When a union representing roughly 29,000 faculty members, librarians and others went on strike Monday across all 23 campuses of the country’s highest-enrollment four-year public university, it understandably drew national headlines.
The New York Times treated the California State University walkout as breaking news, with The Washington Post, CNN and the Associated Press also covering it. The work stoppage evoked the 2022 University of California strike, when some categories of workers continued striking for over a month.
But the Cal State strike, which had been slated to last a week, ended after just a day.
Was it so successful that it only took a day to get the best contract possible, or did union leaders abort the strike too early? California Faculty Association union leaders say it ended with a bang, but some union members call it a whimper.
“STRIKES WORK!” the CFA said on X Monday night in a post calling off the strike. “Our members have won a Tentative Agreement with @calstate that includes raising the floor for our most vulnerable faculty, safer workplaces & expanded parental leave.”
Yet bullet points of this tentative agreement that CFA released Monday to media and members mentioned a 5 percent raise this academic year, not the 12 percent the union had been demanding, and 10 weeks of paid parental leave, up from six but still not a full semester. The bullet points didn’t mention another demand—increasing the number of counselors for students’ mental health—at all. (A Thursday follow-up email to members added that the deal includes “first-time contract language that acknowledges the importance of moving all campuses to a 1,500:1 students-to-counselor ratio,” but that’s not a guarantee for more counselors.)
Some critics of the deal lambasted it on social media. “Why do we keep settling for less-than inflation and call it ‘win’?” Andrew Byrne posted on X shortly after the CFA’s post. “Unions were winning this year. CFA won the status quo. They won a revolving door of faculty.”
On Wednesday, Byrne, an associate professor of education at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, told Inside Higher Ed, “I don’t understand why this ended so abruptly when so many people showed up and, you know, signed up, showed up, marched in the rain for just results that seem to fall really far short of what our opening demands were.”
Multiple Cal State faculty members reported strong picket lines, though neither the union nor the university provided figures for how many employees actually withheld their work.
“Maybe if it were at the end of the scheduled strike that they accepted that, maybe that would make sense to me, but I didn’t understand why they got that on the first day,” Byrne said. “I’m voting no, and I hope others vote no.”
An Instagram account that says it represents the union’s San Francisco State University chapter began urging members Tuesday to vote down the tentative agreement. It promoted something called “Cal State Faculty United.”
Sang Hea Kil, a professor in San José State University’s justice studies department, said she’s part of Cal State Faculty United, which she called “a loose affiliation” of about 60 faculty members that’s urging union members to vote down the tentative agreement whenever it comes up for a vote. The union—which represents tenure-line instructional faculty members, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches—hasn’t yet set dates for that vote.
“I’m not sure what really happened with CFA leadership, but they folded rather fast,” Kil said.
“It fails on social justice principles that we demanded,” Kil said, referring to the parental leave and counselor provisions. “It doesn’t meet our needs in this new neoliberal economy, and we really need to stick up for ourselves and stand in solidarity with other faculty and vote no.”
But a couple of members of the CFA Board of Directors, the entity that called off the strike and decided to send the tentative agreement out for a vote, used words such as “transformational” and “excellent” to describe the agreement. They also said they thought Monday’s deal was the best they were going to get. The board’s decision to accept the tentative agreement and end the strike wasn’t unanimous, they told Inside Higher Ed, but it was “overwhelming.”
Meghan O’Donnell—a board member, statewide CFA officer and lecturer in constitutional and political history at CSU Monterey Bay—said Cal State’s chancellor said the union would “never, ever” get the 12 percent raise in one year, because it would’ve triggered clauses in contracts CSU has with other unions that would’ve allowed those unions to renegotiate their own pay.
“We had to figure out a way to get to 12 percent by more creative means, and that’s what we did,” O’Donnell said.
The university, for its part, reiterated through a spokeswoman Thursday that a 12 percent increase this academic year “was not financially realistic and would have cost CSU approximately $380 million in the first year alone and every year after that. This is $150 million more than the CSU’s entire funding increase from the state of California in ’23–’24.”
