California College of the Arts Campus Consolidation Spurs Union Effort

The labor organizing trend in the arts and higher-education sectors continues at California College of the Arts. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

California College of the Arts staff will vote Monday in a union election, continuing a labor organizing trend in the arts and higher education sectors as the cost of living outpaces wage growth in the Bay Area.

At CCA, where faculty ratified their first union contract in 2017, staff including workers in the libraries and facilities divisions have been openly organizing with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 since November. A total of 164 staffers are eligible for representation, according to the union organizers.

The storied private college, founded in the East Bay in 1907 and boasting alumni such as Robert Arneson and Susan O’Malley, enrolls some 2,000 students of art, architecture and design. It also operates the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. Currently, it spans two campuses in Oakland and San Francisco.

Donald Smith, a 20-year California College of the Arts libraries employee, supports the staff union.
Donald Smith, a 20-year California College of the Arts libraries employee, supports the staff union. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

But the entire school will eventually be consolidated in San Francisco, where its campus at the foot of Potrero Hill is being rebuilt. Organizing committee members told KQED that anxieties about the consolidation, now far behind the initially projected 2021 completion date, are a driving force behind staff’s unionizing effort.

With one campus, staff members wonder, will the school need half the janitors? Half the library staff? With staff feeling CCA administration hasn’t satisfactorily answered such questions, organizers believe unionizing will provide job security, higher wages and leverage with school leadership as the workplace dramatically transforms.

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As the campus is being “unified,” to use the administration’s term for consolidating in San Francisco, organizers believe they’re doing the same for the staff. They’re also stressing how, at a time of focus on recruiting and retaining students, unionizing benefits students through stabilizing the workforce.

Paul Navarette, who’s worked in the library for five years, added that they’re concerned about the effect of consolidation on student services. “If half the library is in storage, that’s a decrease in services,” he said.

In a region that consistently ranks among the country’s most expensive, wages are a key issue. Since CCA workers mostly live in the East Bay, campus consolidation will increase commuting time and cost. “I’ve lived in [the East Bay] for 13 years and my rent has tripled, but my salary hasn’t,” said Amber Bales, a CCA library technician for seven years. Bales noted CCA is her first non-union job in higher education.

California College of the Arts is overhauling its San Francisco campus.
California College of the Arts is overhauling its San Francisco campus. Above is a rendering of the proposed campus. (Courtesy Studio Gang)

The administration claims neutrality towards union representation, but organizers said school leadership has sown confusion about eligibility to undermine the effort. They also said the administration has attempted to exclude SEIU representatives, but include school attorneys, from meetings with organizers.

Earlier this month, organizers sent a letter to college president Stephen Beal asking the administration to “respect every employee’s right to make the decision to form a union, free from coercion or threats.”

Asked for comment, CCA spokespeople pointed to a document distributed by the administration Friday.

“The CCA administration is not advocating for or against union representation for staff,” it reads. “The administration encourages all staff members to educate themselves on this important issue, as well as to understand what benefits the College currently provides, and to vote their conscience on April 22.”

Other parts of the document, however, cast unionizing as a loss: Managers would no longer advocate for raises without union consent, and staff would “most likely not be permitted” to join an advisory committee to human resources. Collective bargaining, it claims, would “generally operate” as CCA does presently.

Amber Bales noted California College of the Arts is her first non-union job in higher education.
Amber Bales noted California College of the Arts is her first non-union job in higher education. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Organizers called these assertions disingenuous, adding they’re confident in the election’s positive outcome.

Staff were inspired to unionize in part by the contract SEIU Local 1021 helped adjuncts secure in 2017, after nearly three years of organizing. The “Job Security for the 78 Percent” campaign called attention to the untenured proportion of CCA teachers. Now some 500 adjuncts are eligible for union membership.

The contract provides adjuncts with a 17 percent raise over three years, one- and two-year teaching appointments and eligibility for health benefits after three years of teaching three or more courses.

Local 1021 has 54,000 members, including faculty at San Francisco Art Institute, Dominican University of California, Holy Names University, St. Mary’s College and Mills College. Staff at SFAI and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which fought for cost-of-living raises during contract negotiations last year, are represented by the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).

Paul Navarette, a five-year California College of the Arts libraries employee, is concerned about campus consolidation's effect on student services.
Paul Navarette, a five-year California College of the Arts libraries employee, is concerned about campus consolidation's effect on student services. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

SEIU, known for representing government employees, has been organizing higher-education workers nationally as part of its “Faculty Forward” campaign. The union argues government disinvestment in higher education has “turned college into big business,” resulting in insecurity and wage stagnation.

Matt Kennedy, a print services manager and seven-year CCA employee, said cultural institutions’ messaging around equity and inclusion is also stoking workers’ labor consciousness. “Especially in higher education, where there’s so much values rhetoric, people are motivated by seeing hypocrisy,” he said.

The organizing committee’s Instagram account has posted messages supporting recent labor struggles at Santa Clara University and the New Museum. The committee has also held informational events in partnership with CCA groups such as the Students of Color Coalition, while SEIU representatives this week distributed literature on the Oakland and San Francisco campuses.

At the center of CCA’s plan to overhaul its San Francisco campus is more housing for students, plus new and renovated academic buildings designed by architecture firm Studio Gang. CCA has partnered with Emerald Fund and Equity Community Builders to redevelop its 4-acre Oakland property as a mix of mostly market-rate housing plus office and workspace aimed at artists and arts-related nonprofits.

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