This is How You Win: A Guided Tour of the Campaign at City College of San Francisco

Michael McCown

Strikes in higher education are rare. Faculty work is isolated, and despite the popular portrayal of academics as having the ultimate job security, most instructors are part-timers with short-term contracts. (AFT 2121/ Facebook)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Labor Notes.

For the first time in its 40-year his­to­ry, the union of full- and part-time fac­ul­ty at City Col­lege of San Fran­cis­co recent­ly went on strike — and it worked.

Teach­ers (AFT) Local 2121 pulled off a one-day strike April 27, despite the administration’s claim that the strike was ille­gal. By July, to head off anoth­er strike, the col­lege agreed to a union con­tract with sub­stan­tial rais­es. Fac­ul­ty mem­bers had been work­ing with­out one for a year.

Strikes in high­er edu­ca­tion are rare. Fac­ul­ty work is iso­lat­ed, and despite the pop­u­lar por­tray­al of aca­d­e­mics as hav­ing the ulti­mate job secu­ri­ty, most instruc­tors are part-timers with short-term contracts.

Part-timers often have to rush off to oth­er jobs, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to build the social bonds nec­es­sary to take risky action togeth­er. And going on strike can be per­ceived as hurt­ing stu­dents, many of whom at the com­mu­ni­ty-col­lege lev­el are quite vul­ner­a­ble: Eng­lish-lan­guage learn­ers, for­mer pris­on­ers, and the homeless.

At City Col­lege, a pub­lic com­mu­ni­ty col­lege of nine cam­pus­es built to serve 100,000 stu­dents, fac­ul­ty faced the addi­tion­al threat that the school could be shut down entire­ly. They orga­nized anyway.

Trumped-up cri­sis

The roots of the strike go back to a cri­sis that many fac­ul­ty view as man­u­fac­tured.

In 2012 the Accred­it­ing Com­mis­sion (ACCJC) gave the col­lege a year to prove why it should not lose its accred­i­ta­tion — and then tried to yank the accred­i­ta­tion, months before its own dead­line. A Spe­cial Trustee with Extra­or­di­nary Pow­ers was appoint­ed to bring the col­lege into compliance.

The com­mis­sion hadn’t found any­thing wrong with the college’s qual­i­ty of edu­ca­tion. Instead, City Col­lege had appar­ent­ly been sin­gled out for oppos­ing a change to the mis­sion of com­mu­ni­ty col­leges statewide.

The accred­i­tor was push­ing leg­is­la­tion to lim­it pro­grams that didn’t fit into the mod­el of two-year junior col­leges,” which aim to pre­pare stu­dents to trans­fer to four-year institutions.

City Col­lege has always fol­lowed the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege” mod­el. Robust offer­ings for con­tin­u­ing edu­ca­tion, Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage, and for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties and oth­er non-tra­di­tion­al stu­dents make it one the city’s most impor­tant work­ing-class insti­tu­tions. In fact, 1 in 7 San Fran­cis­cans has either attend­ed the col­lege or hired a graduate.

The accred­i­tor also want­ed to impose bud­get cuts, reduc­ing ben­e­fits for part-time fac­ul­ty and increas­ing admin­is­tra­tive con­trol over workers.

Every­one told us we should just put our heads down and do what­ev­er the accred­i­tor demand­ed,” said Alisa Mess­er, union pres­i­dent at the time.

Instead, Local 2121 cried foul. The union teamed up with com­mu­ni­ty groups to orga­nize demon­stra­tions, filed a law­suit, and sup­port­ed the city attorney’s law­suit against the accreditor.

A court injunc­tion backed the pro­tes­tors and kept the col­lege from clos­ing. A tem­po­rary com­pro­mise put the col­lege on restora­tion” sta­tus. The com­mis­sion will review its accred­i­ta­tion again this October.

Mean­while, the cri­sis fall­out con­tin­ues. Enroll­ment has dropped. So will state fund­ing. And even though San Fran­cis­co vot­ers approved new rev­enue, col­lege admin­is­tra­tors went on push­ing pay cuts.

By the time their con­tract expired in 2015, fac­ul­ty mem­bers were liv­ing on salaries 3.5 per­cent low­er than in 2007, even before adjust­ing for infla­tion or the sky­rock­et­ing Bay Area cost of living.

And to align” the col­lege with its cur­rent enroll­ment, admin­is­tra­tors launched a plan to reduce pro­grams by 26 per­cent. For every course removed from the sched­ule, few­er stu­dents can look to City Col­lege for edu­ca­tion in the future.

One-on-one con­ver­sa­tions

With the admin­is­tra­tion dug in, the union need­ed to build the capac­i­ty to strike.

The S” word was scary. Lead­ers risked alien­at­ing mem­bers who might view strike talk as reck­less. On the oth­er hand, the demand­ed con­ces­sions would mean per­ma­nent down­siz­ing, less access for stu­dents, and the ero­sion of faculty’s qual­i­ty of life and auton­o­my at work.

Agree­ing to all this, even to sal­vage accred­i­ta­tion, would cost the insti­tu­tion its soul. Plus, good-faith efforts to sat­is­fy the ACCJC had nev­er worked in the past.

Instead of announc­ing a strat­e­gy from the top, union lead­ers set out to dis­cuss the pros and cons with mem­bers and give them the choice to pre­pare to strike or not.

The sum­mer that the con­tract expired, mem­bers of the Con­tract Action Team began a cam­paign to make one-to-one con­tact with their co-work­ers. They asked each per­son, Will you vote to raise dues tem­porar­i­ly to estab­lish a strike fund?”