About two weeks before the strike was set to start, Cal State promised a 5 percent across-the-board raise for the employees the union represents and said it would provide another 5 percent next academic year. The tentative agreement would make this academic year’s raise retroactive to July 1, 2023, according to the union’s bullet points, so employees who worked all academic year would make by the end of this year the equivalent of a 5 percent raise all year long. (The union had also wanted the abandoned 12 percent raise to be retroactive.)
The tentative deal would also remove a caveat to the 5 percent raise promised for next academic year that made that bump contingent on the state “honoring the financial commitments that it made in its current multi-year compact” with the university. On Jan. 10, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed delaying new funding for Cal State until fiscal year 2025–26, due to California’s projected $38 billion budget shortfall.
The tentative deal still has a catch for next year’s 5 percent raise: it won’t kick in if the state reduces the university’s “base funding,” the union says. The deal does include a “step increase” of 2.65 percent that union leaders said many union-represented workers will receive.
Dave Colnic—a CFA Board of Directors member, statewide CFA officer and chair of the political science, public administration and leadership studies department at Stanislaus State—said he supported the quick end to the strike.
“I think that this [deal] was what we were going to get, and I think that the fact that we could do this while protecting our members’ day-to-day paychecks was really important to me, personally,” he said.
Cal State opposes paying striking workers for any day they don’t work. Its campuses had websites inviting students to report employees who weren’t working, though university officials didn’t say docking pay was the purpose of those forms.
“As a public institution that receives funding from California taxpayers, it would be a misuse of public funds to pay employees for days they strike or otherwise do not work for which we are aware,” a university spokeswoman wrote (spokespeople answered some emailed questions but didn’t provide an interview). “By definition, a strike consists of the employee withholding work and the employer withholding pay. The CSU expects all employees who went on strike to accurately report their time.”
Colnic said he supposes he was “a little bit worried about the deal breaking down.”
“I find the tentative agreement to actually be transformational; it is an excellent deal,” Colnic said. He said the “main hook” for him was the tentative deal’s raising of the minimum pay for lecturers, who he said are the lowest-paid and most “vulnerable” of the union’s members.
The full-time-equivalent minimum salary for the lowest-paid lecturers will increase from from $54,360 to $66,082 by July 1, 2024—a 22 percent increase. And Colnic said about a third of union-represented employees will get the 2.65 percent step increase.
O’Donnell said, “It’s important that folks understand the actual tentative agreement, and we’re seeing a lot of misinformation that’s circulating online and I think it’s being amplified by a very, very loud minority of folks” who are having a “knee-jerk reaction” before seeing the deal, she said.
“There are wins in this contract for every single one of our faculty members, all ranks, all classifications. This is a really excellent tentative agreement,” O’Donnell said.
“We felt that we had an ethical obligation to give this offer to our members to decide,” she said. “We felt like it was such a good agreement that it would have been actually irresponsible for us to just ignore it or say no out of hand in the interest of staying on strike.”
The deal hasn’t yet been released by either the university or the union. O’Donnell said lawyers for both sides are still working out the language.
“I am very, very confident that we got the most that we were going to get out of the chancellor and that this is the best deal that we would have gotten,” she said.
Kevin Wehr, a Sacramento State sociology professor who’s not on the board but leads the union bargaining team, said there was another factor: faculty members “were very interested” in getting back into classrooms. This was the first week of class on multiple campuses. But, Wehr also said, “We thought that the deal was the best deal we were going to get.”
“Why would we continue that [strike] if we didn’t think we were going to get a better deal?” he said.
Kil, the San José State professor who opposes the deal, said she believes “we didn’t do a good enough job preparing for a statewide strike, and I think management could read our messaging and maneuvers.” She said there weren’t strike or hardship funds to help compensate workers who were in need of pay for strike days, there wasn’t sufficient strike training on items such as how to talk to colleagues who want to cross picket lines and the weeklong cap signaled to management that “that’s the max we can go.”
But she did praise the fact that the union staged one “historic” strike day across the whole system, and that it allowed for members to see bargaining as it took place during the open bargaining portion.
“There seems to be a disconnect between membership and leadership,” she said, “but ultimately the enemy here is management.”