‘More than just your teachers’: UC lecturers continue fight for updated contract

Illustration of lecturers walking into Sather Gate
Betsy Siegal/Staff

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Most UC lecturers do not want to strike.

Many have also said they will if it means reaching a contract with increased security of employment and a more reasonable workload — improvements members of UC-AFT have been vying for since negotiations began with the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, more than two years ago.

“When they are not being compensated fairly — when they are not feeling that they can do the best, that they can and are at capacity — then they are not providing the high-end education to students that they deserve,” said ASUC External Affairs Vice President Riya Master. “When they suffer, we suffer.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic escalated challenges for the university and for lecturers alike, as the system incurred significant financial losses. As of September 2020, the UC had lost $2.1 billion, according to UCOP.

In response, members of UC-AFT, a union representing lecturers, revamped their list of demands. They focused on requests that would not further impair the university, according to Crystal Chang Cohen, co-chair of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, Bay Area chapter.

These demands have not been sufficiently addressed, lecturers alleged, despite an uptick in funding from both California Gov. Gavin Newsom and from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, among other sources.

Bargaining has since reached an impasse, and confidential mediations are in progress. Open-session negotiations have ceased, and both sides felt they hit a roadblock.

Monday, UCOP approached members of the UC-AFT with a proposal for a revamped contract, which they believe will address lecturers’ concerns. Lecturers still, however, have reservations.

“It takes effort, teamwork to make change,” Master said. “Students and faculty and staff need to stand together.”

‘Need a happy and productive life’: Lecturer demands

In their more than 50 bargaining sessions, members of UC-AFT have called on UCOP to provide a new contract to university lecturers that will ensure job stability, reasonable workloads and improved compensation.

After these sessions, Cohen said members and allies of the union often leave the bargaining table feeling “dismayed and disrespected.” She further alleged the university has treated its lecturers as though they are “gig workers” and an “invisible labor force,” persistently shocking bargaining session attendees who are not part of the union.

“It’s frankly humiliating,” Cohen said.

According to data obtained by CalMatters through a public records request, more than 25% of lecturers, who teach about one-third of university undergraduate courses, leave the system each year.

On average, lecturers only spend two years teaching at the university, earning about a third of their tenured colleagues’ salaries.

“The people who come to campus and teach do it because they love teaching. But they also need a happy and productive life,” said campus lecturer Michael Ball.

Many UC lecturers have to reapply for employment on a semesterly or annual basis, which Cohen described as “really stressful.” She added that lecturers sometimes do not know they have been reappointed until an academic term has already started.

Members of the UC-AFT have called for multiyear contracts that give lecturers more security of employment. They have also asked the university to give lecturers “rehiring preference,” where they will be offered the opportunity to teach the same course again depending on their performance.

“I feel fortunate to have a year-long contract and not a semester one,” Ball said. “The time we spend dealing with bureaucracy is time that we aren’t spending on students.”

UC-AFT has also worked to address workloads among lecturers, whose daily tasks extend well beyond the physical classroom. According to Cohen, lecturers are exclusively paid to teach and are compensated per course.

They are not, however, paid for developing curricula, serving on committees and advising undergraduate research, among other tasks.

These additional demands increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as lecturers had to adapt to online learning environments, Cohen and Ball noted.

“When the pandemic hit, the university expected us to switch to remote teaching in literally a day,” Cohen said. “We did it, and we went above and beyond to keep the teaching missions.”

Throughout the negotiation process, UC-AFT has also prioritized lecturer compensation.

A group of 58 individuals, including top-tier campus administrators, collectively earn $17.8 million, which is under 40% of the total salaries of campus lecturers, according to data collected by Ball. He indicated “there is room in the system to make things more equitable.”

The median salary for UC lecturers is less than $20,000, and the starting salary for full-time lecturers is $57,000 — rendering it between the “low” and “very low” income brackets determined by Alameda County, according to Cohen.

This is especially difficult in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is unusually high, according to Ball. Cohen added that many lecturers and family providers in the Bay Area specifically struggle to find housing.

“My partner asks every week whether I can reasonably continue in this role while paying for my half of mortgage, childcare, and other household expenses,” said campus lecturer Pamela Fox in an email. “That remains to be seen!”

As a software engineer, Fox said she could earn a far better living by working in industry. Her UC salary is the lowest she has had in 15 years.

Many lecturers also receive insufficient benefits, with two-thirds of those on campus being ineligible for health care benefits despite working during the pandemic, Cohen alleged.

Lecturers also do not receive the same child care services provided to senate faculty, Cohen alleged. Paid family leave is only given to lecturers who have at least 66% employment.

