Class struggle

Earning and learning at stake in CSU labor fight

Sociology Professor Kevin Wehr (right) crashes the CSUS Green and Gold Gala to drum-up support for the professors union.

Sociology Professor Kevin Wehr (right) crashes the CSUS Green and Gold Gala to drum-up support for the professors union.

Photo By Andrew Nixon

Take one California state university system. Now add a union and a bunch of management. Season with ongoing contract talks, and simmer for 19 months.

There’s another vital ingredient in this recipe for labor strife: The students who are not at the bargaining table. In the case of CSU Sacramento, there are 28,000 students of diverse backgrounds.

A big part of the ongoing discord involves class size. The California Faculty Association, which represents professors, plus coaches, counselors and librarians, wants to lower the number of students in classes.

This move would lighten professors’ workloads—some 1,200 of whom (full and part time) teach at CSUS. About 700 of the CSUS faculty are CFA members.

Loran Garcia, 26, is a sociology graduate student at CSUS who has been there for three years. Each semester she has struggled to find the classes she wants. And when she gets them, the classes often are overcrowded.

“In the larger classes there is less interaction with the professors and students, with more lectures and tests,” Garcia said. “Smaller classes allow for more discussion and question time with professors and students,” added Garcia, mother of a 3-year-old son and a full-time analyst for the state of California.

Overcrowding means 50 or more students with a single professor in a CSUS classroom. This wasn’t always the case.

Three decades ago, a typical professor had 20 students in a class, according to Arthur S. Jensen, a professor of marketing in the College of Business Administration. On the CSUS faculty since 1976, he has watched that ratio go up “in stages” over 30 years. “I can interact with more students, but have lost a lot of the individual student contact that I used to have,” added Jensen, who is not a CFA member.

What happens when a student fails to ask her a question in a class due to the backlog of other questions? Imagine a class of 50 students. Think of timid students. They may have less confidence as public speakers. Such students can be the ones who “miss out” from the classroom dialogue, said Manuel Barajas, a CFA member and an assistant professor of sociology at CSUS.

In 2006, of course, professors and students easily can communicate with each other outside of class. E-mails and text messages are two examples. Does such technology compensate for the loss of face-to-face dialogue?

In important ways, facial and verbal cues make human communication what it is. And this unique capacity shapes who we are and how we learn from and with others.

Such personal communication is key if professors “want to have quality interactions with students and enhance their learning experiences,” said Michelle Matisons, a women’s studies professor and CFA member. And that, she and the CFA maintain, means that the class sizes should shrink.

But cutting class size would be an “expensive proposition,” said Sam Strafaci, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for human resources and lead labor negotiator.

The two sides remain far apart on such economic issues, Strafaci said. The CFA bargaining team “is unwilling to compromise” on what he calls CSU’s “unprecedented” offer of a 24.87 percent pay raise over four years, he added.

The CSU offer appears to be generous. So what exactly is the sticking point? How far is “far apart,” and why?

Across the table from Strafaci sits Lillian Taiz, CFA vice president, one of the union’s top negotiators. For her, the CSU offer is less than what Strafaci said.

The CSU offer actually converts to a 14.87 percent increase over four years for most faculty, according to Taiz.

And then there is merit pay, part of the CSU offer to the CFA. Under the terms of merit pay, senior management on the 23 CSU campuses would tie faculty performance to salary increases, Strafaci said.

A merit-pay salary structure would reward professorial quality, but faculty would compete for raises with each other. And it would weaken union negotiations based on collective bargaining.

Merit pay would benefit “a few professors,” Taiz said. Such a pay scheme, however, “is not what most professors can count on.”

The two parties also have been discussing the salaries of junior faculty (full-time, tenure-track but untenured). Their low pay is the rub. Currently, there are a total of 140 junior faculty at CSUS hired between 2002 and 2005. They earn $10,000-a-year less than what their more recently hired peers earn.

This issue is “a matter of principle” for Kevin Wehr, a CSUS sociology professor who teaches 200 students in a total of three classes this semester. Wehr is a CFA member who arrived at CSUS in 2003. He has dubbed the lower income of experienced junior faculty a “salary penalty.”

The state Public Employment Relations Board declared an impasse in contract negotiations between the CFA and CSU early this month. A PERB-appointmented mediator began to hear the case on November 8. Meanwhile, CFA members are working under a contract extension through the end of November.