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Battling the system: CSU faculty question both the union that represents them and the system they work within 

CSU San Marcos literature and writing studies lecturer Jennifer Kady Stanton has been teaching for more than 10 years. She currently lives in a 350-square-foot studio apartment with her daughter and makes $3,780 per month from the San Diego County university before taxes.

"I would love to put roots down in San Marcos, I would love to start committees, serve on committees, and start clubs. I would love to be there for my students every semester, and I can't," she told New Times. "It's very difficult when you're just constantly in survival mode, you know. I'm not saving for retirement; I'm not saving for emergencies."

Stanton's not alone in her situation. Faculty across the 23 schools in the CSU System are struggling, oftentimes needing to work side gigs or get second jobs in addition to the work they do for their respective universities just to make ends meet.

click to enlarge STRIKE BREAK After threatening a week-long strike earlier this year, California Faculty Association members completed one day of that protest because the union reached an agreement with the CSU—something not all faculty were satisfied with. - COVER PHOTO BY SAMANTHA HERRERA
  • Cover Photo By Samantha Herrera
  • STRIKE BREAK After threatening a week-long strike earlier this year, California Faculty Association members completed one day of that protest because the union reached an agreement with the CSU—something not all faculty were satisfied with.

When Stanton heard that her union—the California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents 29,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors, and coaches who teach and provide services to the CSU system's 485,000 students—was going to negotiate their contract with CSU management, she was ecstatic. But that slowly morphed into a feeling of betrayal as she watched the negotiating process. What she said she saw was a CFA that wasn't fighting for her.

Prior to working at CSU San Marcos, Stanton was a professor at San Diego State University and a member of the CFA. During negotiations between the CSU and the CFA for the 2014 to 2021 contract, Stanton said she felt like the union did nothing to enhance working conditions for lecturers. This ultimately led her to quit the union.

"When I started at San Marcos, I thought let's give this another try, and I was really happy to see that they were really pushing hard this time [on negotiations]," she said. "Then I find out once again, I'm not getting the floor increase that they're telling everybody lecturers are."

Since May 2023, the CFA had been bargaining with the CSU system over better working conditions related to workload, health, safety, parental leave, and salary for their 2022 to 2024 contract. Negotiations included a demand of a 12 percent pay raise, pay equity, and raising the floor for the CSU's lowest-paid faculty, as well as more manageable workloads that allow for more support and engagement with students; more counselors to improve student access to mental health services; expanding paid parental leave; accessible lactation and milk storage spaces for lactating faculty; safe gender-inclusive restrooms and changing rooms; and provisions for faculty interacting with university police on campus, according to previous New Times reporting.

Following the threat of a weeklong strike from Jan. 22 to 26, the CFA and CSU came to a tentative agreement on the first day—a 5 percent general salary increase retroactive to July 1, 2023, as well as another 5 percent increase beginning on July 1, 2024, (contingent on the system's budget); increased paid parental leave from six to 10 weeks; increased protection for faculty members who have dealings with police by ensuring a union rep is present during those interactions; and extending their contract one more year until 2025, according to the tentative agreement.

While this tentative agreement will raise the salary floor for the lowest-paid faculty, Stanton said the language is misleading, and many faculty members like herself won't receive the promised increase.

"The new people are going to get this huge raise, but the people who have been around for a while are not, and it's wildly unfair," she said. "So, when they say if you're a lecturer A or B and you're getting the floor increase, that's true for some, and it's not true for most."

Stanton isn't alone in feeling upset over the conditions that the CFA agreed to, and many faculty members believe that the CFA left the bargaining table too soon.

At the table

Negotiations with the CSU weren't easy, according to CSU Sacramento sociology professor and CFA Bargaining Chair Kevin Wehr. He said it felt as if the CSU representatives treated him and his colleagues in a condescending manner.

click to enlarge BARGAINING TABLE Kevin Wehr is a CSU Sacramento sociology professor and California Faculty Association bargaining chair who said negotiating with CSU management isn't easy. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KEVIN WEHR
  • Photo Courtesy Of Kevin Wehr
  • BARGAINING TABLE Kevin Wehr is a CSU Sacramento sociology professor and California Faculty Association bargaining chair who said negotiating with CSU management isn't easy.

