The University of California is laboring to find a solution to one of its most pressing issues.
Murmurs of a work stoppage loomed large as renewed negotiations between the UC and the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT, the union that represents all of the University’s lecturers and librarians, began last week after the latter declined to extend its contract for the third time last month. Additional meetings are set for this coming Thursday and Friday.
Unless something changes soon, a strike may be on the horizon. UC-AFT is no longer bound by the no-strike provision of its contract, meaning that a labor stoppage is now a very real option.
The University unsurprisingly wants to do its best to avoid such a scenario, just as it did in regards to its negotiations with teaching assistants, doctors and service workers, all of whom have gone on strike since late 2013. UC workers have shown that they are willing to take action when presented with rigid terms that do little to improve their conditions, a reality their employer needs to face.
University representatives must end the stalemate and present the lecturers with a concrete proposal, one that could jump-start rather than stall a productive process, as soon as possible. This means presenting something more substantial and less insulting than the 1.5 percent salary increase to cover the next five years they so callously offered in October.
There’s no getting around the fact that lecturers are on the whole underpaid for the service they provide the UC. About 1,200 lecturers taught at UCLA alone in the last academic year, but according UC-AFT Local 1990, the local that represents lecturers on our campus, they only earned an average of 15 percent of what tenure-track faculty made. Their indignation is justified to say the least and the UC needs to work with them to improve their working conditions.
Union representatives maintain that the UC is an unwilling negotiating partner and that it is deliberately delaying and extending talks as a part of an attrition strategy. A petition currently being circulated by UC-AFT calling on UC President Janet Napolitano to send the UC’s team back to the table with a serious proposal for a fair contract claims that the UC “hasn’t put in writing serious proposals on salary” after nearly a year of negotiations.
UC spokesperson Kate Moser said the University is not intentionally delaying the process, adding that the union has been unavailable to meet with its negotiating team.
While these back and forth accusations may seem like a squabble that only concerns workers and their employer, poor labor relations can have real, negative effects on students as well. If the situation deteriorates enough to require a work stoppage, lecturers may consider a grading strike, meaning they would withhold grades as a bargaining chip. While this might prompt students to think that this is an unfair attack on them by their teachers, it’s more than reasonable that the lecturers would feel the need to take such measures after a series of fruitless talks. Simply put, they have few other tenable options.
None of the above parties want a disruptive work stoppage, and with good reason. The union itself has also said it doesn’t want a strike now, but it is willing to use the tactic as a last resort if negotiations continue to stand still.
That isn’t to say that nothing has been accomplished at all. For example, the two sides have agreed on a raise for pre-continuing lecturers, whose appointments can be subject to termination every quarter, after 10 quarters. They have also agreed that UCLA and UC San Diego must stop churning, the practice of getting rid of pre-continuing lecturers in order to save money, which is contractually prohibited. While they’re welcome signs of progress, these agreements simply aren’t enough to resolve the issues that remain.
If the UC expects anyone to be sympathetic toward it in the negotiations or even begin to understand why it’s taking so long to reach an agreement, it’s doing a poor job of explaining itself. There may be legitimate reasons why the UC won’t comply with UC-AFT’s proposals, which include a “fair salary” and more benefits for part-time lecturers, but until they spell them out for the public, its representatives will continue to look like misers who don’t value the well-being of a vital, not to mention large, part of the UC’s workforce.
The UC would like to avoid a strike, but if the situation deteriorates further, it will be all but inevitable.