty continue to go above and beyond due to their dedication to the College.
“Collectively, we all work well beyond what we're expected to do,” Wund said. “And we keep doing that because we're dedicated employees and we love this institution and we love the students and we care about each other. And so in a sense it hasn't so much affected us because we keep doing our job, but it's also demoralizing.”
“Our working environment is your learning environment, and I want to make it as good as possible,” Monseau said. “I love teaching and I really want to make it a good environment for students — and a good environment for me. Because I think we're all happier when we feel we're being respected and compensated.”
As part of their efforts to spread awareness about the issue and expedite the process, members of the union have been hosting tabling events around campus, where they have handed out flyers with information about what has been happening. As of right now there is no plan to authorize a strike, according to Wund.
“I would hope that we wouldn’t have to do what we did last time: authorize a strike,” Wund said. “But that would be if the next negotiations seem like we're just not getting to a place where we can be comfortable, then that would escalate. But there's nothing pending where that would be a step — it’s not the next thing.”
With the state recently reaching agreements with Communications Workers of America (CWA) and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE), which are two other employee unions at the College, spokesperson David Muha believes a finalized contract with the AFT is on the horizon.
“We are encouraged by the fact that agreements have been reached with the leadership of two of our unions — CWA and IFPTE — and are hopeful that the state is close to an agreement with the AFT,” Muha told The Signal.
As the AFT’s negotiations remain ongoing, Wund encourages members of the campus community to reach out to the administration and state representatives to show support.
“You can communicate to the administration, to the board of trustees or to the governor or the state legislature, just to let them know you're paying attention,” he said. “If you empathize with us, just let us know.”