"Before the strike, it was really quite frustrating. We made ourselves available starting May 1 of last year. We asked management when they would like to meet and they didn't respond for weeks and weeks, and finally we said we're available on these days over summer," he said. "Forty-four days we gave them, and, of those, they said they will only be available for four meetings."

Wehr said it became apparent that CSU management wasn't interested in negotiating salary with the CFA and that the CSU administration was trying to draw out the process for as long as possible. Frustrated, the CFA decided to declare an impasse.

"Declaring impasse is a point in the statutory process which requires both parties to meet and bargain in good faith, and if a solution can't be found, one or both sides can declare an impasse," he said. "The public employees relations board will make a determination if impasse is reached, which they did in our case, then we can move forward to a neutral third party for mediation."

Following mediation in the fall of 2023, the CFA held its first round of one-day strikes at Cal Poly Pomona, San Francisco State, CSU Los Angeles, and Sacramento State between Dec. 4 and Dec. 7, 2023. Following those strikes, Wehr said he reached out to CSU negotiators, gave them his cellphone number, and told them he was always available. No one ever called.

"We met with them in the second week of December, the 12th, just to check in and see if anything changed," he said. "Nothing really changed. They still didn't want to talk about any of our issues other than money and parking, but we had several other issues to talk about, like workload, parental leave, health, and safety. They just wouldn't make any movement on these issues."

CSU representatives returned to the bargaining table in January and offered the CFA a 15 percent raise over three years (a 5 percent raise each year), an additional two weeks of paid parental leave, and acceptance of 13 of an independent factfinder's 15 recommendations, including gender-inclusive restrooms and increasing department chair pay. This offer prompted CFA threats of a weeklong strike from Jan. 22 to 26.

click to enlarge DISCOURAGED In 2022, all 23 CSU campus presidents, including Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, received a 7 percent raise after a two-year freeze on compensation. In 2024, Cal Poly CFA members protested outside the campus administration building to bring awareness to low pay and unjust working conditions. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DISCOURAGED In 2022, all 23 CSU campus presidents, including Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, received a 7 percent raise after a two-year freeze on compensation. In 2024, Cal Poly CFA members protested outside the campus administration building to bring awareness to low pay and unjust working conditions.

"We did meet with management again and scheduled four days the second week of January to see if they wanted to make any movement and avert the strike. We actually passed proposals that were intended to show that we were willing to move, and we weren't just sticking to our initial proposals," he said. "They walked out 30 minutes into the second day, so that pretty much guaranteed our strike."

CSU Director of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs Amy Bentley-Smith told New Times that she can't speak about what occurred in the December meeting, but she wanted to stress that the parties did end up reaching an agreement.

"The California State University respects the principles of collective bargaining and commits to bargaining in good faith with our union leaders," she said. "While we did not reach agreement in December, the CSU remained open to returning to the bargaining table and was pleased to do so in January."

Split decisions

CFA members across all 23 CSU campuses took to the picket lines on Jan. 22 for what was expected to be a weeklong strike; however, CFA leadership and CSU management reached a tentative agreement that day.

Stanton said she found out the strike was over on Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. and had only a few hours to gather material for her 8 a.m. class—a class she wasn't expecting to teach that week.

"The first thing a student said to me when they walked in was, 'Wow, you guys only made it one day,'" she said.

While CFA and CSU management reached a tentative agreement, it was up to CFA members to vote in favor of and ratify it.

"If we vote this down and strike again, I don't know that we're going to have the support we had the first time," Stanton said. "I think CFA dropped the ball on this; there shouldn't have been an end date to the strike."

Faculty across the CSU system agreed with Stanton, claiming they felt hoodwinked by false promises of better working conditions from the CFA.

A CSU Los Angeles computer science lecturer (New Times agreed not to use her name due to retaliation concerns) said she felt heartbroken, betrayed, and confused by the union.

click to enlarge BETTER WORKING CONDITIONS On Jan. 22, faculty at Cal Poly and across all 23 CSU campuses took to the picket lines to strike for better working conditions on their new contract with the CSU. - FILE PHOTO BY SAMANTHA HERRERA
  • File Photo By Samantha Herrera
  • BETTER WORKING CONDITIONS On Jan. 22, faculty at Cal Poly and across all 23 CSU campuses took to the picket lines to strike for better working conditions on their new contract with the CSU.

