N.J. Students Defeat Tuition Hike, Ally with Campus Workers

September 7, 2011 by  

by Etta Martin, Rutgers student-activist

The cost of college has risen sharply in recent years, making it much harder for young people to get access to education after high school, and making many fall back on low-level, dead-end jobs. But it wasn’t always this way. Not all that long ago, in 1996, a year at Rutgers cost only four thousand dollars, as opposed to the $12,755 it costs now.

The biggest difference is that the federal and state governments used to subsidize colleges much more, which allowed them to provide students with quality education under much less financial pressure. N.J., for instance, used to give public universities about two thirds of the cost of each student’s tuition. But from 1990 to 2009 the situation reversed: now, the state government covers only one-third of the costs, meaning that each student has to come up with the remaining two- thirds by themselves. Now, the average four-year student in America graduates $24,000 in debt.

Social programs can make higher education much cheaper, something we can access without going into debt, but an active, united student movement is the only thing that will make government officials take measures that help us, rather than helping the banks and financial institutions that profit from our debt.

To see how this can be done, let’s look at Rutgers, where a student movement recently won a major victory: a cut of hundreds of dollars from a proposed tuition hike.

Student protesters "Walk Into Action" on April 13

Rutgers University students organize

At Rutgers New Brunswick, a wide number of student groups formed Rutgers United to serve as an umbrella group for progressive forces on campus and to organize against tuition hikes. Rutgers United includes the Women’s Center Coalition, the United Black Council, Queer Caucus, Asian American Leadership Cabinet, and many others.

Some of the Rutgers United organizers had run “Tent State” in past years, an ongoing annual event in which students set up temporary encampments on Voorhees Mall, host concerts, invite other students to hold workshops on things they’re interested in, and encourage everyone passing through to write to their legislators supporting public funding for higher education. This was inspired by a longer Rutgers tradition of activists setting up camp in prominent campus locations, as a tactic to pressure the administration for policy changes on many issues, from similar matters of affordability, to divestment from South Africa’s former apartheid government.

Rutgers United reached out to progressive students from Rutgers Newark and seven other public universities around New Jersey, and formed New Jersey United Students (NJUS).

Some Rutgers United members ran for Student Assembly (RUSA), an assembly which currently acts like a student government, although the administration can override its decisions. The Rutgers United candidates said that the Student Assembly shouldn’t be an organization for governing students, but rather, a student union that represents student interests to administration– that is, stands up for lower tuition, the rights of students to privacy and due process, and other common concerns.

The Rutgers United ticket won a majority of Student Assembly seats in the spring of 2010. Because of this, they were able to vote to affiliate Rutgers New Brunswick with the United States Student Assembly (USSA).

The USSA works like a student union on the national level. Campuses pay dues to join, and work together to build student power within colleges, and reinforce each other’s organizing projects on the state and local level.

“Being part of a national organization expands your capacity to organize,” said Rutgers United organizer and RUSA vice-president Matt Cordeiro, mentioning that the USSA was helping to raise funds for NJUS.

In fall 2010, Rutgers United hosted a teach-in to educate people on student debt, how the banks were profiting from it, and how it could be resisted. This was followed up by a number of large-scale actions in the spring of 2011.

“The way I see it is that we put pressure on the administration all semester, from storming into McCormick’s office during the Walk Into Action, to the sit-in, to constantly having a presence at the Board of Governors meetings. And it was the mix of exerting student power and using the very selective means that the administration gives us to exert power intelligently,” said Renee Coppola, a student who was elected to RUSA to represent off-campus students and took part in an occupation of the administration’s Old Queens offices.

At Rutgers, like at many colleges, the Board of Governors is the unelected group of officials in charge of administrating the college, who often represent corporate interests. For instance, at Rutgers, the B.O.G. is headed by Ralph Izzo, the CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG, formerly Public Service Electric & Gas).

The Walk Into Action was the first major demonstration of the semester. On April 13, over three hundred students walked out of class and shut down College Aveue.

Students at N.J. public colleges intensify fight

This walkout was part of a Day of Action that went far beyond New Brunswick. The other colleges in NJUS held similar demonstrations around the state at the same time. They had also talked to student organizers and university workers nationally, to decide how to make their efforts most effective, and wound up scheduling the Walk Into Action for the same day that many schools in California participated in marches and sit-ins.

Then, on April 27, twenty Rutgers students occupied the Old Queens administration building. They held a sit-in at University President McCormick’s office that lasted a day and a half. The protesters demanded the following:

  • That the students, faculty, and staff each be allowed to elect their own voting members to the Board of Governors, to make it a more democratic structure.
  • An immediate freeze on tuition, meaning no more price hikes.
  • Fair and speedy arbitration for campus workers whom Rutgers hired through subcontracts.
  • That students be able to get copies of their own transcripts without paying a fee.
  • That the university drop its affiliation with the Fair Labor Association, which is a corporate front group.

