CCA staff and adjuncts hold a march during their strike for new union contracts. (Zack Haber/Local News Matters)

In the latest, local reflection of a growing nationwide labor movement, two unions have ratified contracts with the California College of the Arts.The membership units, both affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, represent staff and adjunct employees at the college. This is a first contract for the staff employees, who voted to unionize in 2019.

The new collective bargaining agreements include pay raises, accelerated paths to promotions, increased job security measures, and other benefits.

“I’m very happy with the contract,” said Kēhau Lyons, an academic advisor and staff union member at the college, which is commonly referred to as CCA.

In a news release, CCA President Stephen Beal wrote “I am confident that these agreements will contribute to a fair, equitable, and supportive working environment for all our employees that reflects CCA’s position as an outstanding art and design school, and as an outstanding place to work.”

The agreements come after CCA’s staff union held a four-day strike February 8-11 and the adjunct union held a sympathy strike, joining picket lines at the school’s San Francisco and Oakland campuses.

CCA’s agreements are part of a growing trend of union combativeness. This year, organizing drives have made headlines, with about 200 Starbucks across the country filing for union elections and for the first time, Amazon employees voting to unionize a warehouse in Staten Island. Over the last nine years, higher education institutions have seen an uptick in labor organizing nationally. A report from the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York shows about 120 new faculty union chapters forming since 2013.

CCA’s adjunct union formed in 2014 while the staff union formed in April 2019, both by voting to join SEIU 1021. The adjunct union had been working under a contract that expired in June 2020 while the staff union, which began contract negotiations in October 2019, had yet to strike a union contract with CCA. CCA had not given any pay increases to adjuncts while negotiating its new contract. Other than a few exceptions when they were legally obligated to do so, the college also had not given pay increases to staff members since they had formed a union.

Raises on the way

But the new contracts, which cover about 125 staff members and over 400 adjuncts, will provide pay increases starting June 1, when staff members and adjuncts will receive 3.5 percent and 3 percent raises, respectively. By 2024, adjuncts will receive an 8 percent raise and staff members will receive at least an 8.5 percent raise.

Some staff members, however, will see much larger wage increases. After three years, CCA will be required to pay its staff a minimum yearly salary of $50,700. Ten percent of CCA’s staff currently make between $36,500 and $45,000 and will see pay increases roughly between 12.5 percent and 38 percent.

“I’m really proud we were able to raise the floor for our lowest paid staff,” said union chapter president and tech department worker Matt Kennedy.

Under the new agreements, the adjunct union also secured an end to “halflining.” Randy Nakamura, an adjunct professor with CCA’s graduate design program, described halflining as a practice where the college cuts an adjunct’s pay if a class doesn’t meet certain enrollment numbers. In 2018, Nakamura said his pay was cut in half for one class when he had one fewer student than the minimum required for full pay.

(Zack Haber/Local News Matters)

Both unions secured an agreement from CCA to accept “just cause” employment. United States labor law dictates that, unless workers and employers come to a different agreement, workers can be fired “at will,” which allows employers to terminate their positions without providing a reason. Under the new agreements, CCA must provide a reason if they fire an employee.

Union members point to their strike as a key factor in their success.

“Those four days of striking really reminded people that this college runs because we do our jobs,” said Kennedy.

The staff union began its strike due to what they perceived as unfair labor practices, accusing CCA of stalling negotiations. On September 27 of last year, National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Valerie Hardy-Mahoney sided with the union by issuing a Complaint and Notice of Hearing stating CCA had “been failing and refusing to bargain collectively and in good faith.”

CCA’s communications director did not respond to a question about the union accusations, but the college’s news release stated that contract “negotiations took place virtually for many months due to pandemic restrictions.”

Marches, teach-in’s and political support

During the strike, staff members, adjuncts, tenured professors and community members participated in marches, teach-in’s and group art-making projects. Ninety-nine tenured professors signed a letter sent to CCA that stated they would not be willing to cross the picket line. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton and Board Supervisor Matt Haney offered vocal support, as did Board Supervisor Dean Preston.

Union members say students were especially supportive, leading chants and showing up to picket lines. An instagram post from CCA’s student union just before the strike states “We as students completely benefit from union bargaining and a fair contract for our beloved staff.”

Lyons, a staff union member, said that the strike was “hugely galvanizing in a positive way for staff and students to come together.” Nakamura described the inside of the campus as a “ghost town” during the strike, as students refused to cross picket lines.

“I think CCA did not anticipate student participation to the extent that they did,” said Nakamura. “That was a major incentive for CCA to negotiate.”

After the strike, from February 28 to March 1, as well as on March 9, the unions’ bargaining committees and CCA entered into negotiations through a federal mediator. Nakamura estimates that “90 percent of the negotiation happened in that time.” They struck a tentative deal that was ratified on April 7, when more than 96 percent of union members agreed to accept it.

Though happy with what has been achieved, Kennedy, the union chapter president, is still focused on organizing.

“We’re still union-building,” he said. “You really have to start right now to do the work of negotiation for the next contract three years from now.”

This story was originally published by Local News Matters. 

Zack Haber is a poet and journalist who lives in West Oakland.