As Strike Looms, UC Lecturers Raise the Stakes
After more than two years of stalled negotiations, 6,000 University of California lecturers are preparing to strike. The lecturers do one-third of all teaching but earn just a fraction of what their tenure-track counterparts do, with little in the way of job security.
"I just want a living wage," said Jasper Bernes, a lecturer at the UC-Berkeley after an October 13 informational picket organized by the University Council American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT).
At the picket, lecturers and student supporters chanted "Where is Drake?”, protesting UC President Michael Drake's refusal to meet with the lecturers who conduct one-third of all credit hours taught in the UC system. Management has refused to provide more job security and raises beyond 3 percent annually, which lecturers say would amount to a pay cut when accounting for inflation and the skyrocketing cost of housing in many areas near UC campuses. In response, lecturers are increasing the pressure.
In late May, lecturers approved a strike authorization vote by 96 percent, making it the first strike authorized in over two decades by UC-AFT. The move has increased lecturers' leverage as they've headed into state-mediated negotiations after the California Public Employment Relations Board declared an impasse on June 25.
Lecturers cited several critical issues as driving factors behind the impasse. "I want job security because that would transform my life,” said Bernes. “I want equitable pay and benefits. There exists this division between ladder and non-ladder faculty. We serve the same functions, do the same work, and get paid less."
According to the union’s data, only 1,200 out of the UC system’s 6,300 lecturers have earned continuing lecturer status, which allows lecturers to continue their appointments indefinitely after passing a six-year threshold. But the threshold is hard to meet: changing campuses—and even departments—forces lecturers to start from zero. That’s a major factor contributing to the one-quarter of lecturers who do not return.
Concerns over wages are also widely felt. While tenure-track faculty earn six-figure salaries, the median income for lecturers is $19,000 a year, according to UC-AFT. Such low pay is simply unsustainable with the cost of living near campuses.
Health care is another issue: nearly half of lecturers don’t work enough hours to qualify for UC’s medical benefits. Fewer lecturers (55 percent) have health coverage through the university now than at the beginning of the pandemic (57 percent).
"We're demanding three things: job stability, a reasonable workload, and a living wage," lecturer Crystal Chang said at the UC Berkeley picket, citing multi-year contracts and rehiring preferences as means of alleviating the precarity endemic to adjunct faculty. "It's telling when many of my colleagues spend all summer being anxious only to find out two weeks from the semester's start if they have a job or not."
Lecturers also highlighted their unpaid work, such as thesis advising, undergraduate research apprenticeships, and curriculum committees as part of an increasing workload, a situation they say has only worsened during the pandemic. "The emails [from students] have increased; food, housing, insecurity, and fear,” said Catherine Bordel, who has been a physics lecturer for 12 years. “I've had to play the role of a counselor for students. I didn't think all of this would fall on my shoulders."
Logistical problems have also increased workloads during the pandemic, with lecturers having to adapt to remote learning. "It takes me 15 hours to write an exam, and 20 hours for a final—now that's doubled to accommodate students in different time zones," said Bordel. "It's barely manageable. We're already paid low wages to begin with, but there's been no additional pay."
With state funding declining over several decades, administrators have increased reliance on part-time faculty and reduced tenure track positions. Lecturer positions have risen 41 percent since 2011 while tenure-track positions have only grown 19 percent, with UC arguing that flexibility is needed to address "academic programmatic or budgetary changes."
But for lecturers, flexibility translates to precarity. That’s why they’re fighting back. “We’ve been atomized as workers in society and institutions such as [UC],” said Change. “But banding together, we can accomplish something.”
FROM OPEN BARGAINING TO A STRIKE?
There are reasons for lecturers to be hopeful. They have garnered the support of several State Senators and Assembly members. And at a recent open bargaining session, they had the backing of over 400 students, lecturers, and other campus workers who turned out (virtually) to support UC-AFT in their negotiations. The open bargaining session itself was a key demand on the heels of the informational pickets, with the union aiming to provide the administration with input directly from lecturers and show support from students and community members.
The latest offer from UC has made strides towards meeting UC-AFT’s demands by raising the minimum salary by 8 percent and adding longer-term contracts, such as two- and then three-year appointments after an initial one-year appointment and evaluations. Those contracts would make a stark contrast to most lecturers’ current one-year contracts with no guarantees of being rehired.
Yet despite these concessions, a majority of lecturers would still live under the poverty level. UC-AFT members point out that 3 percent annual raises through the end of the five-year proposed contract does not factor in the cost of living—a key issue since many UC campuses are located in some of the most expensive cities in the country. The union is pushing for a salary scale that would provide raises of 3 to 5 percent a year based on workload and experience.
Additionally, according to UC-AFT's bargaining team, the proposal does not define specific workloads, includes exceptions allowing for positions with no obligation to provide reviews for reappointment or rehire meaning lecturers can be terminated without explanation, and has loopholes that would allow lecturers to be fired for "programmatic need or change" within departments or to make room for candidates who are more "qualified," terms both vague and left undefined.
With negotiations entering their final stages, the pressure is on UC to produce an agreement that meets lecturers' concerns or face a strike that could halt the education of tens of thousands of students across California.
UC-AFT is encouraging students, community members, and supporters to watch the next bargaining session on Wednesday, November 10, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. PT via Zoom.
Oscar Fregozo and Khamisa Kever are undergraduate students at UC-Berkeley and members of the Cal Young Democratic Socialists of America.