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A 21st century workforce: Lecturers assert their place at University of California

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This photo was taken prior to campus shutdown.


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APRIL 09, 2021

Lecturers have put their hearts and souls into creating a positive experience for students, said Joanna Reed, a sociology continuing lecturer at UC Berkeley. And they’d like to see the university recognize that by honoring their demands.

To many UC students, there is little difference between a class taught by a lecturer and one taught by a tenured professor. Undergraduates seek both lecturers and tenure-track faculty members for research mentorship and advice on navigating academic life. Yet according to lecturers currently bargaining for a new contract, the UC administration depends on their labor while refusing to treat them as a critical part of the university.

The UC benefits from many students being unaware that there’s a tiered faculty system going on in the university. “That’s kind of helpful for them to keep the status quo,” Reed said.

The contract expired over a year ago Jan. 31, 2020. Since then, UC lecturers, represented by the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, have been bargaining with the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, over the terms of a new contract.

At UC Berkeley, nontenured faculty members, including adjunct professors, taught about 37% of undergraduate course units in 2019-20. They’ve become essential to the university’s mission to provide great undergraduate education.

So how does UC conceive of lecturers and their role in a modern university? And how can a union sway administrators who seem set on preserving the existing system? Over a Zoom meeting, I discussed these questions with Reed, who also serves as one of the co-chairs of Local 1474, the Berkeley and San Francisco chapter of UC-AFT. She updated me on the union’s latest progress negotiating with the administration during the pandemic and her thoughts on the place of lecturers at the UC.

First and foremost, UC-AFT is demanding that the administration provide lecturers with basic workers’ rights. This is an argument in and of itself. But in addition, Reed defended their demands for better job security as essential to high quality undergraduate teaching and research at the UC. In her view, collective action and popular support are essential to making progress towards a shared goal: making a great public university that serves the people.

The power of a union: The UC librarians in 2019

UC-AFT, organized in 1971, represents two units: Unit 17, made up of more than 3,000 non-Senate faculty, or lecturers, and Unit 18, made up of 300 librarians.

I sat down for an interview over Zoom with Kendra Levine, the other co-chair of Local 1474 who represents Unit 18. She told me about the union’s success in 2019 at negotiating a new contract for UC librarians.

Levine, who is the transportation library director at UC Berkeley, first got involved with UC-AFT, because it seemed like the right thing to do. “We have to support workers. And that was the opportunity to do it,” Levine said. “I always had that feeling that unions were a good thing, even if they didn’t really do much.”

Both Levine and Anna Sackman, the data services librarian, started working at UC Berkeley before the Supreme Court’s Janus decision of 2018. This meant that they were put onto the union’s roster by default. Sackman wrote in an email, “My first thought was ‘what would a union even be able to do for me?’ ”

Her initial dismissal of the union was due to an “individualistic attitude,” she wrote, and “negative press” she’d seen about unions. Soon, however, it became abundantly clear how effective organizing was towards creating concrete change. Sackman got involved with union organizing when she became aware that several of her fellow librarians were dedicating their lunch breaks to reworking an antiquated contract.

In April of 2019, UC librarians ratified a new contract. “Librarians before that contract were severely underpaid,” Levine said. “compared to our counterparts in the (California State University) and community college systems. So we fought really hard and we made significant gains.”

A key to their success, according to Levine, was that the negotiating team clearly articulated the impact of disparities in wages between newer and senior UC librarians and came up with an elegant solution. This was a problem that the UC administration was aware of, Levine said. Through working with UCOP as a union and presenting their own ideas, the librarians helped fix it. Among other ameliorations, they raised wages for those at the lower end of the wage scale, and raised them a bit at the higher.

Levine and Sackman remarked that it’s a huge relief to have wages more suited to costs of living in the Bay Area, such as monthly bills and childcare costs. The union’s other accomplishments include extending academic freedom rights to librarians and guaranteeing professional development funds for librarians to pursue research.

