State college faculty, staff rally for new contract

Tom Nobile and Ricardo Kaulessar, NorthJersey

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 Wednesday, 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.

Ramapo Paula Straile-Costa
Paula Straile-Costa, a professor of Spanish and literature, attends the jazz funeral at Ramapo College to “mourn the death” of higher education. Universities all over New Jersey participated in this “Day of Action” to draw attention to the student debt crisis, high tuition, and professors working without contracts on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/Northjersey)

Paula Straile-Costa, a professor of Spanish and literature, attends the jazz funeral at Ramapo College to “mourn the death” of higher education. Universities all over New Jersey participated in this “Day of Action” to draw attention to the student debt crisis, high tuition, and professors working without contracts on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/Northjersey)
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.

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