California State University Faculty Resists Attacks

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An unexpected event happened in the California State University (CSU) system that might well have ramifications for higher public education across the nation. After a year of negotiations, the board of the faculty union, the California Faculty Association (CFA), sent a Tentative Agreement to the faculty for ratification-only to get it back with a resounding “no!”

Fifty-seven percent of the faculty voted against it, while 43 percent gave it a “yes” vote. It is particularly instructive to note that on almost all campuses that rejected it, most union members came out for the vote. However, on most of those campuses supporting ratification, less than one-half of the union members bothered to vote.

On one of these campuses, faculty members were led to believe that their only choice was ratification-or the chancellor would impose something much worse on them. No one told them that the union could reject the agreement and push for continued negotiations.

This agreement was being touted by some of the top officers in the union as “an improvement over the previous contract.” In fact, it represented a devastating setback, and most of the faculty, to its credit, figured this out.

The worst element in the Agreement concerned a significant increase in the amount of salary increases that would be awarded through a so-called “merit pay” program. Salaries of faculty in the CSU system lag a full 11 percent behind the salaries of faculty at comparable institutions; merit pay, which causes workers to compete against one another for a raise, has historically proven to keep all salaries low.

But merit pay programs have an even more insidious role to play. By pitting faculty members against one another, their relations are poisoned and they lose all sense of solidarity, thereby becoming incapable of combating further incursions into their working conditions.

In the case of CSU, as with other public universities, the “powers that be” have even worse proposals lurking in the shadows. For example, the CSU chancellor, Charles Reed, has gone on record favoring the elimination of tenure. After all, the university would save considerable money if it could replace highly qualified senior faculty by cheap part-timers.

Another cost-saving device that the administration is eager to implement is a vast increase in on-line “education,” where students would no longer sit in a classroom but at a computer terminal in order to take a course. Both of these proposals, if implemented, would seriously undermine the quality of education provided to students.

In addition to the merit pay program, the Tentative Agreement had virtually nothing of substance to offer the part-time faculty, who constitute almost 50 percent of all faculty and who are severely exploited. Part-timers have no job security and most lack health benefits. One complained that she made more money per hour cleaning houses than teaching at San Francisco State University.

This Tentative Agreement was brokered by union officials who have become increasingly unpopular among the faculty ranks. These same people negotiated the two previous contracts, both containing big losses, so that the faculty has been infected by a sense of demoralization and membership has declined.

Employing a suicidal strategy, these misleaders have concentrated their efforts on electing Democrats to office, especially California Gov. Gray Davis, who was heralded as nothing short of the faculty’s savior. Almost no attempt was made to mobilize the faculty to defend its own interests.

Once Gray Davis was elected and the faculty saw that he did nothing for them during negotiations, the instructors’ sense of betrayal swelled. When Gray Davis went so far as to appoint Barry Munitz to head up his transitional team-Munitz was the previous chancellor of CSU and the arch-enemy of the faculty union-faculty bitterness metamorphosed into open anger directed at the union officials responsible for relying on Davis.

The faculty is surely opposing powerful interests in this defensive campaign. Due to heightened global competition, corporations have felt obliged throughout the world to press for decreased expenditures on public education; they would benefit immediately in two ways:

1) Since corporations contribute to public education through the tax system, they can demand more tax relief when fewer dollars are required for education.

2) If public universities succeed in significantly lowering costs so that more students can be educated with less money, not only will the quality of education these students receive be lowered, but their starting salary when they enter the labor market will be lowered as well.

These attacks on education have met with strong resistance throughout the world. By staging mass demonstrations, students in France, Germany, and even Israel have succeeded in turning the tide, forcing governments to augment education budgets.The faculty at CSU can also prevail, but not without cultivating allies.

Faculty members must first reach out to their students who have an obvious stake in defending quality education. Then, by means of the students, who number over 300,000, and through the union movement, the faculty must take its cause to the working public.

In polls, the public has indicated strong support for quality, public education. Moreover, the UPS strike demonstrated that the public is firmly opposed to the abuse of part-time workers.

If the faculty takes these steps and wins this struggle, it will provide an inspiring example to students and faculty across the nation who are facing these and similar attacks.

Ann Robertson is a part-time instructor at San Francisco State University.

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