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Why tens of thousands of California State faculty are on strike

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This is what it sounded like this morning at California State University, East Bay.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Shouting) Contract.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Shouting) Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: (Shouting) Contract.

SUMMERS: The California State University system - the largest public university system in the country - is facing picket lines and class cancellations across 23 schools this week. The union that covers 29,000 professors, counselors, librarians and coaches is on strike after contract negotiations broke down with CSU. KQED's Juan Carlos Lara joins us now to talk about it. Hi, there.

JUAN CARLOS LARA, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So tell us, what is the sticking point for faculty here?

LARA: Yeah. So the faculty that are participating in the strike today say that their pay has not kept pace with the cost of living here in California. The lowest-paid educators make $54,000 a year, and they say that's not sustainable, especially in places like the Bay Area where cost of living is going through the roof. So they're asking for a 12% general salary increase. They also want paid parental leave and a limit to the number of students they have to teach.

SUMMERS: OK. And what is the university's response been to this?

LARA: CSU administrators have been adamant that they can't go higher than a 5% salary increase. They say to pay what teachers are asking, they'd have to dip into reserves, which is not responsible from their point of view. The union pushed back on that. They're saying that they had an independent financial analyst hired, and they concluded that the university could afford the pay raise without dipping into reserves. But the university says that analysis is flawed. They say that much of that money is allocated for specific purposes that can't just be used for salary. They also say they need to build up their reserves instead of just adding more costs on.

SUMMERS: Right and as we were talking about, this is a massive university system. I'm curious, how is this affecting students?

LARA: Right. Yeah. So there are just under half a million students in the CSU system. We don't know exactly how many classes are going to be canceled because we're not sure how many faculty members are going to be on strike. So the union represents 29,000 faculty members, but that includes some who aren't dues-paying members. So union officials have said they hope to shut down all CSU classrooms. And it's possible that even faculty who aren't dues-paying members of the union won't cross the picket line. So we'll just have to wait and see.

For most campuses, this is the first week of instruction for the spring semester. Professors usually spend this time going through the syllabus, answering questions. The end date of the strike right now is Friday, so as long as it doesn't get extended, professors say they can just move this to next week. But, you know, student grades for the semester won't suffer, according to university professors. At the same time, those strikes are meant to be disruptive, and making up for a week of missed classes may mean some hardships for students.

SUMMERS: Right. And tell us, how does this strike fit into the broader labor context we've been seeing at universities over these last few years?

LARA: Yeah, I spoke to a few researchers who've been studying labor movements in higher education. They say this kind of fits into a pattern of increasing strikes at public universities over the last few years. They say this is a sign that educators are fed up after decades of government disinvestment from public higher ed. It also has to do, of course, with worker experiences during the pandemic, as with many other strikes. After being asked to work through lockdowns and adapt to class schedules, they also say they feel like it's time that they're given their due. They also say administrators are overpaid while they are underpaid. And right now, polls show that approval for unions is higher than it's been in decades, so union workers feel like it's the right time to push for these demands.

SUMMERS: KQED's Juan Carlos Lara, thank you.

LARA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLE WRAY SONG, "HOLD ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Juan Carlos Lara
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