Strike at California College of the Arts over unfair labor practices
California College of the Arts (CCA) staff participated in a four day strike this week after negotiating a first contract with the college for more than two years. College staff voted to unionize with SEIU Local 1021 in April 2019 and began contract negotiations in October. Their unit is made up of about 120 staff members, according to union representative Jennie Smith-Camejo, and includes studio managers, librarians, enrollment counselors, student counselors and all college staff who are neither senior manager or administration. Professors canceled classes and students and teachers joined staff on picket lines. The staff voted 97% to authorize the strike and almost 20K in strike funds, all collected online since February 2. Strike activities in arts college, they have to paint, sew and screen print protest signs; organization of flash mob parties; and the construction of community sculptures. Adjunct teachers, who are also unionized in Local 1021 and who have struggled to negotiate a second contract with the college since their first contract expired in 2020, have canceled classes and are on strike in solidarity with staff .
According to Jennie Smith-Camejo, the catalyst for the strike, after years of bargaining, was the charges of unfair labor practices brought against the college by the National Labor Relations Board. the NLRB Decision asks the college to increase the number and duration of negotiation sessions and to negotiate in good faith. The school is difficult the NLRB’s decision and appealed the charges at a hearing before a judge. Smith-Camejo told Observer that the decision to strike was also made after the CCA administration waited until January 24, after two years of negotiations, to make its first counter-proposal on wages.
The union said the strike could have been avoided if the school had negotiated in good faith with staff and taken its priorities seriously. Monday, 99 tenured and tenure-track professors at the college released a joint letter urging the college administration to negotiate a fair contract for staff that includes decent pay and job security. Piper Alldredge, director of the CCA studio and member of the negotiating team for a staff union contract, cited increased job security at the college as a substantial demand in contract negotiations. She told the Observer that the colleagues she started working with at CCA just four years ago have all left. Due to this constant change, employees are overwhelmed and certain aspects of certain jobs are neglected. Studio equipment is not maintained and there are not enough staff to help students use this equipment. This understaffing and lack of maintenance of equipment occurs at a college where tuition fees is more than 50K per year.
“Since we voted to unionize in April 2019, more than half of the staff bargaining unit has been replaced,” Alldredge told Observer. “If you think of this in terms of a whole four to five years of a university student, that means almost all the staff are changing and that has a huge impact on the student experience at school.”
CCA told Observer that “At a time when we are making rapid progress in negotiations and have reached agreement on so many points, a strike does not benefit anyone, not our staff or our faculty, and certainly not our students. For staffers like Alldredge, however, the strike is not hurting the students, but helping them, by negotiating to keep the employees who support them in their jobs long-term.
Part of this low retention is due to salaries. According to a union statement, many employees earn less than $40,000 and two-thirds of employees have low incomes, according to cost of living measures for the Bay Area. The union said the school can afford to pay its staff members more and that the proposed increases for unionized labor would cost the ACC less than 1% of its $108 million budget.
According to Piper Alldredge, during contract negotiations, staff rely on the experiences of assistants, who spent more than three years negotiating their first contract. This contract included a clause allowing the school to halve teachers’ salaries if their classes are under-enrolled, a practice (unfortunately) common in higher education. At CCA, however, the enrollment threshold has become a moving target, and professors who have lost a single student from their courses have lost half their salary. The union said the CCA is trying to place a similar operator “Management rights» clause in the staff contract. Alldredge told Observer the staff wanted to make sure no similar clause was added to his first contract.
Throughout this week’s strike, as students come and go freely from campus facilities and their studios, regular college activities have been interrupted, with students enthusiastically joining the picket line. Art permeates these pickets, with students handcrafting embroidered banners and screen-printed panels. Teachers assist students in artistic constructions, providing collage materials and markers. Teachers use the event as an educational opportunity, with an open discussion on the labor history of garment workers given by a fashion and textile teacher.
The enthusiasm seen on the picket lines on CCA campuses is not unique to students at a private coastal arts college. That same energy ignited institutions of higher education across class and geographic boundaries throughout the country. The plight of workers in academia is increasingly seen in the same light as that of workers exploited at will in all industries. San Francisco District Supervisor Matt Haney, speaking at a rally at the CCA on Monday, said: ‘When we have people in our city educating our young people and you pay them starvation wages, it affects us all. This is unacceptable.