In addition to the specificity of their demands, the unity of the librarians was a huge factor in their success, Levine said. Unlike lecturers, librarians work in the same offices together and have had steady employment for years, she said. She also pointed out that librarians work closely together across UC campuses, another reason why it’s easier to organize.

In 2019, “the lecturers — our siblings in Unit 18 — they came and supported us,” Levine said. And the librarians aim to do the same for the lecturers.

An outdated view of a 21st-century workforce

Lecturers face a different situation than librarians, but nonetheless they have successfully built a community and organized negotiations, according to Reed. The focus right now in bargaining is on Article 7a of their contract, which concerns rehiring.

The difficulty of organizing lecturers is that it’s a fragmented and diverse workforce, Reed said. Lecturers typically don’t have their own offices and are spread out across departments and buildings. Plus, the lack of job security, the very issue they are seeking to improve, is also part of the difficulty in creating community.

Though the fight is long and difficult, Reed is optimistic about the success of collective action.

The union has three key concerns: low salaries, exploitation of unpaid work outside classroom time and lack of job security.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the union has focused their negotiations on increasing job security. Most lecturers spend their semesters unsure of whether they’ll have a job the next semester. They may be laid off in the middle of any term.

Lecturers go through a hiring process separate from that of tenured professors on the Academic Senate. They are not eligible for lifetime tenure. Instead, they work on periodic contracts. Each lecturer is hired to work on a yearly contract, though sometimes it can be as short as a semester or quarter.

According to the UC-AFT website, there was a 26% turnover rate in the UC system in 2017-2019, meaning more than 1600 lecturers lost their jobs between academic years.  “You’re essentially hired and fired each year, and there’s no presumption that you will be rehired,” Reed said. She also specifies that job performance is not taken into consideration for most lecturers, except the preference of the department chair.

Over email, UCOP sent an informational sheet on UC-AFT negotiations, which is also posted online. In a section titled “The facts about alleged ‘turnover’ for UC lecturers,” UCOP states that what the union calls turnover is, in large part, due to the high number of lecturers who choose to leave year by year. They listed reasons for leaving such as visiting professionals, lecturers who teach at the university as a side job, lecturers teaching as substitutes for faculty on leave, and multiple others.

In our interview, Reed also listed multiple reasons why lecturers voluntarily leave their jobs. However, UCOP’s emphasis on such temporary lecturers reflects an outdated view of the role of lecturers at a modern university, according to Reed.

“A lot of people would like to continue teaching and are just not given the opportunity,” Reed said.

Reed added that in the past, it was more reasonable to see lecturers as a temporary workforce, for example, a social work practitioner brought in to teach a class here and there. “The majority of classes (were) taught by tenure line faculty. Well, that’s no longer the case,” Reed said.

Indeed, the case has changed drastically, even just in the past decade. While the number of Student Credit Hours taught by tenured faculty has remained roughly the same, credits taught by “Other Faculty” increased by more than 40% from the 2008-09 academic year to 2019-20.

“They would like to pretend that we don’t exist,” Reed said. “But there’s 6,000 of us systemwide, and that number only seems to grow over time. … It’s hard to deny that we are kind of here to stay, but the university finds it convenient to downplay our contributions.”

For example, one of UC-AFT’s arguments is that the university doesn’t acknowledge all the work they do holding extra office hours and meetings with students outside of classroom time.

Reed believes lecturers need to fight together for improvements that will affect all of them, even those who only stay for a short while. She also hopes that any instructor at the university will express solidarity and “care about the working conditions of their colleagues.”

Six years until job security

Reed is a continuing lecturer, a position that exists because of UC-AFT negotiations back in 2003. To get this position, lecturers have to go through an excellence review after their 12th semester teaching, also called a sixth-year review. This is an evaluation process much like a tenure review; but the continuing appointment is still a contract, just one with no end date.

“A continuing appointment is really the only way a lecturer can have job security,” Reed said.

In an email, UCOP wrote that “UC highly values its lecturers and the essential role they play in educating our students and enriching our campus communities.” According to the sheet, the university’s high regard for lecturers is reflected in how UC lecturers have “a level of employment stability that only a select few universities in the nation extend to their lecturers.” It emphasized that the UC is one of two universities in the United States that offers continuing appointments to lecturers after six years of teaching.

