TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was personally involved in failed contract negotiations between Rutgers University and faculty unions that went on strike Monday for the first time in the school’s history.
Now Murphy, a Democrat who has counted organized labor among his closest political allies, is betting he’ll be able to reach an accord by becoming further intertwined in the dispute. He’s so confident he told Rutgers leaders not to take legal action against the striking workers despite the school’s contention the work stoppage is illegal.
Murphy and his staff were in talks with Rutgers and labor officials for months — and as recently as Sunday — ahead of the strike, the governor said. On Monday, he called a meeting in his Trenton office to try resolve the impasse and said he spoke briefly with the two sides at noon.
“I’m not happy that it’s come to this. I am happy that we’re in the room together,” Murphy, speaking after an unrelated event in the Statehouse, said he told those in attendance. “Figure this out ASAP.”
Murphy would not directly answer questions about whether he would allow the state to take legal action to halt the strike, saying only, “I hope it doesn’t come to that.” But a spokesperson for Rutgers said the governor had already told school leaders to hold off on doing so.
“The Governor … asked us to delay taking legal action asking the courts to order strikers back to work so that no further irreparable harm is caused to our students and to their continued academic progress,” the spokesperson, Dory Devlin, said in a statement to POLITICO. “We agreed to his request to refrain from seeking an injunction while it appears that progress can be made.”
The legality of a strike from higher education workers at the state’s flagship public university has been a matter of dispute. Rutgers has maintained that it’s illegal for workers to strike, saying in an online FAQ that “New Jersey courts consistently and expressly have held that strikes by New Jersey public employees are illegal.” Unions have insisted that there are no laws explicitly prohibiting their right to strike.
As Murphy spoke about the strike, union members rallied at Rutgers campuses across the state in New Brunswick, Camden and Newark. The New Brunswick strike included labor leaders ranging from State AFL-CIO president Charles Wowkanech, the Communications Workers of America’s New Jersey affiliate and national American Association of University Professors president Irene Mulvey, who described Rutgers management was “stalling and foot-dragging.”
“Rutgers is for education — we are not a corporation,” workers chanted as they carried “on strike” signs.
Rutgers union leaders also said they worked with other unions to ensure workers don’t cross the picket line. Todd Wolfson, general vice president at the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said construction at the Zimmerli Art Museum at the New Brunswick campus — which was scheduled for today — was blocked to ensure workers did not cross the picket line.
“There will be no construction at the Zimmerli today,” Wolfson said during a union rally. “There will be no construction at the Zimmerli tomorrow. And there will be no construction at the Zimmerli until we get our contract.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) appeared at the union rally and expressed sympathy for graduate assistants and graduate student workers.
“I feel very strongly that whatever this final agreement is does have to include them and better wages and security for all of them,” he said.
The unions are seeking higher wages as part of a new contract. Other priorities include affordable housing and better health insurance, forgiveness for students’ overdue fees and fines, and equal pay for equal work for adjunct faculty.
In a memo, Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway detailed the university’s offer to the three unions now on strike — including “enhanced compensation programs” to increase salaries for full-time staff by 12 percent in two years, raising the per-credit salary rate for part-time lecturers and increasing the salary for postdoctoral fellows and associates.
The strike could mar the legacy of a governor who got into office in part because of support from public labor unions and who said Monday, “I don’t think there’s been a more pro-labor administration in the history of the state.”
Murphy deflected questions of whether those factors mean he should have been able to deliver an agreement, saying he has “very good relations” with unions and the school.
“We’ve been involved in one form or another — including me personally — for months,” Murphy said.
Murphy and his staff worked, he said, “all day yesterday and last night” with school officials “at the highest levels.”
Murphy said he’s optimistic his approach will work.
“I think the very force and nature of our office and our administration in the room, basically with a ‘lock-the-door-throw-away-the-key mentality’ has a very significant potential to move the needle in the right direction, and that’s what we’re hoping for,” he said.