State College Adjunct Faculty in New Jersey Rally for New Contract

by Tom Nobile

More than 10,000 employees at nine state colleges and universities have been working without a contract since July 2015.

Staff and students at Ramapo College and Montclair State University held New Orleans’-style funeral marches last week, part of a statewide protest calling for a new contract for employees at nine state colleges and universities.

More than 10,000 full-time and adjunct faculty, professional staff and librarians across the state have been working without a contract since July 2015, when their previous contract expired. Because of rising health care costs, this has resulted in college faculty and staff members bringing home less pay now than they were five years ago, according to the union that represents them, the College Council-American Federation of Teachers.

“It’s very disappointing. We don’t feel like the state has been at all fair to its employees,” said Martha Ecker, a sociology professor of more than 20 years and Ramapo’s union leader.

At Wednesday’s protest, raindrops fell on a black coffin — emblazoned with the phrase “RIP Higher Ed” — as pallbearers marched it through Ramapo’s campus. More than 40 faculty members and students followed in procession, feigning tears, to the hymns of a marching band playing “Amazing Grace” and other solemn tunes.

At Montclair State, about 40 people, including an impromptu jazz band, walked from the student café to the statue of the school’s Red Hawk mascot.

Richard Wolfson, a professor who specializes in teacher education and president of the union at the school, said the members on campus have not received a raise since their contract expired, and they should be paid in incremental payments while negotiations continue.

“We think that is in bad faith, and this day is to show that we really think that the presidents ought to pay more attention to the employees at Montclair,” Wolfson said.

Wolfson said he would like to see the contract settled soon and believes that a 4 percent raise, the same as was given to Montclair administrators last year, would be a “good place to start.”

In addition to Ramapo and Montclair State, the College Council represents The College of New Jersey and William Paterson, Kean, New Jersey City, Stockton, Rowan and Thomas Edison State universities. The union negotiates a master contract for all nine schools with the state’s Office of Employee Relations.

A representative from the state office did not respond to a request for comment.

While professors at the state’s four-year public schools make a little more than $100,000 on average, associate, assistant and adjunct professors earn far less, said Nat Bender, communications director for the union.

The overall take-home pay for higher education employees has steadily declined each year since 2011, when the state passed a law that required public employees to pay a greater percentage toward their health care, he said.

Health care contributions have risen by 10.5 percent for employees who earn about $55,000 and have family plan insurance, and 24 percent for those earning more than $100,000, according to the state Department of Treasury’s website.

The consequences are low morale at public institutions and a barrier to attracting talented professors to the state, said Bender.

Union members got a 1.75 percent pay raise in 2014, but they have not received any salary increases since the previous contract expired. Bender said the state has broken a decades-old practice of honoring step increases from expired contracts until a new contract can be reached. The union is currently in court fighting this issue, he said.

In addition to calling for a new contract, protesters at Ramapo on Wednesday criticized rising college tuition costs.

The state has kept aid for colleges and students flat at $2.2 billion this year and in 2016, about 7 percent less than was allocated in 2015.

Ecker said the state is balancing its stagnant funding system on the backs of students. Tuition at Ramapo has increased 9 to 16 percent per student since 2004, she said.

“We believe students who are less affluent should have as much access to a quality education as more affluent students,” she said. “We feel like that’s been compromised over the last few years.”

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