Faculty in the California State University system, the largest public university system in the United States, went on strike on Monday, January 22 across all 23 campuses in the state. They are represented by the California Faculty Association (CFA). In November, 95 percent of union members who voted authorized a strike action in response to the system’s refusal to budge on union demands.
These demands included an across-the-board pay raise of 12 percent and raises in the salary floor for lecturers—poorly paid, contingent adjunct faculty who teach on a per-course basis with no guarantee of future classes. In addition to the wage demands, the union, which touts itself as an anti-racist, social justice union, had asked for an increase in the number of gender-inclusive restrooms and lactation/nursing spaces on all campuses; the hiring of more mental health counselors (who currently labor under a ratio of one counselor to 2500 students); an expansion of family leave from six weeks to a semester; and limits on armed policing on campuses.
Building off of a series of one-day strikes in December, the CFA planned a five-day strike for the week of January 22, the first week of school on most campuses. In spite of cold and drenching rain, thousands of faculty members came out to picket lines on the first day in festive scenes of marching, picketing, chanting, dancing, eating, and conversing. On many campuses, parking lots were nearly deserted as the strike interrupted instruction for the system’s thousands of students.
By the end of the first day of the strike, union members felt empowered by the day’s events and were ready for more.
Then, the faculty received an email Monday night announcing that the strike was over and that the union had “won.” Without consulting even the elected leadership of campus chapters, the bargaining committee signed a tentative agreement that fell far short of the union’s goals. Instead of 12 percent, the Chancellor (Dr. Mildred García) agreed to an immediate raise of five percent with another five to be contingent on the state budget. The union had been adamantly opposed to contingent raises, which had always fallen through in the past. The system agreed to modest raises in the floor salary for some lecturers, though much less than the union’s original ask.
The math is deliberately opaque, such that faculty are having a hard time figuring out whether they get the raises and by how much. Some agitators have published salary calculators that reveal that the actual gains for faculty do not come close to the estimates announced by the union after the tentative agreement was reached.
The union is claiming that the agreement is the biggest win for lecturers, but as California State University Long Beach lecturer Melissa Hidalgo explained, that is unclear:
What we’re seeing in the press is, this is a big victory for our lowest-paid faculty lecturers, which is the class that I fall into. It was also very confusing today, even when our union rep pulled out the charts and the graph. And I’m like, why can’t anything just be clear about where we belong and how much we are getting paid? None of us really knows where we’re at.
Hidalgo added that much of the increase in salary goes to less than half of all lecturers who teach five classes, amounting to a full-time load.
The agreement did not address union demands about controlling the workload of faculty who are continually asked to teach a greater number of students in each class.
The agreement completely omitted the other reforms sought by the faculty. Instead of gender-inclusive restrooms, lactation and nursing spaces, more mental health counselors, and restrictions on the police, the agreement contains what union leaders called “aspirational language” that acknowledged these needs without the commitment of any actual resources or plans for change. Family leave was expanded by four weeks, from six to ten, again, far from what prospective parents on the faculty were seeking.
Cal State Northridge computer science professor Jeff Wiegley summarizes the failures of the agreement to live up to what was agreed to in bargaining caucuses:
I can’t believe what happened. Like I was at the December 12 meeting. I was at the January 8 meeting. I saw what we agreed to as necessary and what was unacceptable, and all of that is gone. Everything that we agreed to as being necessary is no longer in the contract.
The police safety issue, for instance. We agreed that it was necessary to keep three major things. One, they can’t be armed while doing the interview. Well, none of that’s in the contract. So they can be armed to the teeth all they want. I guess they could bring in more weapons if they wanted to. Two, the police had to tell you what your rights were legally and for the union representative. That’s not actually in there anymore. So there’s no obligation for the police to change their behavior; they can withhold information or provide you with a deceptive message while they’re interviewing you, which are police tactics for getting their job done.
And then we were going to make it so that you have a union representative with you while you were being interviewed. That’s not in the contract. Even though at all of the information meetings they’re putting out, they’re saying they got you the right to a union representative, but they didn’t. What you have is the ability to request a union representative and the union specifically says that they can deny it.
So that one [is] out the window. The gender-inclusive language became just aspirational as well. I hate “should” language. I don’t like aspirational. I don’t like maybe, because it’s just not enforceable.
For many faculty, the counselor-student ratio is a big sticking point. Hidalgo explained how the lack of support for mental health affects both students and faculty:
2,500 students–one counselor for 2,500 students. So we did not get that demand. We were asking to shrink the number down. We could have brought the ratio down a lot lower, but we didn’t get that. It becomes a workload issue because not only do our students lack the professional mental health care that they need, we are the people doing the day-to-day, face-to-face work. We’re the ones in the classrooms with them. They come to our office hours with problems that we’re not equipped or trained to handle as much as I want to. I’m a lecturer. We’re here to teach.
