Sacramento State faculty’s weeklong strike kicks off amid stalled contract talks with CSU leaders

Clouds, chills and the threat of rain didn’t dissuade Sacramento State faculty from forming the first picket line of the spring semester.

Professors, lecturers, librarians, coaches and counselors shut down the California State University’s 23 campuses Monday just as many of their students returned for the spring semester. The weeklong shutdown follows a series of rolling one-day strikes across four campuses in December.

Roughly 75 people walked the picket line Monday outside Sacramento State, flanking the campus’ J Street entrance. The banners welcoming students back from break were covered with union-made signs that read, “Classes don’t start without us!” and “On strike! California Faculty Association.”

This latest labor action at the nation’s largest university system rides the wave of union momentum in higher education created by the 2022 monthlong strike at the University of California system. Teaching assistants and graduate student workers disrupted classes across UC campuses as the fall semester concluded.

The CFA, which represents 29,000 members, and university negotiators have spent nearly nine months haggling over salaries and other provisions as part of contract negotiation re-opener. Those non-salary demands include increased parental leave, greater access to gender-inclusive restrooms in campus buildings and more staff mental health counselors to help students. After the two sides hit an impasse in August, they engaged in mediation sessions with a third-party negotiator and then submitted to fact-finding with a neutral panelist.

Talks broke down two weeks ago when the CSU left the bargaining table after, as the university puts it, CFA “indicated no willingness” to depart from its ask for a 12% raise, according to a Jan. 11 letter from Joseph Jelincic, the system’s vice chancellor of collective bargaining. CSU officials then imposed parts of its “last, best and final offer” on the faculty unions, including a 5% salary increase, higher pay differentials for department chairs and a provision that allows for an increase in parking fees (up to $2 per month).

Sacramento State librarian Rachel Stark, left, joins faculty at a weeklong strike at the university on Monday.
Sacramento State librarian Rachel Stark, left, joins faculty at a weeklong strike at the university on Monday.

But Anne Luna, a Sacramento State professor of sociology and president of the CFA chapter on campus, says Cal State is misrepresenting what happened at the table. Although CFA returned to the table with the same 12% figure, the union proposed delaying the raises by three months so the university wouldn’t owe as much in retroactive pay.

“They had clearly prepped all the statements and things that they were planning to send out before we had even gone back into bargaining,” Luna said. “We were doing our due diligence, and they decided to just walk out after 21 minutes at the table. So, it’s clear that they weren’t planning on actually negotiating with us.”

Luna says that even though bargaining has spilled into the new year — and CFA will be back in bargaining this summer when the existing contract expires — she and her fellow picketers are “still energized” and excited to show their collective strength on the picket line this week.

“It’s frustrating. It’s annoying. It’s not surprising, at least for me,” Luna said.

University calls faculty union’s 12% pay demand ‘unrealistic’

“We are committed to compensating employees fairly,” said CSU Chancellor Mildred Garcia during a Friday afternoon briefing before the strike. “But we are, and must be, equally committed to the long-term stability and success of the CSU, which means we must be fiscally prudent.”

The university system argues that a 12% raise is “financially unrealistic” and would cost the system $312 million just in the first year. That surpasses the $227 million in state funding that Cal State received in last year’s state budget. Instead, the schools have offered the faculty union a 5% raise each year, totaling 15% at the end of three years, as well as two additional weeks of paid parental leave for a total of eight weeks. CSU also says it stands ready to accept 13 of the independent fact-finder’s 15 recommendations.

The CFA has repeatedly pointed to a third-party analysis that identifies CSU’s robust $8.6 billion in reserve funds as a possible stream for raises. However, university financial executives scoffed at the idea of using one-time funds for ongoing financial obligations such as salaries. Steve Relyea, CSU’s chief financial officer, called the consultant’s study “flawed” and dodged questions about the study’s claim that the university has enough cash coming in to more than cover the CFA’s salary demands.

