Cal State students, the “Fight for Five” strike is about you, too

An op-ed by a CSULA alumnus

STRIKE warning at California State University, Los Angeles, April 5, 2016. [Photo by author]

Author’s note: I finished writing this op-ed on April 7, 2016, days away from the start of the universitywide “Fight for Five” strike. Later that day, the California Faculty Association and California State University agreed to resume negotiations and the strike was suspended pending the outcome. Both sides have announced a tentative agreement which includes a 10.5% raise over 3 years. The proposed contract now goes to union members for ratification. The university’s Board of Trustees must also approve it. While I’m thrilled that unionized faculty and staff may finally get the fair wages they’ve been fighting for, I remain outraged by the years of disinvestment from university management. In the end, students were the worst affected victims. We’re still a long way from final contract approval, and both union members and trustees can reject the contract. So, I’m moving this unaltered op-ed forward into public light.

The impending “Fight for Five” strike is right, just, and long overdue. For years, Cal State’s unionized professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches have endured paralyzed wages and mounting budget cuts while witnessing management salaries skyrocket. Contract negotiations between the California Faculty Association (CFA) labor union and California State University (CSU) management collapsed last year. Despite internal research and an independent fact finding report supporting CFA’s proposed 5% raise and step increases, CSU executives continue to reject the proposal. Instead they’ve pushed a 2% raise that’s inconsistent with cost of living increases and industry standards. With collective bargaining options exhausted and no agreement in hand, CFA’s remaining option is to strike.

A work stoppage at all 23 universities planned for April 13 to 19 sends a clear message to obstinate CSU executives: continuing disinvestment in faculty and staff will be tolerated no longer. Ultimately such disinvestment shortchanges students and diminishes the quality of affordable higher education the CSU system was designed to provide.

As a proud alumnus of CSULA, I’m asking our current students to understand this important facet of the strike, even if you don’t necessarily agree. I’m aware some of you feel that it’s not fair to miss classes because of the strike, that it undercuts your education. I understand and fully appreciate your concerns. Know that your education is what this fight is about! I’m asking you to see this organized labor action from the side of the aggrieved. For if CSU’s disinvestment campaign continues, there could very well be no full-time professors or professional staff left to keep our university up and running.

“Fight for Five” strike lit. [Photo by author]

Allow me to offer you these reasons why I believe it’s now necessary to strike.

First, pay disparity between CSU management and faculty and staff is simply obscene. Salary data culled from public sources highlights the widening gulf between administrators’ pay versus salaries of professors and staff. In 2014, CSU administrators on average made $106k per year whereas full-time professors earned an average $65k annually — nearly half of management employees. According to data from 2004–2014, the CSU system’s expenditures on management salaries rose by 48% — faster than the CSU’s 33% budget growth overall, and nearly double the 25% increase in faculty salaries during those ten years.

Compensation disparity is even more shocking when you look at CSU presidential pay in the 23-campus system. A review of 2014 data disclosed that the lowest paid president earned $270,000 at CSU Stanislaus, while the president of San Diego State University hauled home an astonishing $400,000 annual salary that included $50,000 in “supplemental pay.” According to CFA’s data, our own CSULA President William A. Covino pulled in a cushy $299,000 salary in 2014. When you factor in benefits and gratuities such as relocation expenses, car allowances, paid travel, private foundation salary “augmentations,” and transitional leave pay (AKA: guaranteed one year’s pay after retirement), a CSU president’s total compensation bloats by even higher six figures.

And what have we gotten for that at CSULA? Students object to President Covino’s penchant for cancelling events deemed controversial, the latest example being his embarrassing and failed last-minute effort to stop conservative author Ben Shapiro’s guest lecture in February 2016. Covino’s mishandling of the Shapiro talk only exacerbated tensions among supporters and protesters on campus. The ham-fisted cancellation attempt earned Covino a reprimand letter from L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich for showing “a lack of commitment to intellectual diversity and free speech.” And just weeks ago, in response to Covino’s “mismanagement and safety concerns,” CSULA’s Associated Students, Inc. issued a vote of no confidence with a call for the president’s resignation. In other words, money not well spent.

CSULA President William A. Covino’s salary history through 2014. [Data courtesy of Transparent California]

Second, while faculty and professional staff clearly love working with students, we cannot expect them to work at unreasonably low wages. They have families to support, bills to pay, healthcare to purchase, and groceries to buy, just like you and me. To offer anything less is unfair and demoralizing. Yet CSU management continues to push an uncompetitive 2% raise that has no basis in facts or reality. I call it as I see it, and I see disrespect. The CSU’s unreasonable stance shows utter disrespect for the dedicated faculty and staff who are educating our state’s future leaders. CSU management’s position is insulting and must be rejected on its face.

Third, continuing disinvestment will lead to faculty exodus at CSULA. Recently an increasing number of professors have been leaving academia because of mistreatment and morale problems, all of which we’re seeing at the CSU. This is a disheartening state of affairs in American higher education. Leaving university service surely is a difficult decision for any dedicated faculty member, but truth is, I can’t blame them for considering an exit. How much more demoralizing treatment should we expect our professors to bear? How much disrespect would you bear? If a faculty exodus happens, the CSU will undoubtedly fill the vacuum by escalating their current practice of relying on adjuncts. This cadre of underpaid and overworked temporary professors is exploited more than unionized faculty. This is a losing scenario for our educators and students.

These are a few of many reasons that I believe justify this fight. There’s much more at play here, and I invite you to talk with your professors and read up online. Place yourself in the shoes of CFA members fighting for fair wages and a modicum of respect. You’ll see that this organized disruption of university operations — this tactic of last resort — is right, just, and overdue. Know this: the strike is as much in your defense as it is of faculty and staff. Without your professors, librarians, counselors and coaches, there is no CSULA.

Jonathan P. Bell is a unionized urban planner for the County of Los Angeles and a 2002 graduate of CSULA’s B.A. in Political Science program.

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