UCOP presents this as an excellent level of job security, especially considering their tight budget. Indeed, both the union and the university are plenty aware that the problem also stems from a lack of funding: “The university is starved for money” from the state, Reed said. The undergraduate population and the need for more courses have been rapidly increasing.

However, this is no excuse to the lecturers. It’s clear to them that this hiring and firing system needs to change. Similar to how librarians in 2019 were fighting primarily for the newer librarians, the focus of the current bargaining is to demand better job security for pre-six lecturers, those who make up the vast majority and don’t have continuing appointments.

“It takes too long to get to a continuing appointment. Six years is a long time,” Reed said. “Statistically speaking, it is unusual for lecturers to make it that far … I don’t see why you should have to be around for six years before you have any kind of idea of job security into the future.”

Accordingly, one of the union’s core arguments is that there should be rehiring preferences for lecturers who have shown that they’re excellent at teaching, especially for courses that are going to be offered again.

The fruits of union organization are evident, but there is more to be done. In their statement, UCOP mentions multiple improvements to working conditions that they are now offering in response to proposals from UC-AFT: These include offering two-year appointments to pre-six lecturers after their second year teaching, and allowing Summer Session courses to count as credit towards becoming a continuing lecturer.

Right now, lecturers are waiting to hear back from UCOP after their last bargaining session Feb. 26th.

What’s best for your education

The need for basic job security is an argument in and of itself. But the union also consistently emphasizes that lecturer working rights are what’s best for undergraduate students. From the students’ perspective, tenured and nontenured faculty both teach well and offer mentorship, according to Reed.

In a written statement, UC Berkeley English major Kristi Horita Marcouillier wrote about her positive experience with a lecturer who went above and beyond to offer academic advising. As a transfer student, she described feeling out of place on campus and lacking in resources. One lecturer, she wrote, met with her over Zoom and sat for over an hour answering her questions about academic life. “I believe that lecturer was one of the best educators I’ve had in my entire academic career,” she wrote.

Marcouillier showed her support for the union and added, “It’s difficult to see how we can expect high-quality instructors to persist under conditions where they can hardly survive off of the wages they’re earning and when they have no idea whether or not they have steady employment with the university.”

Addressing undergraduates, Reed said the UC’s turnover of experienced lecturers is “directly related to the quality of your education.” The university maintains a tiered faculty system where a good portion of the faculty that teaches undergrads doesn’t have the same level of resources as the other share of the faculty, Reed added.

Lecturers also lack resources to conduct and help undergraduates with research, inconveniencing everyone involved. The university has mechanisms in place that make it very hard for lecturers to serve as principal investigators, Reed said. This means they often can not advise undergraduate research projects.

Most lecturers have PhDs and research experience from the same universities as tenured faculty, and are fully qualified to supervise undergraduate research projects. “It’s just so much easier if we can be the person on the project, and it also seems insulting,” Reed said.

Support in rectangles: bargaining over Zoom

Since the pandemic began, organizing has shifted online. Marcouillier is far from the only student who has expressed their support for the lecturers. Hundreds of students, faculty and staff have shown up to UC-AFT Zoom bargaining and rallies. More than 560 union members and allies showed up to the last bargaining session Feb. 26.

Reed feels encouraged by all the support in the Zoom room from so many different groups on campus. Community members have also shown support at a meeting where people wrote letters to the UC Regents about lecturers and job security. Additionally, more than 2,500 people have signed a petition addressed to UC President Michael Drake in support of lecturers.

Making sure those around you thrive will make the whole community — students and workers — thrive, Levine added. Levine, Reed and Sackman expressed that through organization and vocal support, the community plays an essential part in changing current working conditions.

The UC is a public institution that serves the people of the state, so to a certain extent, they will listen to you, Reed said. Making your voice heard, whether through letter-writing, showing up to bargaining sessions or talking to your department chair, will work.

Contact Miranda Jiang at [email protected]

APRIL 11, 2021

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