A One-Day Strike Win for Academic Workers in the California State University System: What Does the New CSU Deal Mean for Our Colleagues Across the State?

By AFT Political Action VP, Jim Miller

One of the bright spots in Project Censored’s list of underreported news stories from last year was the fact that unions have been winning more than 70% of certification elections nationally. That cheering new reality doesn’t immediately reverse decades of decline in terms of union density, but it is, in fact, true that labor has been riding a continuing wave of positive momentum of late. The most recent example of this was provided by academic workers in the California State University system who were able to reach a tentative agreement after only one day of a strike that had been planned as a week-long action.

As the Guardian reported, “California State University faculty members reached a tentative contract agreement with the university system, after nearly 30,000 professors, librarians, coaches and other workers struck at the nation’s largest public university system.”

This kind of solidarity across professional lines is refreshing to see as it is a distinct change from my time as a graduate student at San Diego State back in the early nineties when much of the activism against draconian budget cuts was driven by students rather than the unions with some (but not all) faculty being loathe to join our ranks. A number of the California Faculty Association (CFA) representatives I spoke with during that period even discouraged some of my fellow graduate students and me from organizing our own union. Today it appears that that defeatist attitude no long holds sway, and that the status of lower tier workers has become part of the equation for CFA.

CFA leadership praised the deal that, while not delivering the 12% pay increase they were demanding, still did a lot to raise the floor. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Charles Toombs, president of the California Faculty Assn., said raising minimum pay for the lowest-paid instructors, who make up more than half of the union’s 29,000 members, was a “massive and historic” win. He also touted the 10% general raise over two years and other benefits such as extended parental leave, union support dealing with police and more access to gender-inclusive restrooms and lactation spaces.

Others in CFA leadership called the deal “transformational” and hailed it as a historic win.

Nonetheless, as with the recent UC Strike, not everyone is happy with the result. In an Inside Higher Ed piece on the tentative deal, Professor San Hea Kil of San Jose State argued that CFA folded too soon:

“It fails on social justice principles that we demanded,” Kil said, referring to the parental leave and counselor provisions [that were not included]. “It doesn’t meet our needs in this new neoliberal economy, and we really need to stick up for ourselves and stand in solidarity with other faculty and vote no.”

Ultimately, the faculty vote will determine whether a majority of the membership accepts the deal, but it should be noted that having some of the rank-and-file pushing for more than they got is not necessarily a bad thing for a union and could provide more energy for gains in future rounds of negotiations.

Some outside observers, like Ken Jacobs of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, lauded the CFA deal as a victory overall, observing that, “The union’s message — that strikes work — I think was spot on. Well-organized strikes with high participation have an impact.”

Given the fact that when I was a part-time faculty member at SDSU in the late nineties after I got my Ph.D. it was hard to even imagine CFA striking, I would tend to agree with Jacobs that this deal represents a significant step in the right direction for a union without a rich history of direct action.

Here’s hoping that they keep building solidarity and union power going forward.

In Solidarity,
Jim Miller
AFT Guild Political Action VP

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