“As a working mom, it’s really hard. In the past, I’ve had to bring my children to class,” Cohen said. “That was my only option.”

‘Highly values our lecturers ’: UCOP’s proposal 

In response to lecturer concerns, UCOP outlined a proposal that seeks to improve lecturer salaries and provide increased stability. This took place outside of the formal mediation process.

“We believe that this proposal is fair, equitable, and responsive to our lecturers’ concerns – and aligned with our shared values and mission as a world-class higher education institution,” King said in an email.

As part of the Oct. 11 proposal, bargaining unit faculty members would see a 3% increase in salary after the contract’s ratification, followed by an additional 3% until the contract expires. Lecturers who make the least, however, would have their salaries increased by an additional 2.5% to 5.2%.

Union members would be provided an average of a 1.3% salary increase as of Jan. 1, while any continuing lecturers being promoted to senior continuing lecturer would have their salary increased by 9%, according to King.

The proposal also seeks to provide increased job stability with longer reappointment periods, King added.

After working for one year, lecturers would receive a one-year appointment. After two years, they would receive a two-year appointment. After a lecturers’ third year in the system, their appointment would be secured for three years without changes in percentage.

In addition, he said the proposal would make paid medical leave more accessible to lecturers with above 66% enrollment. Historically, King said leave was only available to those with 100% enrollment.

The proposal would also increase the number of weeks lecturers receive for childbearing leave from six to eight weeks.

The university also plans to address lecturers’ workloads by posting workload policies and facilitating labor-management meetings.

“The University of California highly values our lecturers and the critical role they play in teaching our students and advancing UC’s education mission,” King said in an email. “Throughout the process we have been genuinely sensitive and responsive to the concerns raised by UC-AFT leaders.”

‘Hard to know’: UC-AFT’s response to UCOP proposal 

UCOP claims that they have “made good-faith, earnest efforts toward achieving a contract,” but some members of the union feel differently.

While UCOP sent the proposal to lecturers across the UC system, the union’s local leaders did not receive the message, Cohen said, alleging that UCOP bypassed rules of the mediation process by sending their proposal directly to union members.

She also questioned the timing of the proposal, as lecturers are currently engaging in informational pickets across UC campuses.

“I wish they could have gone through mediation,” Cohen said. “That would have been the right thing to do.”

While Cohen could not comment on the specifics of the proposal — as she had not been sent a copy by UCOP — she said university lecturers are harboring concerns about its enforceability and allegedly “vague” language.

Cohen specifically voiced potential concerns in UCOP’s wording of the 3% salary increases, which remain under what the union had proposed.

“With inflation and rising cost of housing, child care and health care, it’s hard to know whether that’s going to make a concrete difference,” Cohen said.

Meanwhile, the 9% increase given to senior continuing lecturers is “not a significant boost,” as merit increases are already about 9%, according to Cohen.

Though appreciative of the proposal’s inclusion of a multi-year contract, some members of UC-AFT are concerned about the future of first-year lecturers, as some departments could feel inclined to let more go and not commit to providing a two-year contract, Cohen added.

Still, some lecturers feel more hopeful than when the semester began.

“The pressure campaign between lecturers, student organizations and senate faculty is pushing the needle,” Cohen said. “That makes me hopeful. We can only do this together.”

‘Need student support’: UC-AFT’s next steps 

With the UC Board of Regents discussing an increase in student enrollment and plans to add another 20,000 students to the system by 2030, concerns continue to arise for the future of university lecturers.

Though Cohen feels that adding students is a “vehicle for social mobility” in California, she also anticipates the UC will rely more heavily on lecturers — thousands of whom are not rehired each year.

UC-AFT plans to discuss UCOP’s proposal. According to Cohen, the union members have to come together to potentially accept any offer, and they would like to engage with UCOP in an opening bargaining session.

This week, UC-AFT is also holding informational pickets to educate the campus community about lecturers’ realities and demands, while calling on UC President Michael Drake and the administration more broadly to take action.

Education is essential on a college campus, according to Cohen, as students come and go each year.

“We really need student support. The administration might not listen to us, but they will listen to students,” Cohen said. “Our message seems to be falling on deaf ears.”

If necessary, the union is prepared to strike, and 96% of its members voted to authorize it. Such a strike, Master noted, would be “embarrassing” to the university and their alleged failure to meet lecturers’ needs.

“Some of the best classes I’ve ever taken at Cal have been taught by lecturers,” Master said. “They are more than just your teachers, they are your mentors.”

Mallika Seshadri is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.