"I attended meetings with members of the bargaining team, and then I would go to my department meetings and relay the information I got at the union meetings," she said. "I was convincing people to sign their strike cards, and I was convincing people and telling them that I talked to members of the bargaining team, and they said they will not settle for less than what we wanted."

The computer science professor said when she heard that the union agreed to the tentative agreement on Jan. 22, she and her fellow colleagues who were on the picket line in LA were confused about why the union decided to end the strike. They were left in the dark.

Cal Poly SLO assistant professor and English advisor Shanae Aurora Martinez told New Times that CFA members had complained in the past about deals being made behind closed doors. This time around, though, Martinez said, it seemed like leadership was doing a great job at increasing transparency throughout the bargaining process. They had representatives from each campus attending the bargaining meetings and participating directly in the negotiation process, something that was missing during previous negotiations. But that didn't last.

"After the first day of the strike, that line of communication was closed off, and people who had been involved in open bargaining from our campus and across the CSU were not consulted before this deal was taken," she said. "It was a huge exercise of abuse of member power."

CFA Bargaining Chair Wehr said that everything happened fast. Around 4 p.m. on Jan. 22, CSU negotiators called him and said they were ready to talk. CSU's proposals made him feel as if the CFA had made progress on previous issues.

"It was a good enough offer that I took it through our consultation process with the elected officers, with the bargaining team, with an important committee to contract development, and bargaining strategy committee, and all of those groups came to consensus that, in fact, we should take this to the board of directors," he said. "The board of directors are the elected group that is empowered to call the strike and to call off the strike."

San Francisco State broadcast and electronic communication arts professor Marie Drennan told New Times that faculty members were robbed of their chance to help the bargaining team make a decision of this caliber.

"There was just a strong sense among a lot of faculty that the bargaining team had kind of abandoned the open bargaining model that we had recently started using," she said. "We voted to go on strike, but we never had the chance to vote to end the strike."

The CFA board of directors agreed to the tentative agreement. On Feb. 19, 76 percent of CFA members voted to pass the tentative agreement.

"We thank members for their solidarity, debate, and courage to press CSU management for better faculty working and student learning conditions, especially everyone who worked tirelessly organizing the successful strikes and joining the picket lines," CFA President Charles Toombs said in a press release.

Although the tentative agreement passed, some CFA union members are still unsatisfied with what they're going to receive.

"You know, [CSU executives] get these huge top 1 percent salaries when lecturers are at the bottom of the line and hold the university up by working five different jobs," Stanton from CSU San Marcos said. "We're running all over the state just to try and stay out of living out of their car, and some of them aren't even succeeding with that."

The pay scale

In 2023, the CSU system hired its 11th chancellor, Mildred Garcia. She receives an annual salary of $795,000, annual deferred compensation of $80,000, an annual housing allowance of $96,000, and an auto allowance of $1,000 per month. In total, her yearly salary is almost $1 million, the highest that any CSU chancellor has ever had.

click to enlarge UNDER $1 MILLION Mildred Garcia is the 11th chancellor of the CSU system and makes a yearly salary of almost $1 million, the most any CSU chancellor has ever made. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HAZEL KELLY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Hazel Kelly
  • UNDER $1 MILLION Mildred Garcia is the 11th chancellor of the CSU system and makes a yearly salary of almost $1 million, the most any CSU chancellor has ever made.

President Joe Biden makes an annual salary of $400,000 plus an extra expense allowance of $50,000 a year, a $100,000 nontaxable account, and $19,000 for entertainment. Garcia is making almost double that.

Manager of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs for the CSU Chancellor's Office Hazel Kelly said that being the leader of the largest four-year public university system in the nation is a unique role with no comparison, so pay should match.

"That said, the chancellor's salary is still well below what several other public university system leaders make," she said.

Stanton said she understands that the CSU is trying to ensure that the chancellor's pay is equal to that of similar positions. What these systems are failing to realize, she said, is that none of them should be making that much.

"They are all wrong. Just because everyone else is doing it too doesn't make it right," she said. "This is taxpayer money, and they're all wrong. They're operating like CEOs for taxpayer-funded public universities that are required to operate as close to free as possible by law, and instead they're acting like CEOs are."

