Unions say Chris Christie's labor legacy playing out in Rutgers University contract talks

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has fashioned himself a loyal ally to organized labor. He’s negotiated multiple contracts with major public employee unions and been showered with their political support.

But at Rutgers University, where faculty and staff have been without a contract for more than 200 days, the Democrat isn’t the one leading discussions with labor leaders. Murphy and Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway have left that, mainly, to members of former Gov. Chris Christie's administration. Christie, a Republican, once said a national teachers union deserved a “punch in the face.”

Labor leaders are growing frustrated — and a strike is looming.

“Ironically, a lot of what the unions are proposing aligns with a Murphy-Holloway vision,” Rutgers AAUP-AFT union President Rebecca Givan said in an interview. “So it should be this moment for a win-win negotiation and an opportunity for a collaborative approach. But instead, it's the Christie approach, which is to try to squash the unions.”

A person familiar with the governor's thinking said Murphy himself has urged Holloway to resolve the labor concerns and has asked whether Holloway has the “right people in the room” when decisions are being made.

A strike at New Jersey's flagship university could call into question Murphy's labor union bona fides. Conversely, a strike at the hands of Christie's former staffers could work in Murphy's political favor if he's able to smooth the negotiation process the way New York Gov. Kathy Hochul did during the New York City nurses strike earlier this month.

Functionally, a strike would mean a work-stoppage for thousands of full-time faculty, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and other staff across the school’s campuses in New Brunswick, Newark and Camden.

These sorts of strikes are spreading at other major universities across the country. A nearly six-week walkout at the University of California last year was heralded as one of the largest higher education strikes in U.S. history. Similar efforts have also occurred at New York University, The New School and Philadelphia’s Temple University. According to data from Bloomberg Law, union work stoppages hit a 17-year high in 2023.

The Rutgers union has been advocating for some of the same demands as higher education workers in other states: Salary increases, more job security and pay equity.

The big Christie players at the table are David Cohen, formerly head of employee relations under Christie who now leads Rutgers’ Office of University Labor Relations, and John Hoffman, former acting state attorney general under Christie who is now Rutgers’ senior vice president and general counsel.

In 2011, Cohen represented the state and the Christie administration in a tense negotiation with state workers. At the time, Christie declared publicly there would not be any pay increases for state workers and sought to cut employee benefits.

Hoffman’s tenure in the Christie front office was marked by criticism for opting not to investigate the Bridgegate scandal and issuing an opinion that sided with the Republican governor on the issue of state officials reporting certain gifts on their ethics forms.

Givan said that with Cohen and Hoffman playing “pivotal” roles at the bargaining table, when union negotiators ask for things like “parental leave, job security and equal pay for the most precarious instructors ... all of that is just completely dismissed [by] attorneys who appear to be calling the shots and doing them in just the same way they would for the Christie administration.”

Neither Cohen nor Hoffman responded to requests for comment, but Rutgers spokesperson Dory Devlin said in a statement that Holloway “has expressed full confidence in our negotiating teams, which faithfully represent the position of the university.”

“To suggest that the professionals who are representing us at the negotiating table have a point of view that is different than that of the university is an insult to their professionalism and is baseless,” Devlin said.

Devlin also said Rutgers labor relations teams have held 100 sessions “to discuss negotiable items and other issues," and “will continue to meet” with union representatives “in hopes of reaching agreements that are fair, reasonable and realistic.”

Christi Peace, a Murphy spokesperson, said in a statement that the governor is “a staunch defender of organized labor," and "has continued to reiterate his support for Rutgers University employees and call for open dialogue between the labor union and university officials."

"The Governor firmly believes the hard-working educators and staff of Rutgers deserve a seat at the table when determining aspects of their employment," Peace said. "Top officials from Governor Murphy’s Administration remain in talks with both the university and union in an effort to bring both parties together to negotiate a fair and satisfactory agreement.”

Unionrepresentatives say Murphy has remained fairly “hands off” publicly in his approach to Rutgers despite local and national labor leaders urging him to get involved in disputes at the school and lawmakers demanding investigations into the public university’s controversial spending decisions.

During his tenure, Murphy has also seemingly decided not to take advantage of political appointments in the same way his predecessor did, leaving Christie appointees in expired seats on the state Board of Education and vacancies at the Election Law Enforcement Commission, among other agencies.

Despite staying out of the Rutgers fray publicly, Murphy has waded into public sector contract negotiations before.

He was heavily and publicly involved in contract negotiations with Communications Workers of America, the largest state workers union, which ended in a deal in 2020. To be sure, CWA members were negotiating directly with the state in their process, whereas Rutgers' negotiations are primarily between the union and the school administration.

Givan said with the CWA contract process in the rear view mirror, she’s not sure why Murphy and Holloway are trusting Christie loyalists to make labor decisions at the state’s biggest public university.

“Why doesn't Holloway want his own vision to be carried out?” Givan asked. Cohen and Hoffman work for Holloway now, she said, but appear to be pursuing “anti-employee” approaches rather than the “beloved community” Holloway has championed.

Murphy and his staffers have tapped into the political power of Rutgers appointments before — Murphy reappointed Bill Tambussi, Democratic powerbroker George Norcross’ personal lawyer, to the Rutgers board of governors in 2020. At the time, Tambussi was representing Norcross in his lawsuit against the Murphy administration to stop an investigation into the state Economic Development Authority.

Tambussi also served as a member of the search committee that appointed Holloway as the university's next president.

What comes next is uncertain. Givan and other union leaders have been clear they intend to increase pressure on Holloway and Murphy to become more publicly involved but it remains to be seen if a deal can be cut ahead of a possible strike.

Still, it seems Christie’s final warning words to Murphy may be haunting the progressive state leader more than he anticipated.

“No matter what you do, unless it involves complete capitulation," Christie said on his way out in 2018, "you will be vilified by public union leaders.”