‘Strike School’ in Session: California Faculty Association Prepares for April Strike
March 23, 2016
By James Anderson
The Board for the California Faculty Association, the union representing some 23,000 professors, lecturers and other educators across the California State University system, passed a resolution on February 5 to authorize a strike across all 23 CSU campuses on April 13-15 and April 18-19. To prepare to shut down school those five days this spring, the CFA held a ‘Strike School’ session on the California State University San Marcos campus in early February.
The Strike School featured several CFA officers teaching and learning from their fellow faculty about what to expect should the five-day strike take place if the union and CSU management reach the end of the statutory process without an agreement. The Strike School is just one event in the union’s ongoing “Fight for Five” campaign that has been underway since last summer when the CSU management rejected the CFA’s proposals for a five percent raise for all faculty and for a 2.65 percent service salary increase for those eligible.
Darel Engen, the CFA chapter president at CSUSM, told Strike School students – some 50 plus faculty who crowded into CSUSM’s University Hall 440 February 9 – the five percent is actually “restoration of lost pay,” a recouping of the 11 percent raise faculty were unable to garner back in 2006.
The five day strike, he said, was chosen in lieu of withholding of labor indefinitely and instead of a strike specified for a shorter period of time, like one day or two, not only because it echoes the Fight for Five rallying cry. The choice was intended to be strategic, Engen explained, as the action should show the university the union is serious without derailing students’ plans to graduate in May. It also enables faculty to “keep something in reserve,” Engen added, so that another action could take place during the fall semester if necessary.
Salary negotiations – or, more accurately, lack thereof – have obliged the union to put such options on the table.
A series of studies conducted last year by the CFA, titled “Race to the Bottom,” show CSU faculty are paid less than their university peers throughout the state. The studies illustrate how both fees charged students and administrative salaries have increased while faculty pay has stagnated.
A FAQ sheet distributed during the Strike School on the San Marcos campus reiterated that the recession following the global financial crash of 2007-09 never ended for CSU faculty.
“Our salaries have been flat and have not kept up with inflation,” the sheet circulating among faculty stated. “When times were bad we tightened our belts, and now that times are good” – the university was recently in receipt of a $97 million budget augmentation – “we’re asked to continue to wait.”
Bargaining reached an impasse in July 2015 and mediation started in August. Chancellor Timothy White and his management team have continually pushed – and refused to offer more then – a two percent raise. Faculty responded with their “Two is Tiny—Fight for Five” initiative. They also made efforts to “Tell Tim!” with faculty sharing a few veritable horror stories about the abuse inflicted upon higher education when educators are underpaid, forced to work second jobs just to survive in a state with one of the highest costs of living in the country.
According to George Diehr, professor emeritus of management science at California State University San Marcos, faculty compensation at the university has declined from 53.9 percent to just 49.7 in the last 16 years. Since 1999-2000, Diehr wrote in his “Why Faculty Should Strike” statement emailed to CSUSM professors, the university’s total spending on instruction fell from 46.5 percent to 45.1 percent of total expenditures – a percentage decline equal to about $71 million. The amount is less than the difference between the five percent salary increase the CFA is fighting for versus the two percent the Chancellor is offering.
Professors at all California State University campuses have been affected by the trends Diehr documented.
Across the state of California, in fact, educators are unable to afford to teach where they work. Rumors within higher education circles suggest that among the 25,000 homeless persons in Los Angeles and among the 10,000 homeless in San Francisco, a city with a population of 800,000, a growing number are adjunct professors.
At CSUSM, near San Diego, a new adjunct can receive a paycheck of $700 per class per month, while one bedroom apartment rental rates in the area routinely run more than $1,500/month before utilities.
Under these conditions, mediation between CSU management and the CFA ended shortly after the 1,000-strong rally outside of the Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach on November 17.
“A mediator who really does try to push sides to come to an agreement really through up his hands,” Kathy Sheffield, CFA director of representation and resident legal expert, informed faculty when Strike School was in session.
In late November, the two sides shifted to factfinding, a process wherein both sides present evidence to a panel composed of a third party and a representative of each team. Per higher education labor relations law in California, a third party will later release a factfinding report outlining a path to settlement.
The union held Strike School on February 9 and 10 in case a settlement cannot be reached before April 13.
An estimated 400,000 students will be affected if faculty on the 23 CSU campuses hit the picket lines for five days in mid-April. Although, as students stress with slogans like “faculty teaching conditions are student learning conditions,” their learning is already adversely affected by low faculty salaries and the added pressures that puts on professors.
Students for Quality Education, a student group vocally opposed to both tuition increases and inadequate faculty salaries on CSU campuses, mobilized peers to attend the November 17 rally at the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach. As their “Disorientation Guide” to the CSU system notes, the trustees have historically come from wealthy sectors of society. The Board of Trustees are appointed by the governor – not elected like school board members or their community college counterparts – and as the SQE pamphlet points out, there has yet to be a fee increase or raise for executives the 24 voting members have not approved.
An email sent from CSU San Marcos President Karen Haynes to the university community on February 9 stated that the administration’s “primary goal will be to ensure that our University remains open and student instruction and other student services continue. We remain committed to assuring progress to your degree as scheduled.”
Another FAQ sheet distributed during Strike School designed to help faculty address student concerns suggests one response to questions from students about how the strike will impact their ability to graduate on time would point out that Chancellor White and the Board of Trustees could put an end to these concerns by giving faculty the five percent raise after several years of little-to-no increases in pay. Many students – like previous Dean’s List scholar Emilee Ramirez and Karen Guzman, who has experience organizing other actions on CSUSM campus – have already committed to solidarity with faculty should they be on the picket lines April 13.
A document endorsed by CFA officers, “How to Answer Common Student Questions about the Strike,” suggests instructors inform their classes that faculty are asking “students support the strike by not coming to their classes on the strike days. Despite what President Haynes says, very few, if any, classes will be held on the strike days.”
Students and other allies, the document adds, are welcome to join faculty on the picket lines.
Student support and student-faculty solidarity has historically been decisive in higher education strikes.
Teachers and students together staged a protracted strike at San Francisco State College in 1968-69, which ended with the establishment of the first ethnic studies schools in the nation. When the Faculty Association at Southern Illinois University Carbondale went on strike in 2011, then-Chancellor Rita Cheng sent out a mass email admonishing the union that students “should not be used as unwilling pawns in the disagreement between the parties,” and students responded to the administration’s offensive strategic blunder with 800-strong marches through campus replete with chants like “We want our teachers back!”
Following the faculty Strike School, Cal State students hosted their own educational event March 17 on the San Marcos campus to inform their fellow scholars about their rights, explain what they can expect if the strike occurs and discuss how they can show solidarity with faculty on the picket lines. The Student Strike School featured a spoken-word performance about the faculty’s Fight for Five and a presentation from an ACLU representative regarding civil liberties on campus.
After the faculty’s Strike School, the CSUSM Academic Senate also passed a resolution in support of the CFA following multiple reports of administrators warning faculty about preparations for the strike. Administration also reportedly told professors that it is impermissible to even mention the strike in the classroom.
However, the Higher Education Employee-Employer Relations law in California protects union members’ right to participate in strike-related activities.
“A faculty unit employee,” Article 6 of the union’s collective bargaining agreement also affirms, “shall not suffer reprisals for participation in CFA activities,” which would include strike preparation.
In a recently released document containing “Important Information for Students,” the CSU management offered an alternative interpretation and stated that “faculty members cannot and should not use classroom time to discuss other issues related to the strike, unless such a discussion is directly relevant to the content of the course.”
In response, the Academic Senate of the California State University affirmed in early March “that the determination of the relevance of material to a particular class is the decision of the faculty teaching that class in the context of accepted pedagogical and disciplinary standards” – fundamentals of academic integrity, the resolution implied, university management should not forget.
In another resolution, AS 715-15, the Academic Senate averred their decision-making body “supports CFA’s call for a strike to take place on all 23 CSU campuses on April 13-15 and 18-19, if, at the conclusion of the fact-finding process, the Administration fails to come to an agreement with CFA on Faculty salary.”
In addition to Senate support, approximately 1.8 million unionized workers in the area have supported strike sanctions for the tentatively scheduled five-day shutdown of the CSU system, should it materialize. The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, a self-identifying “union of unions’ representing 135 affiliated labor groups and a quarter million working families in Southern California, approved strike sanctions to support faculty on San Diego and San Marcos campuses.
“Don’t take that sanction lightly,” said David Bradfield, CFA chair of representation, who teaches at Cal State Dominguez Hills and was active in the one-day strike on his campus back in 2011.
Bradfield, professor of music & digital media arts at CSUDH, explained to those attending the CFA Strike School that back in 2011 he had helped plan various “spectacles” or boisterous marches through campus, like one Dixie Land Band-themed surge, “but the campus was a ghost town.”
They eventually pivoted to bring the “spectacles” up front for the news cameras, but Bradfield shared a critical lesson he learned when they marched through the desolate campus playing pro-labor tunes.
“The message got out – don’t come to campus,” he recounted regarding the importance of doing preparatory and educational work before the strike actually occurs.
After short, professorial-style lectures from CFA officers during the Strike School, faculty asked questions, raised and allayed concerns with each other and discussed steps to take between now and April 13.
One counseling professional and CFA member said she was worried that many of her peers would be influenced by administrators calling it “unethical” for counselors to not show up for work when students require their services.
Sheffield fielded the question, calling it “a scare tactic” coming from well-paid academic higher-ups hitherto indifferent to the suffering experienced by underpaid counselors and ostensibly oblivious to how such suffering actually hurts students in the long run.
“They are degrading the profession of unionized counselors,” Sheffield said, adding that CSU management has no leg to stand on in terms of ethical decision-making.
Another professor at the Strike School suggested faculty conduct “teach-ins” leading up to and during the strike.
The “teach-in” tactic, a direct action pedagogy of civil disobedience, was used with some success by UAW Local 2865, the union representing graduate student workers across the University of California system, when they organized a strategic two-day strike in April 2014.
Engen, an associate professor in the history department who in addition to serving as CFA chapter president also drives more than an hour in a car without air conditioning to teach at CSUSM, stressed to those at the Strike School how much is on the line. The struggle led by the CFA, the largest faculty union in the most populous state in the nation, can either leave educators everywhere in a disempowered, defeated position if they lose the struggle. Or, if they win, it could propel faculty to the driver’s seat, wresting some authority away from where it has been concentrated within university management.
“We win this thing and turns the tide for the whole country,” he said.
James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He taught two media studies classes in the Department of Communication at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. He has been a member of several unions, including Graduate Assistants United, the California Faculty Association, UFCW Local 135, and the Industrial Workers of the World. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.