For eight months, the California Faculty Association (CFA) was embroiled in a bitter impasse with the California State University (CSU) system over wages and benefits. CFA, which represents 29,000 educators, finally broke the impasse by launching a strike on all CSU campuses for the week of January 22-26, 2024. Surprisingly, it ended the strike on the evening of day one and boasted of the settlement as “a win in our battle for a just CSU.” A careful examination reveals that the leadership capitulated, a common experience of the rank and file in the labor movement which reflects the need for internal democracy, tolerance of dissent and robust employment of sustained strikes to extract meaningful concessions from management.
Because the existing collective bargaining agreement of 2022-2024 allows for a reopening of negotiations over salary and benefits for 2023-2024, CFA asked on May 31, 2023, for a 12 percent general salary increase to compensate for multiple years of real wages falling due to inflation. It held firm to this demand in three subsequent counterproposals with the last presented on January 8, 2024. CFA planned to bargain for a new multiyear comprehensive agreement in the summer of 2024.
CSU’s initial counterproposal in July was for a 4 percent salary raise. The next month, it raised the demand to 5 percent and made clear that it would go no higher because this was the maximum amount CFA had agreed upon in its collective bargaining agreements with other labor unions. Under a “me-too” clause, a raise of over 5 percent to CFA would require CSU to reopen negotiations with the other unions. In December, it countered with a proposal for a new three-year contract, which included annual 5 percent increases for 2024-2025 and 2025-2026 if California increased its funding to CSU by that amount. Ignoring that inflation accrues annually, CSU framed this as a 15 percent increase. CFA rightly found this stance insulting: “Management must think that faculty can’t do math…. We are demanding a 12-percent General Salary Increase for just 2023-24 to keep pace with rising costs of living. We will fight for more when the full contract opens next year.”
On November 21, an independent fact finder issued a set of recommendations for resolving all issues. It proposed a 7 percent increase and a lump sum payment of $3000 for instructors who did not receive either a service salary increase (available to educators on the low end of salary for their category of employment) or post-promotion increase. Both CSU and CFA rejected this recommendation. Just before the strike commenced, CSU amped up pressure by invoking a unilateral “imposition process,” which declared that the only change in 2023-2024 on salary would be a 5 percent increase limited to the remaining five months of the contract as opposed to being backdated to the start of the fiscal year in July 2023. CSU added that it would only retract the imposition terms and return to negotiations if CFA changed its position on salary increases. In effect, CSU was reiterating that any number over 5 percent was unacceptable.
CSU’s threat worked. CFA now accepts the terms first offered by CSU in November, a 5 percent increase for 2023-2024 dating to the beginning of the fiscal year. The new deal, then, locks in the cumulative erosion in wages for both CFA members and members of other unions with collective bargaining agreements with CSU.
The leadership offers several rhetorical gymnastics to rebrand this cave-in as a victory to its members. First, it presents a highly misleading side-by-side chart that compares the new agreement only to the CSU-imposed one, not the last full CSU proposal or the independent report. Second, the leadership trumpets several nonsalary gains, such as parental leave, lactation spaces and campus security. In actuality, CSU had already indicated in its response to the fact finder’s recommendations flexibility on all of these issues. The only issue of significant movement from the CSU stance was a $3000 boost in entry-level salary for two categories of lecturers.
Finally, the leadership points to the provision of a subsequent 5 percent raise for 2024-2025 contingent on there being no cutback in state funding. Yet the CFA’s original aim was to secure a sufficient salary bump in 2023-2024 and fight for more in later negotiations. Now it has further locked in its cumulative erosion in wages. Other than changing the terms of the contingency to make a 5 percent raise more likely to occur in year two, the leadership has simply adopted the prestrike CSU offer. Remarkably, the leadership claims to have won a 10 percent increase in 2024, omitting the fact that the cumulative increase spans two fiscal years (July 2023 to July 2025). It would seem that CSU was correct to “think that faculty can’t do math” at least with regard to CFA leadership, who has now appropriated CSU talking points.
