Charles Toombs, president of California Faculty Association, leads a rally outside the CSU Chancellor’s office in Long Beach on May 23, 2023. Photo by Lauren Justice for CalMatters.

From CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn

The faculty union of California State University overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization, giving its leadership the green light to pull as many as 29,000 instructors from educating the more than 400,000 students in the nation’s largest public four-year university system. 

The California Faculty Association said Monday that 95% of its members who voted approved of the strike plans. The union refused to reveal how many of its members actually cast ballots.

Core to the demands are that Cal State increase wages by 12% for all faculty to keep up with inflation, lift the minimum wages for the lowest-paid instructors, expand parental leave, provide lactation rooms for new parents and more.

Cal State spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith said that the union’s strike authorization vote “is not unexpected” and mirrors past efforts by the union to pressure Cal State during contract standoffs. The university is “committed to the collective bargaining process and reaching a negotiated agreement,” wrote Bentley-Smith in an email.

Cal State has maintained it cannot afford the union’s demands, instead responding with a smaller one-year raise or a 12% raise over three years. Cal State argues its total costs far exceed how much it brings in from tuition and state taxpayer revenue. The union counters that the university amasses annual surpluses that it could use toward raises but instead pours into reserves. Last week the union produced an accounting analysis that it argues shows that Cal State has more in reserves that it can use for wage increases.

The authorization doesn’t mean a strike is imminent, though the union has been threatening one since at least May. Legally, the union must wait until a mediator finishes a fact-finding report that will recommend how the union and Cal State should proceed. The recommendation is non-binding. Once finished, the report goes public 10 days later to give both sides a final chance to come to an agreement. Only then can the union strike, but it may choose to delay a walkout anyway. Senior union officials said during a press conference Monday they haven’t picked a strike date and will select a time that makes strategic sense.

“We don’t want to pull the strike when everybody’s on winter break,” said Kevin Wehr, a union vice president and professor at Sacramento State.

Never has the union gone on a systemwide strike, though it last came close in 2016. A smaller Cal State union of roughly 1,100 workers, Teamsters 2010, also announced Monday that its members voted to approve a strike, should its leadership call for one. Several other unions that castigated Cal State in recent months signed tentative contracts in the past few weeks, likely helping to avert a full strike of 60,000 workers. The nation’s largest-ever higher education strike involved 48,000 University of California graduate students and others and lasted for six weeks at the end of 2022.

The Cal State union’s president, Charles Toombs, said faculty have signaled to students since the start of the school year that a strike could happen. Toombs, a professor at San Diego State University, sought to present unity between students and faculty, noting that the union opposed the multi-year tuition increases Cal State’s board of trustees passed last month.

The faculty union’s main talking point is that their working conditions are students’ learning conditions, such as lowering class sizes and increasing pay for lecturers so they spend less time working on multiple campuses — time that can go back to helping students. 

If there’s a strike, will all faculty walk the picket lines? Probably not, Wehr said. Some may want to stay home, while others will be ideologically opposed to a strike. But, he warned, “faculty have very long memories and we don’t want to see people crossing a picket line.”

Cal State could try to replace all striking faculty with temporary workers, but the logistics would be colossal, especially on short notice.

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 CA jobless fund in deep debt

A poster explains ways to file for unemployment insurance benefits, as job seekers look for work at the JobTrain employment office in Menlo Park. Photo by Paul Sakuma, AP Photo
A poster explains ways to file for unemployment insurance benefits at the JobTrain employment office in Menlo Park. Photo by Paul Sakuma, AP Photo

Speaking of workers on strike, in his veto message to block a measure to grant them unemployment benefits, Gov. Gavin Newsom cited the $20 billion unemployment insurance debt the state owes to the federal government.

But the debt isn’t just a major concern for Newsom, writes CalMatters’ economic reporter Levi Sumagaysay. Under federal law, business groups must pay down the debt’s principal while the state typically pays the interest. As the debt grows, businesses’ contributions toward the state’s unemployment insurance fund could also increase. (The Employment Development Department issued a spring forecast that estimated the debt would grow to $19.7 billion at the end of the year.)

This is a red flag for small businesses in particular, who consider the system “regressive” since their payments have a disproportionate effect on their bottom lines.

Labor groups, meanwhile, heavily backed the failed bill, including the California Labor Federation who co-sponsored it. Its president said that the governor is using the debt “as an excuse” to kill the bill, but acknowledged the fund’s inequities, suggesting the tax rate all employers pay on the first $7,000 of each worker’s pay could be lowered, while bumping up what employers of higher-wage workers are required to pay. 

Any change to unemployment benefits insurance and its fund will likely be slow. (The state’s unemployment benefit maximum of $450 a week, for example, has been the same since 2005.) This is especially true given that unions mostly prioritize employed workers rather than unemployed ones, and business groups push back on any contribution increases.

