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California Faculty Association Escalates Strike Actions Ahead of Contract Battle

Demands include paid family leave, gender-inclusive restrooms, rules for expanding workloads and campus police reforms.

The California Faculty Association's week of strikes continues at the Cal State LA campus in Los Angeles, California, on December 6, 2023.

The California Faculty Association (CFA), representing 29 thousand faculty at the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU), held a series of rolling strikes against the largest public university system in the United States in December. The union has been engaged in contract reopener talks in advance of a full contract battle later this year.

The union has demanded a 12 percent pay raise for all faculty as well as additional raises in the wages of the lowest-paid faculty across the campuses. In addition, the CFA is asking for an extension in paid family leave to one semester, gender-inclusive restrooms and lactation spaces, greater support for mental health counseling services on campus, regulation of faculty members’ ever-expanding workloads, and reforms in campus policing limiting armed police interaction with faculty members.

The CSU system has refused to meet these demands, instead offering a five percent raise in the first year, with subsequent raises contingent on budgetary constraints. As union leaders are quick to point out, “contingent” almost always means “never.” After the 2021 contract, faculty learned this lesson the hard way, as promised raises evaporated in the name of budget shortfalls. The system also has been unresponsive to the union’s other demands.

In response to the system’s recalcitrance, the union began a series of one-day strikes at campuses across the state in December. These strikes targeted Cal State Sacramento, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona, and San Francisco State University.

Teamsters Local 2010 members held sympathy strikes and turned up as early as 5 a.m. on the four campuses to shut down construction sites (which can cause inconveniences to employers and lead to more serious problems like contract disputes), block mail delivery, slow traffic, and reroute public transit.

Faculty and supporters at Cal State Los Angeles marched onto a freeway to make their point.

Labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta delivered a message to striking members via CSU Los Angeles Lecturer Jamila Guerrero-Cantor:

Your work as educators must be respected. The decision-makers of the CSU system are failing to uphold the mission of public education by continuing inequities that will push people out of the transformative experience of higher education. You are striking because you believe in the power of education and the power of organizing labor.

Backed up Southern-California style by a mariachi band and dancers supporting the Cal Poly picket line on December 4, faculty and students described the goals of the strike. Kristin Prins is in her 8th year on the Pomona faculty in English and Modern Languages. As a graduate student, she had been involved in successful graduate student organizing at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She explained that the experience was a turning point “in knowing the value of the union”:

When I was on the job market, coming to a unionized campus was really important to me. I was glad to come here and join the CFA. My first year on campus was in 2016. During that contract negotiation, we had t-shirts reading, “I don’t want to strike but I will.” The night before the strike was to start, we got more than we were asking for.

Prins said she is shocked that the system has not moved in response to a fact-finding process that supported the union’s claims. She is concerned about the problem of the insufficient counseling staff on campuses: “Students are really, really going through it; many of our full-time students are working full-time across multiple jobs. They need much better support,” she said.

Prins reported workload stress, since many faculty and staff retired during the COVID-19 pandemic. “More and more work has been spread across fewer and fewer people. Students see that and feel that.”

Most important for Prins is raising the floor of wages for non-tenure-line faculty, who teach the greatest number of students while commuting from campus to campus to make ends meet.

I coordinate the first-year writing program. All of my colleagues are teaching first-year comp[osition] without the benefit of being full-time. These are the faculty who are points of first contact for first-year students. We rely on them for all kinds of things, student success and student retention. We really need to raise the floor for them.

Cal Poly civil engineering professor Siddarth Banerjee stressed the need for raises for tenure-line faculty, too. “I am new faculty here,” he said, adding,

I’m new to this process. It’s been a very big shift for us as a family. It’s very expensive. Right now, more than half of my salary goes to rent. It’s very difficult to make ends meet. I’m hoping that the strike will make management listen and give us raises.

Groups of students came out at Pomona to support the faculty. Carson Green is a Cal Poly student and a member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). He explained that faculty workload has intensified during his time as a student, with average class sizes rising from thirty to more than fifty. “It’s important for every student to be out here in solidarity,” he said.

Another Pomona student, Kaila Cervantes, explained that supporting her faculty was very important because of the profound role professors have played in her life.

My professors changed my intellectual course and I feel that they are vital to my education and the campus. I’m out here to support them because they fight for me in the classroom and I can support them outside the classroom.

Prins remarked that her students have been amazing in their support for the strike. She lamented that being real with them about faculty labor in an increasingly corporate university disillusions them about the academy:

It’s been really hard to be honest with students about the university as an employer. I was an undergraduate who got to school and thought, look at this ivory tower where everyone is so enlightened and where we are building a new world that we want to see. But the university is not that; it probably has never been that. It’s been heartbreaking for students to come in with so much belief in education and then there’s so much we’re fighting against just for them to have that education.

CFA members remain committed and confident. The CFA has declared a system-wide strike of all faculty on 23 campuses from January 22-26, announcing: “Given the ongoing disregard of management, the CFA Board of Directors have called for a five-day strike between January 22 — January 26 that will take place on all 23 CSU campuses. We will be striking with Teamsters Local 2010 members as we collectively push for a fair contract for our workers. United, we will let CSU management know that we are ready to shut down the CSU.”

These actions are part of a nationwide upsurge in higher education organizing, called the “golden age of academic unionization” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle noted that graduate student workers at the University of Southern California, just ahead of a strike planned for November 26, won a $40,000 starting salary for graduate students, followed by yearly raises over the contract term. The agreement also secured the rights to grievance and arbitration and child care stipends.

They also won semester-long paid parental leave.

“We want that too,” Prins said.

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