On January 22, academic workers throughout the Cal State University system, the largest public university system in the US, began what was supposed to be a historic five-day strike. As a part-time instructor and debate coach at Western Washington University—another state-funded institution of “higher” learning on the West Coast—I am inspired by my fellow workers’ will to fight. I see many of my own concerns reflected in their demands. But I was disappointed to learn by the end of the first day that union leaders had already called off the strike after reaching a tentative agreement with the bosses. How did it come to this?
Preemptive concessions to the bosses
Representing 29,000 lecturers, librarians, counselors, coaches, and professors across 23 campuses, the California Faculty Association’s (CFA) inclusion of demands for equitable pay for the lowest-paid faculty were laudable. They represented at least an attempt to respond to decades of “adjunctification”—the conversion of relatively secure tenured and tenure-track positions into second-tier, part-time, at-will jobs—which have dramatically shifted the balance of power in campus workplaces in favor of administrators.
Missing was any effort to link these trends to the broader development of capitalism, which lies at the root of all the workers’ woes. In the boom period following WWII, economic growth made it possible for the ruling class to offer meaningful concessions to placate workers. In 1960, just two years before California became the most populous state in the world’s most advanced capitalist country, the Master Plan for Public Education established the Cal State system. Its purpose was to help provide free or nearly free college education to all residents of the state.
Dialectics teaches that, in time, things become their opposites. Following the collapse of the post-war boom, it became necessary for the bosses to claw back all the concessions they had made in previous years. Today, with the help of the Democrats, public institutions of higher education are being cannibalized and stripped for parts. This is all part of austerity to deal with the growing state debt. At the CSUs, this has been reflected in mass staffing and program cuts, as well as a planned 34% tuition increase. Completing the picture, Cal State chancellor Mildred Garcia was rewarded with a compensation package totalling nearly $1 million annually, including a 27% salary increase over her predecessor.
Ultimately, neither the CFA’s proposed pay raises for the lowest-paid workers nor the request for a 12% general salary increase would have been adequate to relieve the pressure caused by skyrocketing costs of living. Between 2007 and 2022, the California consumer price index for urban wage-earners and clerical workers shot up 56.9%. Over the same period, wages for full-time lecturers grew by a measly 22%. Professors fared only slightly better, seeing a 30% increase.
The CFA leadership should have asked the workers what they needed and then organized them to use their own strength to force concessions from the bosses. We are, after all, the ones who actually provide the “education” in “higher education.” Instead, the CFA leaders adopted a conciliatory posture. The 12% demand was a preemptive concession to the bosses, supposed to help dodge accusations that the “greedy workers” were going to bankrupt the university and line their pockets at the expense of students and taxpayers. The job of the union leadership was to expose the growing wealth of the tech billionaires and their ilk, which could be used to fund education.
Likewise, the CFA intended to shore up its branding as a social and racial justice union by including, for example, the demand for workers to be able to have union representatives present for interactions with campus police. Communists understand that it is necessary to broaden the horizons of the labor movement and bring the full weight of organized labor to bear on broader political struggles against oppression. Instead, the CFA leaders tried to shoehorn them into the narrow framework of bargaining allowed by capitalist labor law.
The approach based on moderating demands right out of the gate did not work. It showed weakness, and this invited the class enemy to be even more vicious. Predictably, the bosses and scabs rolled out their pathetic excuses for arguments against the union. By the fall, negotiations were at an impasse. Unsurprisingly, an “independent” factfinder appointed by the state government was unable to move the process forward. At this stage, having received the official blessing of California labor law, the CFA finally brought the question of a strike before its members.
Tentative leadership, tentative agreement
Support to authorize a strike was overwhelming, with 95% voting in favor. Still, the CFA moved timidly. A series of four lackluster one-day strikes at different isolated campuses failed to move the needle. Chancellor Garcia walked away from the bargaining table on January 9. The bosses were threatening the “nuclear option”: unilaterally imposing a one-time 5% raise and ignoring all of the workers’ other grievances.