“In the end, we’ve got to protect this university for our students,” said Relyea said. “We have to be good stewards of those funds. To use those one-time funds for ongoing commitments would be reckless, and it would put the institution and our students at risk.”

Faculty walk picket lines for higher pay, parental leave

Librarian Melissa Cardenas-Dow said a salary boost would help her pay off the more than $300,000 in student loan debt that she owes for her two master’s degrees — one in library and information science, the other in assistive technology studies. Before joining Sacramento State in 2017, Cardenas-Dow worked as a temporary librarian at numerous schools in Southern California. Although she received tenure last year, she empathizes with lecturers and non-tenured faculty who piece together a living by teaching at multiple institutions.

“I know what that’s like,” Cardenas-Dow said. “And we do have a term for that type of lifestyle: You’re a ‘freeway flyer,’ because you travel just to put together an income.”

Social sciences librarian Melissa Cardenas-Dow joins a weeklong Sacramento State faculty strike at the university on Monday.
Social sciences librarian Melissa Cardenas-Dow joins a weeklong Sacramento State faculty strike at the university on Monday.

In her absence, students and other library patrons won’t have access to her assistance with research, nor will they be able to receive feedback on their ideas for term projects and thesis papers. Cardenas-Dow came out to the one-day December strike, but she said this week’s action were different.

“For a week, we’re showing that this is about Sac State,” she said. “Last time, it was about the system. This time, it’s about Sac State.”

About three hours south of Sacramento, civil engineering professor Kimberly Stillmaker walked the picket line at Fresno State. The 37-year-old mother wants to see CSU increase its parental leave offer. When she had her third child, Stillmaker took the available six weeks off and supplemented with three weeks’ worth of sick days that she had saved.

Her husband, also an engineering professor, was able to work a reduced schedule during the weeks he could not take off. For some new mothers, like herself, even working part-time wouldn’t be a viable option due to nursing and recovery. And, unlike Stillmaker, not everyone has loads of sick days banked.

“It’s inequitable,” she said. “In a country as wealthy as ours is, I think that that’s unacceptable.”

Teamsters reach deal with CSU

Missing from the picket lines on Monday morning were members of Teamsters Local 2010, a small but mighty ally of the CFA and the other CSU employee unions. The nearly 1,100 skilled trades workers represented by the Teamsters had planned to join faculty members on strike as they fought for their own contract with the university. But after several marathon bargaining sessions, the Teamsters and CSU reached a deal over the weekend. The union first started bargaining last January.

For Jason Rabinowitz, the vocal leader of the CSU’s local, the biggest win in the tentative agreement is the reinstatement of a step-based raise system. Each step comes with a 2% raise, and there are 20 total steps on the pay ladder. The step-based structure will help workers progress through their salary range as opposed to stagnating at the same pay rate year after year, the union argues.

“Overall, we’re pleased with the agreement that our members won. We’ve been fighting for the steps for five years,” Rabinowitz said. “After 28 years of denying steps and raises, we have a three-year contract that reintroduces step raises and gets everyone to their target step.”

By October, every member will receive raises between 9% and 14%. All members will immediately receive 5% raises retroactive to July 2023. In October, each Teamsters-represented employee will get placed on the nearest pay step to their current salary, then earn two bumps up for effectively a 4% raise. Some workers who are farther behind on their pay schedules will receive additional boosts.

Teamsters will likely start voting on the tentative agreement next week. The CSU trustees also have to approve the agreement at their March meeting, and workers won’t receive raises until after all parties approve the deal.

Although Teamsters won’t be on the picket lines for the week, they remained in solidarity of CFA and the Academic Professionals of California, who are also still bargaining with the CSU. The union’s semi-truck made an appearance at the Sac State picket line Monday morning and fired up the crowd with its blaring horn.

“We hope that the fact that we got our deal will help them receive the fair deal that they deserve,” Rabinowitz said.

The Fresno Bee’s Thaddeus Miller contributed to this story.

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