Staff, faculty and students at California College of the Arts (CCA) march outside of the San Francisco campus on Feb. 8, 2022, during a staff strike over claims of unfair labor practices. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
On Tuesday morning, a call and response of “What do we want?” “Contracts!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” could be heard in front of the California College of the Arts (CCA) San Francisco campus in Potrero Hill.
Those chants came from hundreds of staff members, adjunct faculty and students at the college who were taking part in the Feb. 8 strike, but the atmosphere was more akin to that of a midday fiesta with maracas shaking and music playing. A banner read: “Labor justice is social justice. CCA staff & adjuncts deserve fair contracts now!”
More on CCA Staff Union
CCA staff are striking over what they claim to be unfair labor practices at the college amid ongoing collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Participants say this represents the first strike at a private arts college in the U.S. since 2012 and the first strike at a private college in California since a 1976 strike at Pepperdine University.
CCA’s chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 alleges that the college breached labor laws when, without first securing the permission of union representatives, it eliminated the positions of multiple employees who were seeking to come back from a pandemic-induced furlough, offering them different roles—and in at least one instance, lower pay. The union also claims that CCA created multiple seasonal job positions without its blessing.
However, in a statement on its website, the college said it gave the union proper notice of these changes and that these allegations “are without merit.”
The strike is planned to continue on the San Francisco campus through Feb. 11, with the exception of a Feb. 9 demonstration, which will take place on the school’s Oakland campus. Many of the college’s adjunct faculty, tenure or tenure-track faculty, and students are also participating in a sympathy strike. This means a significant amount of the student body will be missing out on classes this week, a scenario CCA administration points to as detrimental for all parties involved.
“At a time when we are making rapid progress in negotiations and have reached agreement on so many items, a strike benefits no one—not our staff, not our faculty, and certainly not our students, who have just returned to fully in-person classes for the first time in nearly two years,” a CCA spokesperson wrote in an email to KQED. “The college has called on the union to show respect for the process and continue our progress by coming back to the negotiating table. Our goal is to work together to reach an agreement as quickly as possible and return everyone’s full energy and focus to our core mission of educating students.”
Students speak out in support of the strike
Piper Alldredge, who has worked for four years as a studio manager at the San Francisco campus, called the assertion that the strike is bad for students “a slap in the face” to employees who stuck with CCA during the pandemic.
“What about when you furloughed the people who work directly with students? The people who are supporting them every single day in so many different ways that are directly tied to our job descriptions, but also not,” she said in an interview with KQED.
Zoë Segura, a junior sculpture major at CCA, attended the strike and helped fellow students create a cardboard recreation of Tatlin’s Tower—a symbol of communism and the Bolshevik Revolution—to represent that “institutions will fall without labor.” Segura said that the administration’s claim that the strike is bad for students is not reflective of the views of the majority of the student body.
“I’ve seen a lot of my peers out here, and I’m very proud of that. I think the general consensus is that we’re all fed up and think that everyone deserves more than they’re getting from CCA,” she said.
In September 2021, a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces U.S. labor law, charged that CCA had committed unfair labor practices and that the college must “bargain in good faith with the Union, on request, within 15 days of a Board Order, not less than twice a week, at least six hour per session, until an agreement or bona fide impasse is reached.”
CCA responded in October by denying the NLRB regional office’s request for remedy, instead, exercising their right to a hearing before a judge.
CCA employees demand a living wage
Matt Kennedy, CCA’s Local 1021 union president, was one of the employees who said he was offered a minimized role with less pay as a condition of coming back from furlough. Kennedy, who has worked in CCA’s technology department for 10 years, said the financial strain of his 18-month furlough and subsequent demotion was especially difficult because he had a child during the pandemic.
Kennedy said he was “one of the very last people to get called back to work,” and added that he feels his demotion and pay cut were “retaliation for my activity with the union.”
Despite this, Kennedy returned to CCA.
“I want to see us get our first contract, I want to see it really start to improve the lives of our workers,” Kennedy explained.
This week’s strike comes after years of turmoil between CCA’s Local 1021 union and administrators at the negotiating table. Since the staff voted to unionize in 2019 after plans to consolidate CCA’s Oakland campus to San Francisco were announced, the union has been pushing for higher wages, better benefits, a clearer promotion policy, greater job security and more transparency surrounding the college’s finances. The staff union claims that the compensation CCA currently offers the majority of their members is not enough to afford the cost of living and commuting in the Bay Area.
“With the wage issue, they frame that as just an unreasonable ask on our part,” Alldredge said, pointing to $60,000 as the salary the union thinks should be the lowest pay at CCA. “Right now we have workers at CCA who make less than $40,000 a year. That’s not something that a person, much less a person with a family, can live on in the Bay Area. It’s just shameful. And it’s something that really feeds into that burn-and-churn culture of the workplace.”
CCA’s adjunct faculty belong to the same Local 1021 chapter as the staff members, and are currently negotiating their second union contract as a separate bargaining unit. They have their own set action items they’d like to see addressed.
Chief among them is the elimination, or at least clarification, of a practice called half-lining, where adjuncts are paid half of their agreed-upon compensation if they don’t reach enrollment thresholds. This process is not new, nor is it unique to CCA, but adjuncts—like MFA design professor Randy Nakamura—said what constitutes a class as under-enrolled is “a moving target” with “no consistent standard.” Nakamura pointed out that fewer students doesn’t necessarily correlate to a significant drop-off in workload for the professor.
“It’s the same number of contact hours,” Nakamura told KQED. “There might be a little less grading, but the actual in-class work is essentially the same. It's definitely not 50% less work.”
Union is hopeful demands will be met
In December 2021, 97% of the union’s voting staff authorized the strike. They cited claims that CCA administrators have intentionally prolonged contract negotiations—and have shown up unprepared to some of these sessions—following a drastic change in working conditions during the pandemic.
However, CCA denies allegations that it has dragged its feet during negotiations. According to CCA’s “Collective Bargaining Fact Check” web page, “It has always been the college’s goal to reach an agreement with the union as quickly as possible and return everyone’s energy and focus entirely to our core mission of educating students.”
The same CCA spokesperson also told KQED in an email that “CCA remains ready and willing to negotiate as frequently as needed to achieve a fair and mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement with our unionized staff. The college has a comprehensive proposal on the table that provides wage increases for our valued staff while also maintaining our ongoing commitment to student financial aid and a financially sustainable future for the college.”
Some ranked faculty members agree with the staff’s characterization of the process. Ninety-nine tenure and tenure-track faculty wrote a letter to CCA President Stephen Beal and Provost Tammy Rae Carland urging them to settle a fair contract with staff on Feb. 7, saying they “believe that two years is long enough to wait for a contract.”
According to multiple sources familiar with the bargaining process at CCA, the strike announcement has worked to move negotiations out of gridlock, though a comprehensive resolution has yet to be reached.
Still, union members remain hopeful that their demands will be met eventually.
“We’re a brand-new union and going on strike to get your first contract isn’t something that normally happens. So this is a really powerful and transformative thing that we’re taking part in,” Kennedy, the union president, said. “I think that it’s really not just going to change things at CCA, but I think it’s going to change how a lot of workers think about their jobs and their working conditions in relation to their living conditions.”
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