Occupy Wall Street Propels California Labor Action

By Seth Sandronsky

As an Occupy movement blossoms nationwide, a simmering battle over back pay propelled a one-day labor action at California State University Dominguez Hills and East Bay Nov 17.

This higher education conflict involves unpaid 2008-09 raises in a 2007 negotiated agreement between the CSU and the California Faculty Association, which represents 24,000 coaches, counselors, librarians and professors in the 23-campus system. Both sides have been bargaining over back pay for multiple contract years since 2008, according to the CFA. 

According to Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the CSU chancellor’s office, consecutive state spending cuts to the CSU system since the 2007 agreement have made funds for CFA back pay questionable. “There’s a phrase for that,” said Kevin Wehr, CFA chapter president, bargaining team member and sociology professor at Sacramento State, in a public forum in the capital city of the Golden State Oct. 20.  “I call it wage theft.”

Strong words, indeed. Wehr and the CFA (93% of whose members voted Nov. 7 for the union’s first-ever one-day strike), see state funding cuts and management priorities under CSU Chancellor Charles Reed as related factors in the issue of unpaid 2008-09 raises. Thus on his watch, which began in 1998, five years before Wehr arrived at Sac State, CSU student fees and CSU management salaries have been rising as faculty pay is falling.

According to a CFA fact sheet, over the past 13 years in inflation-adjusted dollars, CSU campus presidents’ average weekly salaries rose 23%, while average student fees and tuition soared 106%. The average weekly salary for full-time CSU faculty fell 10% from 1998 to 2008, the last year that they received raises.

Uhlenkamp said that the chancellor’s office was concerned over disruptions to students getting to their classes during the one-day labor action at CSU Dominguez Hills and East Bay. As a practical matter, the total number of students on both campuses is 26,743 out of 412,000 enrolled in the CSU system-wide.

For the CFA and CSU chancellor’s office, public opinion played no small part in the Nov. 17 labor action. The CFA may have the advantage here.

Why? Public opinion polls show widespread backing for the Occupy movement that rallies for the 99% on Main Street losing ground to a top 1% of income earners. Fraudster financial execs on Wall Street serve as a kind of proxy for the US upper one percent. In 2009, to enter this one percent required an annual income of $350,000, according to economist Dean Baker, citing IRS data.

Those numbers place some CSU managers in the 99% with scores of CFA members. At Sacramento State and across the CSU system, the CFA had “informational picketing” the week preceding the one-day strike Nov. 17. Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan represents California’s District 5, which includes Sac State, and supports the CFA. “Joined CFA at their informational picket at Sac State,” Pan wrote on his Facebook page. “I also closed my district office on campus (Sac State’s Modoc Hall) this morning in solidarity.” Sac State faculty and students, voluntarily, traveled to CSU East Bay to back the Nov. 17 CFA strike. One of students was Amanda Mooers, 23, a graduating senior, sociology major and an organizer with the Sac State chapter of the CSU Students for Quality Education.

“I will be joining the strike because I feel that students and faculty are in the same boat,” she said. “Throughout my last two years at Sac State, I’ve seen my tuition double and the Board of Trustees voted Nov. 16 to approve a nine percent fee increase that takes effect next fall.

“I don’t believe the decision makers in the CSU system have any intention of keeping it affordable for students,” Mooers said. “I believe it will take grassroots pressure from students, faculty, staff and our community to bring an end to the divestment from public higher education.”

It is worth noting that Mooers was involved with other Sac State students in a peaceful occupation of the school’s administration building last spring.

Talks between the CFA and CSU resumed Nov. 18. At the end of that day, the union’s declaration of an impasse moved the bargaining which began in March 2010 to a mediation process.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email ssandronsky@yahoo.com.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2011


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