  • Bill Sokol, labor law lecturer at San Francisco State University: “What companies pay for UI is never going to be a top priority for unions, but it’s a top priority for business. This leaves it to the politicians to decide it’s for the greater good” to fix the unemployment insurance system.

For more on California’s growing unemployment insurance debt, read Levi’s story

CHP backs DMV on Cruise tape

A self-driving Cruise vehicle in San Francisco on Aug. 3, 2023. Photo by Achille Abboud/IMAGO via Reuters

From CalMatters economy reporter Levi Sumagaysay:

Cruise — the driverless car company that has paused all its autonomous-vehicle operations across the country after its licenses to operate, test and carry passengers in California were suspended last week — is sticking to its story that it cooperated fully with authorities after an incident in early October in which one of its vehicles in San Francisco dragged a pedestrian who was initially hit by a different car.

But on Friday, the California Highway Patrol backed the Department of Motor Vehicles, which said in its suspension notice that the day after the incident, the company failed to show representatives of the agencies the full video from its vehicle’s cameras.

“The California Highway Patrol agrees with the facts in the DMV’s orders of suspension,” Jaime Coffee, director of communications for the CHP, said in an email to CalMatters.

The DMV said in its suspension notice that the company showed representatives of the DMV and the CHP video from the vehicle’s cameras that ended with the Cruise vehicle braking when a woman was thrown into its path after being hit by another car. The DMV also said it was not made aware at the time that the Cruise vehicle then tried to pull over while the woman was underneath it, ending up dragging her 20 feet.

“The department only learned of the AV’s subsequent movement via discussion with another government agency,” the suspension notice said. The DMV said it then asked Cruise for the full video, which it received 10 days later.

A Cruise spokesperson disputed that account. “We had a meeting with the DMV on 10/3, in which we showed them the complete video multiple times,” Hannah Lindow said in an email last week. “They later requested a copy of the video shown on 10/3, which we provided to them.”

Friday, Lindow said the company’s statement still stands.

Cruise — just one of two companies that had been cleared to charge for a robotaxi service in California — said Thursday in a post on the social network formerly known as Twitter that it was suspending all driverless operations as it “reflect(s) on how we can better operate in a way that will earn public trust.”

Is old law hurting students in need?

Student Theresa Steele stands in the walkway on campus at the West Hills College in Lemoore on Oct. 9, 2023. Steele uses the free services provided by West Hills to help her get by in her classes. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Student Theresa Steele stands in the walkway on campus at the West Hills College in Lemoore on Oct. 9, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

If West Hills College Lemoore didn’t offer student services, especially for people living with disabilities, 58-year-old Theresa Steele likely wouldn’t have stayed in the community college. Steele has limited mobility and learning disabilities, but with certain accommodations from the school — including a special chair and note-taking software — she’s learning on campus and even participating in student government. 

The college spent about $1.4 million on the disabled services program, writes CalMatters’ community college reporter Adam Echelman, with money coming, in part, from its general fund. But under state law — known as the 50% law, which requires community colleges to spend at least half of their general fund revenue each year on classroom instructors — schools such as West Hills College Lemoore struggle to balance instruction costs and the need for student services.

The solution, some colleges argue, is more funding flexibility. Since the law was enacted in the 1960s, student needs for housing, food and technology have grown more complex. And schools shouldn’t be limited, they say, to restricted state grants or philanthropy to fund such services.

In June, the state approved a request by Assemblymember Freddie Rodriguez, a Chino Democrat, to audit community college’s compliance with the 50% law, and a California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office representative suggested expanding the audit to include information on how much money colleges spend on safety net programs.

Proceedings for the audit are currently ongoing and a publication date has not been set yet. But some faculty leaders caution that rerouting money to accommodate the evolving role of colleges may also lead to administrative bloat. 

  • Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges: “Our primary function is instruction. Where is the money going? Are we using this money to support students or to support an administration that’s larger than is necessary?”

For more on this issue, read Adam’s story.

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Gov. Gavin Newsom’s international tour took him to Israel and China last week, but it was a trip tinged with hypocrisy.

CalMatters events: The next event is Nov. 15 about California’s toxic waste problem and how to fix it. Register here.

Other things worth your time:

Some stories may require a subscription to read.

CA budget deficit is likely to grow, projections show // The Sacramento Bee

Why America’s crackdown on China is bad for California // Los Angeles Times

Chinese migrants head towards US border to seek asylum as economy falters // AP News

MAGA Republican launches primary challenge to Rep. Kevin McCarthy // Politico

Studios said to see progress in talks with striking actors // The New York Times

CA Dungeness crab season delayed for sixth year to protect whales // AP News

Bomber’s parole a ‘gut punch’ for Palestinian Americans // Los Angeles Times

A CA prison guard confessed to sexual misconduct. He got a year of paid time off and no charges // The Guardian 

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Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an edtech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento...