Mammoth Faculty Strike Looms

California State U. administration, professors' union at odds over pay and a range of other issues.
February 27, 2007

Many Californians know the concept behind rolling blackouts, most commonly seen during summer heat waves, in which communities go without power at different times in order to conserve energy while preventing a region-wide shutdown.

Students in the massive California State University system might soon need to familiarize themselves with another term: the rolling faculty walkout.

The union that represents roughly 24,000 Cal State instructors is planning to hold votes beginning in early March to determine whether to strike if its salary demands aren't met by the system's administration. The California Faculty Association says the faculty walkout, which would be the first of its kind in system history and potentially the most massive in the history of higher education, would likely take place this spring at different intervals across the 23-campus system to send a message to Cal State leaders while preventing a systemwide shutdown. The system enrolls some 400,000 students.

Negotiations between the union and the state system, which began nearly two years ago, are at an impasse. The current contract was already set to expire but has been extended through the negotiation process.

A third-party fact finder is working with the union and state system bargaining teams to recommend a new proposal by the middle of March. John Travis, president of the faculty association and a professor of political science at Humboldt State University, said the union is moving forward with its strike discussions despite the possibility of a deal. (A plurality of faculty "yes" votes is all that's needed to authorize the strike.) 

“Right now, it’s likely -- a better than 50 percent chance," Travis said of a faculty strike. "[The administration] has shown no movement for months and has provided essentially the same offer."

The sides disagree over what Cal State's faculty salary raise proposal really means. Cal State officials say the system's offer would amount to a 25 percent salary increase from 2006-7 to 2009-10. The faculty association argues that the deal would assure just a 15 percent across-the-board raise for all professors over the four years. Travis said the union is looking for what it calls a true 25 percent raise, for all its members, over four years.

The system's offer is beneficial for junior faculty who are eligible for "step raises" as part of the administration's package, but it doesn't work out for the majority of faculty members who aren't in that position, which is why the union's counter-proposal offers new step raises, according to Travis.

The union's offer also intends to provide more money to instructors who were hired at the same level and in the same department as their peers but who are paid less money because of when they were brought in, Travis said. He said the faculty association is upset that executive pay has skyrocketed at Cal State while faculty salaries haven't kept pace with inflation or the cost of living.

“The concern isn't just about raises here," Travis said. "This is a microcosm of the problems in the system and our dysfunctional salary structure."

Clara Potes-Fellow, a Cal State spokeswoman, said that the system's offer is "very generous" when compared with other industries in the state, and that the money can be used for either an across-the-board salary increase or for step increases.

She added that years marked by state employee salary freezes hampered Cal State's effort to keep pace with systems in other states. Both sides agree that Cal State instructors are compensated well below the national average -- although they disagree on how much below (the union says 18 percent and the system says 14 percent). Potes-Fellow said the system has always been below the national average in salary and above average in benefits packages.

The average salary of full-time, tenured professors is about $86,000 annually, according to CSU data. Associate professors make an average of $69,000 and assistant professors earn $58,000. About half the faculty members are temporary and earn roughly $43,000 per year.

Travis said if the faculty pay issue is settled, a deal between the two sides would likely be imminent. He said that while negotiations stalled on compensation, workload and tenure concerns are also paramount. 

Potes-Fellow said the strike discussion is premature. "The negotiation process hasn't been completed, and CSU is working hard to make the fact finding process work," she said.

Richard Boris, who heads the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, said that negotiations involving complex and large university systems are typically the most difficult to complete. He said the flashpoints in this discussion are the same as those in most negotiations.

"When you shed the external factors, which are the state and the culture specifics, the real issues are salaries and fairness to part- timers," Boris said. "These issues have been there for decades and are very contentious."

Boris said that negotiations become particularly "nasty" when state resources are thin and a system fails to hunt for adequate public money, which is the case in this situation. "Everyone's back is against the wall," he said.

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Elia Powers

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