Long road to the bargaining table for staff at California College of the Arts

‘As a teacher, I want to hold space for the administration to learn how to do better’

They say they’ve had enough of being both the starving artist and the underpaid teacher.

So now, after two years of fruitless negotiations for what they call a fair contract and higher wages, the staff at the California College of the Arts (CCA) is on strike — the first at a private university in California since 1976.

Delays and filibustering at the bargaining table have dogged negotiations between the college and its staff since they unionized back in 2019. The staff, including instructors and adjunct faculty in solidarity, finally struck earlier this week alleging illegal and unfair labor practices, unlivable wages for the lowest-paid staff and the lack of a fair contract.

“I’m done pretending that these structures work in a way that is equitable,” said Elizabeth Travelslight, an adjunct instructor for Critical Studies in science and math. “And I think the administration is really confused, and has a lot of illusions about the institutions they run. They don’t understand the impact of low wages on staff and adjunct faculty,”

The President of CCA, Stephen Beal, is paid a salary of $580,224 according to IRS Form 990 released by ProPublica. That’s more than Mayor London Breed or any other Bay Area school administrators except for Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President of Stanford.

Meanwhile, the lowest-paid staffer make less than $40,000 a year according to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021.

CCA is a private art university with a campus in San Francisco. It expects to close its Oakland campus soon in a move to consolidate into one location. According to the school’s website, tuition is $53,856 with the full cost of attendance, estimated at $79,981 for first- and second-year undergraduate students and $81,705 for upperclassmen.

Negotiations for the new contract started pre-pandemic in October 2019 and the bargaining teams have met 30 times since then. But both sides of the picket fence have different versions of the story.

For the school’s position, Ann Weins, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for CCA, points to a “fact-checking” page on its website, which says “the CCA team has remained ready and willing to come to the table as often as needed to achieve a final (collective bargaining agreement).”

Striking staffers see it differently.

“They like to brag that they’ve done 30 bargaining sessions in two years,” said Brian Woods, the Film Studio Manager for CCA, “That amounts to barely one a month and that’s not very productive. That’s the rhetoric they’re sending out; ‘Bargaining is going great. We’re making progress!’ They’ve made almost no progress. They didn’t respond to our financial compensation proposal for two years after we gave it to them.”

Weins insists there’s been progress at the bargaining table.

“The school agrees with fair compensation for our staff, with what is best for the students and the sustainable future for the college,” she says. But, she adds, “We don’t believe a strike is necessary at this time. We are concerned about taking instructional time away from our students, but we respect the right of our unionized staff to strike.”

Travelslight takes a philosophical approach. “As a teacher, I want to hold space for the administration to learn how to do better.”

In addition to their bargaining demands, the SEIU Union has an unfair labor practices complaint against CCA filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Another regarding the administration’s unilateral changes without consulting the Union is awaiting a hearing.

The school eliminated some Union jobs and replaced them with non-Union ones. Matt Kennedy, CCA Union President and 2D Studio Manager, was directly affected by this change. In 2020, Kennedy was furloughed for 18 months and was told by the school that he would be brought back whenever feasible. When that time came, his re-entrance would be conditional. He could only come back if he took a different position with lower pay. Additionally, Kennedy was one of the last employees brought back even after working for the school for nine years.

Earlier in the week, in evident high spirits, staff, adjunct faculty and students rallied at CCA’s San Francisco campus holding signs reading “Labor justice is social justice!” and “I strike because I love my students.”

Drivers passing by the rally raised their fists and honked their horns in apparent solidarity while various staff members spoke on their experiences and students made strike posters out of cardboard with peers.

“We always say that working conditions are student learning conditions,” said Woods, “We want good contracts for our lowest-paid people. That’s our main ask today for [CCA] to bring up the low end, raise the floor, so that people can live in the city where they work.”

Many adjunct faculty said they were also on board with the demands.

“The pay disparity between the lowest-paid workers at these institutions and the highest-paid workers – it’s not sustainable. And it doesn’t represent the values I think we believe in as a community,” said Travelslight.

Students also have been an integral part of the strike.

Kokayi-Taylor — an animation student whose mother is an adjunct instructorsaid students recently petitioned the school to have more frequent shuttle services from their Oakland campus to their San Francisco campus, since students have classes in both locations. But the administration is yet to respond to this request.

“They basically just take advantage of their staff. It’s the staff who run the school and without them, the school would be nothing. And it trickles down to us,” stated Kokayi-Taylor.

(Craig Lee/The Examiner)

(Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“This is an important cause, you’ll see that the students care about the staff just as much as the staff care about us and that we can’t function without them,” said one student at the rally while making a sign.

Other supporters of the cause came out in solidarity at the rally including Supervisor and State Assembly candidate Matt Haney who spoke in support of the strikers. Protestors cheered as Haney said “Shame on you, CCA!” Haney urged residents beyond the school to support CCA staff.

Matt Haney, candidate for the 2022 California 17th State Assembly district, speaking to the employees on strike at the California College of the Arts . (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Matt Haney, candidate for the 2022 California 17th State Assembly district, speaking to the employees on strike at the California College of the Arts . (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

“No justice, no peace!” said the rally as strikers marched around campus. Around one hundred attendees showed up for the first day of the strike, a substantial crowd for a small, private school of 1,500 students.

The Union and other adjunct supporters say they plan on holding rallies and teach-ins until the end of the week. Travelslight said they will extend the strike as long as necessary.

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