The workers had delivered a clear mandate to lead a real fight against the bosses. At this point, failing to deliver would risk completely discrediting the leadership. In the words of one member of the Executive Board of CFA Fullerton, if the unilaterally imposed settlement were to take effect on Monday, then “you wouldn’t have a union on Tuesday.” This was the situation that led to the largest faculty strike in US history.
It was also the situation that led to the strike ending almost before it began. The tentative agreement would raise the wage floor for the worst-off faculty by more than 10%. This goes to show—as CFA paradoxically declared on X the same night that they told strikers to report to work instead of to picket lines the following morning—that “STRIKES WORK!” In fact, they are the only thing that really does.
In case anyone forgot, STRIKES WORK! After months of negotiations, our movement for a #betterCSU has paid off! Our members have won a Tentative Agreement with @calstate that includes raising the floor for our most vulnerable faculty, safer workplaces & expanded parental leave.#1u pic.twitter.com/q9VXHO0P6p
— California Faculty Association (@CFA_United) January 23, 2024
However, the deal only guarantees a 5% general salary increase for this academic year. Whether another 5% bump materializes next year is uncertain. That raise is contingent on the California state government not reducing the CSU’s base funding, and cuts are a distinct possibility. The state faces a projected $38 billion budget shortfall, and Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed delaying the allocation of funds already promised to CSU. Meanwhile, California is home to more billionaires than any other US state!
CFA celebrated having secured CSU’s commitment to improving access to gender-neutral restrooms and lactation stations on campuses while “creating a pathway to monitor issues of access.” However, the 10 weeks of paid parental leave included in the settlement is closer to the six weeks that workers were previously allowed than it is to the semester-long leave they voted to strike for. As the factfinder’s report admitted months ago, enshrining the right to have a union rep present when interacting with police does little more than copy-paste already constitutionally “guaranteed” Miranda rights from one legal document onto another.
The power of working-class solidarity
What workers really won in this strike is greater confidence in their own power. Never before in the history of the Cal State system has a strike succeeded at shutting down all 23 campuses. This was accomplished despite—and in some cases because of—tremendous efforts by management to undermine the strike.
The five-day strike was originally supposed to coincide with a strike of workers represented by Teamsters Local 2010, who were expected to play an integral role in CFA strikers’ plans to shut down various CSU campuses. Management believed they could blow a major hole in picket lines by concluding a last-minute deal offering significant concessions to Local 2010.
However, the sense of solidarity forged between members of the two unions was not something that could be bargained away! CFA members were able to quickly adapt. They blocked deliveries to their workplaces on the morning of the strike, and most drivers refused to cross the picket lines. At CSU Channel Islands, Teamster hold-outs even closed ranks with academic workers and other supporters of the strike to block loading docks.
There was also overwhelming support from students. At Fullerton, the largest Cal State campus, 82% of the 40,000 students commute by car. On the day of the strike, the parking lots were almost completely empty. One particular attempt by administration to use the tried-and-true method of pitting students and faculty against each other backfired spectacularly. A message from chancellor Garcia to students prior to the strike instructed them to report any instructors who canceled class. Students easily saw through this, and the bosses’ naked divide and rule tactics were cruelly exposed. One strike leader called the message asking students to fink on striking teachers “one of our best recruiting tools.”
Necessity expresses itself through accident. The massive support for the strike could only be a surprise to those incapable of analyzing developments and grasping what is going on beneath the surface. In recent years we have felt tremors from the sleeping giant of US labor as it begins to stir. Academic workers from the East Coast to the West are not excepted from this process. Despite this, the CFA leaders were somehow caught completely off-guard by the potency of the strike that they themselves were supposed to be leading.
The union leadership’s acceptance of the limits of capitalism and their lack of confidence in the workers explains their premature capitulation and their unwillingness to call for an indefinite strike. At the very least, the workers should have been able to debate this and vote on whether they wanted to continue the strike. While many in the membership are drawing the conclusion that the CFA heads have either bumbled or betrayed the strike, it is not clear whether they will vote to accept or reject the tentative agreement. What is plain is that workers in both town and gown must prepare first and foremost for even greater battles with the bosses to come. On the industrial battlegrounds of tomorrow and the day after, we will put our leadership once more to the test, and the need for a mass communist party will become glaringly apparent to an ever-wider layer of American workers and youth.