Take action: Union organizer gets degree from Rutgers but loses job there

By Hannan Adely, Staff Writer, The Record

Take Action: Sign Petition urging Rutgers to restore Christine’s job.

Christine O’Connell, a mother of five who left college 27 years ago to get married and raise a family, was elated to graduate on Monday from Rutgers University alongside her 21-year-old son, John.

Plainfield resident Christine O’Connell and her son John, graduating together Monday from Rutgers University.

That feat and O’Connell’s work as a Rutgers community assistant, educating low-income families about nutrition, were celebrated in a story posted on a university webpage earlier this month. The article, headlined “All in the Rutgers Family – Mother and Son Share 2014 Graduation,” talked about the two students’ experiences at the school and their family relationship.

But in a curious case of timing, the mother-son celebration has been clouded by the May 9 email that told O’Connell her full-time job at the university had been eliminated.

“This is really quite a blow,” said O’Connell, 45, of Plainfield. “I was a very good employee. I never had any difficulties at work and I do my job quite well. It was very unexpected.”

Union members believe she was a target of retaliation because of her work as a union organizer on campus. They held protest signs at the graduation and have an online petition calling for her reinstatement.

Rutgers University officials said they do not comment on personnel matters.

O’Connell, who worked at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, said the only reason given for the termination was that her job had been eliminated.

Her $24,000-a-year job was financed by a grant through the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. The grant continues, and community assistants who do the same work in other counties still have their jobs, she said.

In February, O’Connell took a three-month unpaid leave to organize on campus for the Union of Rutgers Administrators Local 1766, for which she is an executive board member. Unpaid union leave is permitted under the contract, said Nat Bender, the union’s communications director.

During that time, O’Connell talked to new hires about joining the union, spread information and helped to resolve grievances. She had been scheduled to return to work May 14.

With the job loss, O’Connell also lost her family’s medical benefits, and tuition coverage as she planned to pursue a master’s degree. She may cancel her summer classes, she said, because of the cost.

Bender said: “The elimination of this position doesn’t make any sense. They have the opportunity to do the right thing by restoring this position.”

In an online petition, supporters say O’Connell is an excellent worker and student and accuse the university of anti-union activity.


Take Action: Sign Petition urging Rutgers to restore Christine’s job.

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