At the end, the administration publicly stated that it would not meet any of these demands. But that day, without announcing it, they quietly removed the fees they had been charging for getting transcript records.

Students’ and workers’ alliance

These actions have been stronger and more effective because the student movement has built a coalition with the faculty and staff of the university, who are also suffering from the decisions of the Board of Governors. The student-labor coalition was formed under the name of Rutgers One.

Rutgers One is made of student organizers, the R.U. chapters of the AAUP and AFT (the unions that represent faculty), and the university’s blue collar workers, who are in AFSCME Local 888.

In 2009, when negotiating the budget for the upcoming year, the workers in these unions agreed to forgo salary raises and adjustments for inflation, but signed a contract with the administration stating that these raises would be given to them in 2010. Rutgers administrators, however, broke the contract, and none of the faculty or staff have yet received the money which was promised to them in the current contract.

For Rutgers employees working for companies under subcontracts, the situation is also bleak. The Rutgers bus drivers, for the past ten years, were hired through Academy Bus. When the contract was signed ten years ago, the workers were paid low wages and received poor benefits. But the drivers organized, and over the years, successfully pushed their wages to much higher levels, and won better health coverage from Academy. Now, however, Rutgers has cut its ties with Academy, and instead given the contract to First Transit. Under the new contract, First Transit doesn’t have to pay the same wages, provide the same benefits, recognize the union that existed under Academy, nor even allow all the bus drivers to keep their jobs.

Tuition increase disappears

On July 14, the Rutgers One coalition rallied at a meeting of the Board of Governors over the administration’s refusal to freeze tuition and meet other demands of the sit-in, their breach of contract by withholding promised pay raises, and their union-busting of the bus drivers via the First Transit contract.

The B.O.G. has made it quite difficult for people in the university community to talk to them. They insist that people sign up to comment at meetings over 24 hours ahead of time. In the past, they have had students and faculty shut out of the building during meetings which are supposed to be public, and have suddenly built makeshift walls around themselves when people have said things to them that they did not like.

Nonetheless, on July 14, many students and workers went inside to talk to the Board members, before rejoining the larger crowd of about a hundred protesters outside.

It was at this rally that Board Chairman Izzo announced that the proposed tuition raise would be cut in half–a raise of 1.8% rather than 3.6%–by far the lowest hike in years. Tuition has gone up by around 7% per year since 2001. This year, the rise of the cost will actually be less than inflation.

Many students reacted with surprise to this victory. Certainly, it is a concession that the Board would not have made if there had not been such intense pressure on them. But why this particular maneuver by the Board?

Trying to pacify certain sections of social movements by giving them concessions like these is a typical move for college administrations–and governments–to make, so that they can marginalize those who they are still oppressing. Even before the tuition hike was dropped, the administration had long been using divide-and-conquer tactics in its negotiations, telling students that the high wages of workers were the reason they had to pay so much and telling workers that they should support higher tuition because it was the money that their wages came from.

Students and workers assert common interests

But wages have not risen with tuition–rather, both have gotten worse. And trying to convince people otherwise has been a futile task on the administration’s part. The students and workers at recent rallies were clear on this, carrying signs such as, “Freeze Tuition, Not Wages,” and there have been widespread objections to the amount of money that is being wasted on athletics, administrative salaries, and inflated pay and conspicuous benefits for sports coaches.

This realization of common interest between students and workers–and of the fact that neither has anything to gain by siding with the administration–is by no means limited to Rutgers or New Jersey. On April 13, while hundreds of students shut down College Ave, Sonoma State University (California), too, was swept with protests against both wage cuts and tuition hikes.

Now, seeing the way that unity and persistent action can reverse the pattern of soaring tuition at one school, we should look at reversing the same trend on the national level, and explore how the student and workers’ movements can best amplify each other.

Fortunately, we have many good examples of the latter. Student groups like United Students Against Sweatshops have, for years, been organizing boycotts to help workers fight for better pay internationally, especially in the garment industry. The AAUP was instrumental in reaching out to other chapters nationally and coordinating rallies in California on April 13.

The California student movement, too, focuses on stopping tuition hikes at public universities– especially the University of California, which has campuses in ten cities. The diverse and militant movement to keep these schools affordable has organized under the banner of the Education Crisis Movement.

The largest UC campus is in Los Angeles. Here, the tuition fight-back is made up largely of local youth who don’t know whether they’ll be able to go to college at all. They are rooted in the communities of Los Angeles, and they, their families and neighbors are often already engaged in broader struggles against a power structure which continuously murders civilians, the Oscar Grant case being the most publicized but far from unique.

Nation-wide frameworks for student activism, like the USSA, can be very helpful for learning effective tactics from each other, building solidarity, and encouraging organizers to learn more about the different circumstances faced in each university and each state.

“The administration does not give us much room to express grievances but every chance we got, we took, and when that wasn’t enough we were willing to take matter into our own hands,” said Renee Coppola. “I’m still surprised that what came of it did, but for the future I know we have a group of determined people who all have the same goal–and that is what will make us successful.”

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