Saving City College: Stakes high in faculty contract negotiations

by Bob Price, PhD

Like David fighting Goliath, the faculty of City College of San Francisco (CCSF) are in a pitched battle to protect their union, their students and their school from destruction. They are up against big-business forces pushing to downsize or close community colleges so that profit-making schools can take over. Corporate foundations have lobbied to bring the California Chancellor for Community Colleges and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) on board with their “reform” agenda.

Save City College rally Dept of Education 070913 by AFT Local 2121, webFaculty contract negotiations are now the critical front in a 15-month war to undermine the acclaimed college that serves 80,000 students. To win, it is imperative that faculty members mobilize their union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121, to take militant action, including striking if necessary.

Attack spurs fight-back

Privatizers put the school and the union in a stranglehold in July when the ACCJC declared it would yank CCSF’s accreditation in summer 2014. The statewide chancellor followed this with a coup, dismissing the elected board of trustees and appointing a special trustee, a czar with unlimited power. The Save CCSF coalition, in which FSP and Radical Women representatives have played a key role, organized a rousing response. Students, faculty, staff and community members marched 3,000-strong to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) San Francisco office.

After months of agitating with rallies, pickets, teach-ins, sit-ins and press conferences, the tide began shifting against the corporatists. In response to a complaint filed by the union, DOE announced that the ACCJC is operating in violation of its own rules, with possible conflicts of interest. A state legislative committee ordered an audit of the accrediting agency and its practices. The San Francisco city attorney filed lawsuits against the ACCJC and California Community College governors to halt revocation of the school’s accreditation.

Meanwhile, the faculty contract expired in December 2012. In July, the administration implemented a 5 percent permanent pay cut without negotiation. The last time AFT members got a raise was 2007 – accounting for inflation, their wages are down 19 percent. So, it’s no surprise that negotiations have reached impasse. Besides the slashed wages, administrators demand new contributions to retiree healthcare and the right to cancel any class without explanation.

Union key to maintaining quality public education

Management’s demands have far-reaching ramifications for students. A selling point of CCSF has been its strong faculty. Now, with the lowest salaries among San Francisco Bay Area community colleges, CCSF can no longer attract or retain the most talented and committed educators.

Handing administrators the ability to cancel any class for any reason would leave registered scholars in the lurch and lead to a downward enrollment spiral. State funds, based on student numbers, would shrink, reducing class offerings even more. By rejecting concessions, AFT 2121 can maintain access to excellent courses and teachers.

Victories would also build steam for winning back classes and services already axed for thousands of undergraduates. Last winter’s firing of dozens of academic counselors and part-time instructors has especially affected adult education classes, including English as a Second Language. Ethnic studies have been hurt by cuts to department chairs’ hours. Although AFT’s contract doesn’t directly address these areas, a strong stance sends a message to the privatizers to back off.

Union-busting tactics are key to any attempt to privatize public institutions. By standing for strong contracts and organizing mass student and community support for pickets, job actions and strikes, faculty locals like AFT 2121 can build an effective resistance for the long haul. This is what the Chicago public school teacher strike accomplished last year.

Union-busting tactics are key to any attempt to privatize public institutions. By standing for strong contracts and organizing mass student and community support for pickets, job actions and strikes, faculty locals like AFT 2121 can build an effective resistance for the long haul.

AFT 2121 has taken some important steps to defend its members, the college and students. The local’s leaders invited members to a round of negotiations in August. A hundred faculty members came in a show of strength against concessions.

It was the union’s complaint with the DOE last spring that goaded the agency to cite the illegal behavior of the ACCJC. This was a good tool to push back against the corporate agenda, but the fight cannot be won solely through government agencies or the courts.

Now is the time to keep up the pressure. As negotiations wend their way through the final stages of impasse mediation and fact-finding, college management and the corporate raiders are unlikely to back down. At that point, the union may be left with few choices – accept concessions or organize job actions or a strike.

AFT leadership has discouraged strike talk, and many faculty members may be following their example. But the failure to confront management with a strike, labor’s strongest weapon, would be tantamount to giving up without a fight.

Local officers also present the battle at CCSF as simply a struggle with the ACCJC, when it’s ultimately about privatization. This obscures the big picture and undercuts militancy. And AFT’s top officials, as in most unions, have close ties to the Democratic Party – a major advocate of corporatized education. So, from national and statewide leaders the word is out to toe the line and put a lid on militancy.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents staff, is certainly no help. It has links to the pro-corporate Campaign for College Opportunity and has thwarted efforts to involve its members in defending the school.

Rank-and-file and community activism needed

Union members are crucial to building the fight. Those who stand to lose the most from the take-aways are part-time, or adjunct, faculty members, often women and people of color. They, along with their full-time allies, urgently need to mobilize for job actions and a strike if necessary.

If they are strong and link their demands to promoting student success, San Franciscans stand ready to support them. A neighborhood-based campaign can galvanize support.

CCSF is a crucial test case. AFT’s battle for a good contract is a front in the whole fight for public education. It’s a struggle that can and must be won.

Bob Price, a chemistry professor at City College and member of AFT 2121, can be reached at RPchemist@aol.com. This story first appeared in the October-November 2013 issue of Freedom Socialist.