More candid defenders of the contract point to a poor political hand. Public support for California faculty, they argue, is precarious while faculty may balk at a protracted strike that docks their monthly paychecks. Although this scenario is possible, assuming this view at the outset when faculty support was strong and public support for unions is at its highest since 1965, created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, this defeatist stance explains why CSU has regularly bested CFA in negotiations. More problematic is the leadership’s disingenuous branding of the agreement as a victory for labor. It both insults the rank and file and impedes much needed scrutiny of why CFA conceded to CSU’s 5 percent offer.
CFA’s actions have generated widespread discontent among the rank and file. Members charge the leaders with betrayal for settling too quickly and easily. Most faculty had, after all, cancelled classes, rearranged lesson plans and prepared for a week of picketing, which included standing outside in a massive storm in southern California on January 22. The leadership has acknowledged the discontent and organized a series of town hall Zoom sessions. The one I attended for San Diego State faculty had over 160 participants. Disappointingly, the CFA representatives maintained that they negotiated a very good deal and exhorted members not to reject it.
The leadership would perform a much better service if it allowed a thorough self-scrutiny and reckoning. First, it should admit that it conceded completely on the core salary issue. Next, there should be a thorough deliberation of why the CFA was in such a weak position. Two factors immediately come to mind. One is that the union lacks a strike fund, a fact that was not conveyed clearly to members beforehand. CFA was, hence, never positioned to wage an effective struggle with CSU. Two is CFA’s decade-plus record of conceding on core salary disputes, as evidenced in the cumulative erosion of faculty real wages. Aware of its decided structural advantage, CSU gave little ground. To add insult to injury, it is now notifying faculty that the “university has received information that you were on strike on January 22 [and that unless you email us otherwise] you will not be compensated for that day.”
To change this grim trajectory, the first step for rank and file is to organize a vote no campaign. Doing so will signal to both CSU and the CFA leadership that the era of one-sided concessions will no longer be tolerated. Although the CFA leadership follows the general trend of labor union leaders in viewing rejection of negotiated deals as a sign of weakness, veteran labor scholar-analysts Helena Worthen and Joe Berry persuasively argue that a sophisticated vote no campaign provides a salutary boost of support for prioritizing the concerns of working people, not management. Such a step is also imperative to impel the union leadership to take internal union democracy seriously. From there, we can then collectively deliberate on how to develop a strike fund and an effective, multifaceted campaign to garner public support and sustained solidarity partnerships with other labor unions, students and community activists.
Finally, the present CFA crisis of confidence offers a broader wake-up call to the labor movement on the daunting external and internal challenges to upholding decent working conditions and bringing about greater union democracy and justice. University administrators, after all, share the core values of CEOs, which is prioritizing the interests of elite economic actors and so-called market efficiency at the expense of rank-and-file workers and the common good. The last thing they want is an assertive labor union that challenges both their bottom line and public image. Encouragingly, labor militancy, geared toward class struggle and broader solidarity, is on the rebound. Regrettably, as the CFA experience demonstrates, much of the union bureaucracy retains several self-defeating tendencies, including an aversion to utilizing the strike, a deemphasis of broader solidarity partnerships, and a discouragement of substantive internal democracy and dissent. Consequently, as Ege Yumusak aptly observes, “Unions not only fail to win contracts that workers need to work with dignity; they discourage workers from pushing for more.”
One silver lining of the CFA debacle is that it has inspired a number of us to form a new Rank-and-File Committee of Academic Workers at San Diego State that is reaching out to our colleagues at other CSU campuses. Our hope is to reverse the logic of union defeatism and contribute to a resurgent labor movement resolved to confront rather than accommodate the predatory capitalism that plagues higher education and nearly every sector of labor.
For more information on the academic workers rank-and-file committee at San Diego State, email email@example.com.