When we have students that are telling me, I’m sorry, I just got kicked out of my house. I’m living out of my car. I say, you know, I want to help you and I want to send you to the person who can actually help.
But we don’t have enough counselors. This is why they’re entwined. That is one real kind of consequence. When we don’t have enough counselors, not only do students suffer, but so do those of us who are already overworked.
While union leadership was crowing about the alleged “victory,” large numbers of striking faculty felt shocked and betrayed. Hidalgo said,
All we know is that we should still be on strike. We’re not. It was cut way too quick. I think most of us feel a lot of the anger, which is coming from the fact that we had an incredible amount of organizing and energy behind pulling this off, and it would have been a historic first-time strike at all 23 campuses. But for it to sort of end after a day, it just feels all kinds of things, short-sighted, not strong enough. We all felt very demoralized, and it certainly was not the deal we wanted. It was really nothing new that the chancellor’s office hadn’t already offered us.
Jaimy Magdalena is a lecturer in the Department of Race and Resistance Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. She described the same feeling:
I felt so angry and betrayed and depressed because I was in the open bargaining.
And I also read the tentative agreement. That congratulatory email just was like total bullshit because the contingency language was wrong. And I had heard firsthand from union leadership that we’re not gonna ask for less than 12 percent. None of it lined up; my mind was spinning with all of these scenarios, you know, maybe if they had come out with this congratulatory email next week. But it was after day one, secretively and suddenly. For such a bad offer. It all just felt, yeah, like a betrayal.
Immediately, rank-and-file members at San Francisco State University called emergency meetings and the union executive board and president of that chapter endorsed a no vote. A concerted organizing drive for a “no” vote ensued, with SFSU, CSU Long Beach, and CSU Los Angeles as anchor campuses. The rank-and-file movement has held statewide town halls and organizing meetings supporting activist efforts on other campuses.
Through concerted committee work, the group has produced social media content and other publicity, drafted emails to faculty, and collectively generated talking points. In addition to advocating that the agreement be voted down, the movement is building to work toward greater union democracy, whichever way the vote goes.
In the CFA, chapter executive boards are elected, with representatives for tenure-track faculty and lecturers from multiple departments. However, this is the only election that union members participate in. The bargaining team is appointed by the union president. The union’s general assembly is delegated from the executive boards.
In a democratic gesture, the union had embraced “open bargaining,” in which members could attend, in person or via Zoom, bargaining sessions with management. But there was no open bargaining on January 22.
CFA’s rationale for the sudden and disappointing agreement was that they were not confident that faculty were up for a longer strike, that Monday represented “peak power,” and that what the Chancellor brought to the bargaining table that evening was absolutely the best that could be won.
Anyone involved in the labor movement knows, however, that the first day of a strike does not represent “peak power.” As Wiegley put it,
This idea that the longer you’re on strike, the weaker you are is just absurd. I guarantee you that the deal that the Writers’ Guild got after three or four months of striking was stronger than whatever the hell was offered on the first day. This is kind of like a weird game of poker. If you have a hand and you want the other side to fold quickly, you don’t gradually escalate your bets. You don’t put in little dollars here, little dollars there. You just bet a massive amount and then the person just has to fold unless they’ve totally got you beat, and I don’t think we were totally beat. So we have played this game entirely wrong.
In the context of massively successful academic strikes over the past 18 months, a longer strike—and, as some faculty argued for, an indefinite one—could have generated increasing pressure on the system to give more. The fact that the system’s team came to the table immediately after Monday’s strike is an indication that they were feeling the pressure. Turning up the heat would have been the logical next step.
The strike had massive major media support and the endorsement of a growing number of politicians (including Bernie Sanders) at both state and national levels. Members of the Board of Trustees were indicating that they would break with the Chancellor. And thousands of faculty were out on the picket lines. Many members believe, in Hidalgo’s words, “we could have gotten more if we had kept striking.”
Wiegley thinks that this abortive strike sends a damaging message in the long term:
Here’s what we did this time. They came to us and they said, take it or leave it. So we had to take it? I’m like, no, you just screwed yourself. Now we will never be able to fight for a good contract until we have an open-ended long strike that lasts months because they know they can always just tell us, take it or leave it, and we will take it. That’s the position it put us in. We were ready to demonstrate our power as a striking union. And they took that away from us.
Since the agreement, union leaders have been pressing hard for a yes vote in local and statewide town halls. While they have access to lists of all union faculty, the no-vote campaign has no such resources, and information is spreading by word of mouth. The union is using email lists to campaign hard for the agreement while no-vote organizers rely on personal conversations and word-of-mouth.
