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Even after gains, NJ Institute of Technology’s part-time faculty say a strike is possible

Part-time faculty at New Jersey’s largest technological university say they’re still prepared to go on strike if necessary – but that they’ve scored key concessions from school leaders, including better pay for adjunct professors.

Last week, the union representing adjunct professors, teaching and research assistants, graduate and post-graduate students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology announced that 98% of their membership voted to authorize a strike. That vote doesn’t start a walkout in itself, but means the union’s leadership could call one at any time. The two sides will be back at the table on Wednesday and Thursday for more negotiations, a union representative said.

Union members say they’re considering a strike because of the university management’s unwillingness to offer them pay raises and other benefits in 18 months of negotiations. But one day after the strike authorization vote, NJIT’s management “came to the table with a significant salary increase for adjuncts,” according to Sarah Reibstein, an adjunct professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences department who is part of the negotiations.

The bargaining unit represents 800 academics who teach or assist in the majority of the classes taught at the 11,000-student university, according to the union. The workers have been teaching and conducting research without a contract since their last deal expired in 2022.

Reibstein said the increase was “very close” to what Rutgers recently agreed to pay its adjunct professors in a deal that ended a five-day faculty-wide walkout over the summer. She didn’t specify a pay rate, but said pay comparable to that won by Rutgers adjuncts was “what we’re aiming for at the least.” Academics studying labor and higher education have suggested the Rutgers contract could embolden other unions to pursue gains for adjuncts and part-time educators as colleges and universities increasingly rely on part-timers to teach classes.

“I think the main thing is we don’t want to have to go on strike,” Reibstein said. “But if they’re forcing us to, we will and we’re prepared.”

A bargaining session Tuesday, the day after the strike authorization, lasted 10 hours, a spokesperson for NJIT said in a joint statement from the school and the United Council of Academics at NJIT, the union representing the workers. The statement also confirmed that the two sides came to an agreement “on the essential economic terms” for adjunct professors.

A strike by the United Council of Academics at NJIT would not include full-time faculty.

During their negotiations, the striking Rutgers adjuncts aimed to boost base pay for part-time teachers to $10,000 for a three-credit course, up from a base $5,800, and ultimately secured an increase of 44% over the life of a four-year contract. According to the proposal on their website, NJIT’s union is setting the same $10,000 goal for a three-credit course, up from the current $5,500.

Reibstein said that the bargaining session that was held after the announcement of the strike authorization had a new tension to it.

“There were members outside making noise and the management could hear that inside, that bargaining session was much different,” she said.

Some of the other sticking points in the negotiations include details of childcare support, healthcare benefits and transportation benefits. The union’s goal is to secure a new four-year contract that would cover its members retroactively to 2022.

The union is also seeking pay increases for its graduate students, postdoctoral and research employees. Ayushi Sangoi, a doctoral student research assistant in Biomedical Engineering who is involved in the negotiations, said the union would like to see the salaries for graduate students brought up to what she described as a “living wage.”

“I know the living wage in the area is over $40K. Grad students are currently making $25,000 for their nine-month salary. … Frankly, they’re struggling with rent. A lot of them go to the food pantry just to get food and stuff like that,” she said. Rutgers agreed to increase its base pay for graduate workers to $40,000 by 2025 in its contract.

Yauhen Yakimenka, a postdoctoral research associate in Electrical and Computer Engineering who is involved with the negotiations, said their members continue to get training from the union and prepare for a strike “in the background” while discussions continue.

But union members said they’re starting to feel more optimistic that actual decision-makers are starting to engage with them. The union members said that the latest bargaining session was attended by a representative of the school’s president’s office and the provost. Prior to that, nobody that high up in the decision making process had shown up to a bargaining session, union members said.

NJIT Provost John Pelesko said he intends to be at more of the meetings as well.

Earlier this month, the union representing 1,700 nurses on strike since early August at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick reached a tentative agreement with the RWJBarnabas Health system. The nurses union was demanding better staff-to-patient ratios in order to provide better care. That agreement still needs to go before the full union membership for a ratification vote.

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