In 2022, all 23 campus presidents received a 7 percent raise. CSU presidents make between $250,000 and $550,000 annually.

Kelly said presidents received a 7 percent raise after a two-year freeze on compensation between 2020 and 2022, which addressed budget uncertainties and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The CSU board also approved equity increases based on market factors for 14 campus presidents who had three-year reviews between 2019 and 2022. This equity adjustment, which is done periodically, is a policy designed to ensure that salaries paid to campus presidents align with the median salaries of presidents paid by peer universities," she said. "Even with those equity pay adjustments, many presidents remain below their peer group median salary."

Kelly said one of the CSU's goals is to attract and retain the most highly qualified individuals to serve as faculty, staff, and executives, whose knowledge, experience, and contributions can advance the university system's mission.

San Francisco State professor Drennan said it's appalling how CSU executives have abandoned their mission of ensuring the universities are accessible for working-class families.

"It's now a money-making machine, and ... it exists to extract money from the working class in the form of tuition and funnel it upwards into the salaries of very overpaid campus presidents and the chancellor and upper executive management and admin," she said.

Chancellor Garcia received a 27 percent pay raise over previous Chancellor Joseph Castro, who served from 2021 to 2022; CSU presidents received a 7 percent raise in 2022; and faculty have received regular raises over the last five years.

"With the agreement now ratified with the faculty union for a 10 percent salary increase over two years, the CSU has provided faculty with salary increases every year, with the exception of 2020-21 when the state reduced the CSU budget as a result of the global COVID pandemic," Kelly said.

In the 2018-19 school year, faculty received a 3.5 percent general salary increase; 2019-20, faculty received a 2.5 percent increase; 2021-22, faculty received a 4 percent increase; 2022-23, faculty received a 3 percent increase; and 2023-24, faculty received a 5 percent salary increase retroactive to July 2023 and a 5 percent salary increase for 2024-25 that goes into effect in July 2024, Kelly said.

CFA Bargaining Chair Wehr said while it's easy for faculty to blame the union for inadequate bargaining, they should shift those feelings to CSU management.

"It's very difficult to get to the chancellor. She hides behind closed doors, she's not available, she's not public, and in the very limited public forum at the CSU board of trustees, you're limited to a one-minute public comment," he said. "So, of course, folks are expressing their dissent, and I think it's better placed at management rather than the union.

"I try to tell people that all the time when they complain about the union. Look, we're trying our best, the problem is management, and if you think that we can do better, then you should get involved and help us do better."

Fighting for democracy

Stanton, Drennan, Martinez, and the CSU LA computer science lecturer all believe that unions are good but that the CFA needs change.

"There's just questions about whether or not our union is really functioning democratically, and many of us feel that it is not," Drennan said.

Since Jan. 22, faculty across the campuses have questioned how the CFA is run. Voteitdown.org aims to provide faculty with the opportunity to fight for democratization of the CFA.

"We are a broad coalition of CFA rank-and-file members and chapter officers. Our goal is to make our union stronger by empowering members in bargaining and decision-making. Here you will find information, resources, action items, and community. Join us," the website reads.

Drennan said faculty are working on a petition to start changing various CFA bylaws to allow for an elected bargaining team rather than an appointed one.

"It was shocking to many of us and really demoralizing to have the strike end so fast, but it did shed a lot of light on some things that we need to change. Bigger, deeper changes than just this particular strike end," she said. "So, we're looking at getting a petition going right now, that we can bring to the spring assembly and try to get the bargaining team elected."

Over the past decade, Wehr said, the CFA has really made an effort to be more transparent and democratic. This most recent bargaining session was the most open one yet.

"With any large, complex organization, there's a lot of people who are just fine with things as they are and felt like there was a good resolution. Obviously with more than 75 percent voting in favor of accepting the [tentative agreement], you know a huge super majority of folks are happy with it," he said. "But there's some people who wish there was more transparency, that there was more democracy."

Wehr said the CFA has heard the complaints and is actively trying to improve its leadership system.

"The officers of the union have heard it, and they're processing it," he said. "They're thinking about what alternatives or changes are out there that we should look at for models and see if there's some change for us to increase and keep moving on this process." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Samantha Herrera at [email protected].

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