No-vote organizers are urging members to actually read the agreement before voting. Wiegley said,
I think the biggest message that I would like to see put out to readers and to all of the members is: Really read the tentative agreement, look for the loopholes and all of the conditionality that exists there. Be informed about what you’re voting for, about how it affects you and the other people that were supposed to be represented here.
And, he added, “Be careful about what the union is telling you. That’s a propaganda machine.”
The CFA is using mass emails and texts to whip up a vote in favor of the agreement. But there is considerable energy behind the vote-no effort and whole campuses are likely to come out against the agreement. The entire executive board, including the chapter president, at San Francisco State, committed to a no-vote and appealed to CFA leadership for a fair hearing:
We the undersigned union organizers of CFA-SFSU write to express our commitment to an egalitarian union democracy and an equal commitment to the Anti-Racist and Social Justice goals of our union. We request that the statewide resources of our union, paid by members’ union dues, be restricted to impartial communications and processes related to the ratification vote on the Tentative Agreement (TA). We see this as an essential step in restoring trust pursuant to the abrupt demobilization of the strike without consultation with the members. We have been sincerely delighted by the embrace of open bargaining as a step toward the broader open-bargaining principles followed by democratic, fighting unions that win big for their members. The abandonment of these principles at the height of our power has demoralized rank-and-file members and broken trust. A scrupulous commitment to neutral communications and equal time for proponents of YES and NO perspectives is essential to restore trust, ensure that members will accept election results regardless of the outcome, and foster reconciliation and unity.
At Long Beach, San Jose State University, and elsewhere, the rank-and-file effort is mobilizing faculty through parallel town hall meetings. Hidalgo commented,
There are two groups of people organizing two sets of town halls, and I’ve been on all of them. You know what? We’re viscerally upset and angry that we’re not striking still, that we didn’t get anything close to what we had asked for, what our demands were. We had so many students out there with us.
Activists see this process and developing infrastructure for longer-term efforts to bring the rank-and-file into leadership in the union. Long Beach professor May Lin was active in the CFA Contract Action Team in the run-up to the strike. With Hidalgo, Lin is part of a collective of Cal State Long Beach rank-and-file CFA members. Lin said,
There’s this statewide leadership that makes decisions, and the process itself is undemocratic. And we have all these people who feel alienated from it, who were understandably enraged. On campus, faculty had already been building networks and connections around leftist organizing, especially with faculty of color. After what went down [on] Monday, we were able to build on those communities.
Regardless of the outcome of the vote on the agreement, there is significant momentum for a campaign to reform the union to make it more democratic and representative of the faculty’s interests. Wiegley explained,
The tentative agreement is bad. That’s a problem in itself. But then you recognize that there’s an underlying fundamental problem that needs to change, which is the structure of the union. The bargaining team and the strategy team should be elected. By us. Many of us are recognizing that. You know, this is not a very democratic union in the sense of rank-and-file democracy. And then you start getting more people into this group, not just the vote no group, but a bigger group with a higher critical mass of people saying, things have to change.
Activists understand that the movement for union democracy is the only check against the neoliberal takeover of our universities. One outcome of austerity budgets is the growth in the ranks of part-time contingent lecturers, who now teach more than seventy percent of Cal State students. As Hidalgo put it,
The real enemy is the neoliberal upside-down world where the presidents and everybody at the top are making obscene amounts of money and none of it trickles down. The real criminal is Ronald Reagan (governor from 1967-75) for charging tuition in the first place when the master plan of California says public colleges should be tuition-free for students. So structural capitalism is a big problem, obviously, because we wouldn’t be in this neoliberal mess. The real problem is the neoliberal structure of a public education system where we’re always fighting for crumbs at the bottom and where it’s possible to have such a stratified workforce where you can have people literally with the same degrees and the same credentials, the same CVs, getting paid so much less. We’re the Uber drivers of higher ed.
The no-vote activists have a sense of what’s ahead and the role a significant no-vote could have on the union. Magdalena said,
What I want to see is the vote no to pass. And then all of the things to democratize the union. I absolutely believe in the people that I’m working with on these various campaigns. So whatever that means—changing the board of directors, getting more people on the voting body. And to get a different bargaining team for sure and to get a different structure in place. It’s not about getting a different president or a different leader.
“But,” she concluded, “This could be a catalyst.”
Opinions expressed in signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Tempest Collective. For more information, see “About Tempest Collective.”
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Gary Holloway has been an active member of United Steelworkers Local 675 for more than 30 years.
Dana Cloud is a Tempest Collective member and scholar of Marxism, popular culture, and social movements currently teaching at California State University, Fullerton.