The strat­e­gy was twofold:

  • to show the admin­is­tra­tion that fac­ul­ty mem­bers were ready and will­ing to strike
  • to cre­ate an oppor­tu­ni­ty for one-to-one con­ver­sa­tions about striking

Activists got to talk through their co-work­ers’ fears and con­cerns, with­out ask­ing mem­bers to com­mit to a strike yet.

For Con­tract Action Team mem­ber Valerie Berg­er, who teach­es Eng­lish as a Sec­ond Lan­guage, this strat­e­gy was sim­i­lar to her dai­ly work. In teach­ing we call it scaf­fold­ing,” she said, where you start stu­dents on small­er tasks and build up to big­ger ones. Hav­ing done the first one, the sec­ond one is easier.”

In prac­tice role­plays, fac­ul­ty mem­bers learned both the strate­gic ratio­nale behind the strike fund and how to have a one-to-one orga­niz­ing conversation.

In the begin­ning, talk­ing to peo­ple at all was hard for me,” said math instruc­tor Mary Brave­woman. Then I real­ized these were my friends or my col­leagues, and they didn’t bite — or at least, not that hard.”

Just find­ing peo­ple, espe­cial­ly part-timers, was dif­fi­cult. To counter the iso­la­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic work, where most com­mu­ni­ca­tion hap­pens through email, pairs of activists vis­it­ed fac­ul­ty at their homes.

The strike fund vote func­tioned as prac­tice for a strike vote. Of 1,500 mem­bers, 650 signed com­mit­ment cards promis­ing to vote yes. Of those who were asked to sign, few­er than 10 per­cent refused.

Beat­ing divide-and-conquer

Through­out nego­ti­a­tions, the admin­is­tra­tion tried to split fac­ul­ty between the rough­ly 650 full-timers and 900 part-timers. But the strike fund con­ver­sa­tions antic­i­pat­ed this move. Activists inoc­u­lat­ed their co-work­ers to expect an offer of a bet­ter deal for full-timers.

So mem­bers weren’t caught off guard when the admin­is­tra­tion did just that — offer­ing noth­ing to part-time fac­ul­ty, in exchange for a 4.5 per­cent increase for full-timers. Every­one knew that the nego­ti­at­ing team was going to hold out for equal rais­es for every­one, and that uni­ty was the only way to stop anoth­er con­ces­sion­ary contract.

In Sep­tem­ber the strike fund vote drew the largest turnout in union his­to­ry. More than 600 fac­ul­ty vot­ed, with 93 per­cent in favor of rais­ing dues to start a strike fund.

The next step was a peti­tion com­mit­ting sign­ers to strike if nec­es­sary, gath­ered through more one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions. And in March, the union topped its record again, this time with more than 800 mem­bers vot­ing to autho­rize a strike, and 92 per­cent vot­ing yes.

By April, the union had assessed 1,000 out of 1,500 unit mem­bers as pos­i­tive toward a strike — enough to con­fi­dent­ly call a walk­out. Most of the remain­ing 500 had yet to be con­tact­ed individually.

Some orga­niz­ers will say that an entire unit has to be assessed before it’s wise to call a strike. But in the com­mu­ni­ty col­lege set­ting, fac­ul­ty lead­ers judged that to be impos­si­ble task. It seemed a rea­son­able bet that most of the rest would fol­low the majority.

Through the aca­d­e­m­ic year, union activists exhaust­ed every oth­er esca­la­tion tac­tic, from prac­tice pick­ets to civ­il dis­obe­di­ence. The admin­is­tra­tion and the union still had to get through a state-man­dat­ed medi­a­tion process before an eco­nom­ic strike could be called. Man­age­ment used this process to its advan­tage, pro­long­ing nego­ti­a­tions toward a sec­ond sum­mer, when a strike would be weaker.

The union hit back with unfair labor prac­tice charges alleg­ing bad-faith bar­gain­ing, which in Cal­i­for­nia allows a pub­lic sec­tor union to call a defen­sive strike. The date was set: April 27.

The admin­is­tra­tion claimed the strike would be an ille­gal pres­sure tac­tic, and threat­ened legal action. The beau­ty of a one-day strike, though, is that even if a court finds against it, it’s over before an injunc­tion can be issued. Union del­e­gates vot­ed to go ahead.

Strike suc­cess

The strike was a big suc­cess. Even though man­age­ment tried to pre­empt it by clos­ing all cam­pus­es for the day, and despite pour­ing rain in the morn­ing, fac­ul­ty strik­ers, stu­dents, and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers showed up to picket.

And in the after­noon sun­shine, fac­ul­ty from all nine cam­pus­es con­verged for a ral­ly at San Francisco’s Civic Cen­ter. Mem­bers of oth­er unions and com­mu­ni­ty groups came too; eas­i­ly 1,000 peo­ple filled the streets. It was a great morale boost­er for fac­ul­ty to see the broad sup­port for their work.

The threat of anoth­er strike in the fall brought the admin­is­tra­tion to the table. The agree­ment includes a 9.6 per­cent retroac­tive salary increase and a 10.6 per­cent increase for the com­ing year, for both full- and part-time fac­ul­ty, with no con­ces­sions on work­ing con­di­tions. Mem­bers rat­i­fied it August 23, with over 600 vot­ers and 97 per­cent in favor.

Next Local 2121 is lead­ing a cam­paign to stop class cuts and make City Col­lege free for res­i­dents and work­ers in San Fran­cis­co. Vot­ers will get the chance to approve the mea­sure, which will be fund­ed by SF propo­si­tion W, in November.

Michael McCown was the staff orga­niz­er for AFT 2121’s con­tract cam­paign and strike.
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