Cal State Faculty Begin Largest U.S. Strike of University Professors

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In the largest university faculty strike in U.S. history, thousands of professors and lecturers throughout the California State University system walked off the job on Monday to demand higher compensation, a protest that was expected to cancel most classes early in the academic period.

The California Faculty Association, which represents 29,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches, began a five-day strike that will affect nearly 460,000 students who attend the nation’s largest four-year public university system. Walkouts began at all 23 C.S.U. campuses.

The strike reflects two national trends in labor, said Ken Jacobs, co-chair of the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education: an increase in large-scale strikes, such as those that Hollywood actors and writers and members of the United Automobile Workers staged last year, and a rise in education walkouts in particular.

Los Angeles school employees staged a huge walkout last March, and Oakland educators went on strike for nearly two weeks in May. In December 2022, graduate student workers and researchers at the University of California system, the state’s other four-year university system, stopped working for nearly six weeks to protest low wages.

It is rarer for university faculty to go on strike, though 9,000 full-time faculty members, graduate workers, postdoctoral associates and counselors at Rutgers University did so last April.

Mr. Jacobs said the unrest among faculty reflected universities’ growing reliance on part-time instructors and others who have very low starting pay. Workers across industries are grappling with wages that have not kept pace with high inflation, as well as the rising cost of housing and other living expenses, especially in California, where a busy period of walkouts in 2023 was called a “hot labor summer.”

“Given that Cal State is the largest university system in the country, this is a very significant strike,” Mr. Jacobs said. “We’re starting off this year looking a lot like last year.”

C.S.U. leaders and the faculty association have been negotiating since May, and the union announced earlier this month that it planned to hold a five-day strike after university officials offered raises of 5 percent. The union is seeking pay increases of 12 percent.

University leaders said the system already spends 75 percent of its operating budget on staff compensation and cannot afford to increase salaries at that level. The California State University Board of Trustees last year approved 6 percent annual tuition increases over five years because system officials said they could not balance their budget otherwise.

“If we were to agree to the increase that these unions are demanding, we would have to make severe cuts to programs,” Leora Freedman, the university system’s vice chancellor for human resources, said in a news conference on Friday. “We would have to lay off employees — this would jeopardize our educational mission.” She added that the system had recently agreed on 5 percent pay increases with six other labor unions.

The union also wants to increase the salary floor for full-time employees to $64,360 from $54,360, and is seeking other changes, including caps on class sizes and an expansion of paid parental leave.

“That is where we stand,” the union’s president, Charles Toombs, said. “We know that a systemwide strike in the C.S.U. is going to be historic.”

Hazel Kelly, a spokeswoman for the system, said that all campuses would remain open during the strike and that university leaders would try to limit disruptions to students.

Individual campuses advised students to contact their professors to find out if classes would occur this week. Some C.S.U. schools were scheduled to start instruction on Monday, while others began last week and San Francisco State University resumes on Jan. 29.

Ms. Kelly said it was possible that some faculty members who do not participate in the strike would hold classes. In October, 95 percent of union members who took place in a strike authorization vote supported a walkout.

Union members held one-day work stoppages in early December at four of the system’s largest campuses: Cal Poly Pomona, San Francisco State, Cal State Los Angeles and Sacramento State.

“We are committed to compensating employees fairly, but we are and must be equally committed to the long-term stability and success of the C.S.U., which means we must be fiscally prudent,” Mildred Garcia, the California State University chancellor, said in a news conference on Friday. “We must work within our financial realities.”

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