UCSC lecturer Christie McCullen speaks at an on-campus rally last month.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Higher Ed

UC lecturer strike averted as union hails tentative agreement as its ‘best contract’ ever

A massive strike by more than 6,000 University of California lecturers, including at UC Santa Cruz, was averted after the union and university reached what UC-AFT called its “best contract” in history.

A massive two-day strike by University of California lecturers — including those at UC Santa Cruz — that threatened widespread class cancellations was averted early Wednesday after the union and university reached a tentative agreement on a contract that would strengthen job security and boost the pay by an average 30% over five years.

It is expected that classes will go on as scheduled, although there could be some early-morning confusion as word spreads about the agreement.

“We’re encouraging and advising members to teach today,” said Mia McIver, president of the University Council-AFT, which represents 6,500 lecturers. “We’re doing the best we can to get the word out.”

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The long-simmering labor dispute had reached a tipping point recently as UC-AFT filed unfair labor practice charges over the university’s alleged refusal to negotiate a paid family leave policy and participate in confidential mediation. Both sides reached a resolution on those charges. The lecturers, who are non-tenured, teach one-third of UC undergraduate classes but had gone 20 months without a contract.

But the two sides came to a tentative agreement about 4 a.m. Wednesday after marathon negotiations. All members of the bargaining unit will be eligible for four weeks of paid family leave at full pay; those with good job evaluations will be able to keep their positions under new rehiring rights and workload requirements will be more transparent and consistent, McIver said early Wednesday.

“It’s the best contract in UC-AFT history and among the best nationwide for contingent faculty,” McIver said.

The union had come to the brink of a strike at all nine undergraduate campuses, where hundreds of faculty members had expressed solidarity with lecturers and canceled classes.

UC officials were not immediately available to comment early Wednesday. They had argued that the union’s unfair labor claims were unfounded.

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“While we continue to bargain in good faith — withholding instruction is grossly unfair to our students and a strike does not move us closer to a contract,” UC said in a statement Tuesday. “The union’s unfair labor practice claims against UC are neither supported by the facts nor any finding by the California Public Employment Relations Board.”

University Council-AFT, the union representing the lecturers, had disagreed.

“The problem right now is that we can’t get the University of California to bargain in good faith with us. Every negotiation is a game — it’s like we’re trying to play billiards and the table is tilted to one side,” said John Branstetter, the president of UC-AFT Los Angeles Local 1990 and a fifth-year UCLA lecturer.

In June, 96% of lecturers voted to authorize a strike after the union filed two unfair labor practice charges.

UC launched a new policy in July that grants eight weeks of leave at 70% of pay for eligible employees to care for a seriously ill family member or bond with a new child. But most lecturers, the majority of whom teach part time, would not meet the policy’s eligibility requirements to be on the job at least one year and 1,250 hours. The union wanted the policy to cover more lecturers and UC agreed to extend it to all bargaining unit members for four weeks at full pay, McIver said.

By late Tuesday, McIver said, progress had been made on some fronts.

While the strike was called on the family leave and mediation issues, the two sides were close to an agreement on another major area of concern, job stability for lecturers. Currently, lecturers must work six years before moving into a more senior status with better pay, benefits and security, but the union argued that UC holds them back from achieving that milestone by failing to adequately evaluate them. UC proposed contracts of one year, two years and three years — with performance reviews at each stage.

Signs at last month's rally at UCSC's Quarry Plaza.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’ll have feedback as never before,” McIver said. “We think this will really bring stability to the teaching workforce.”

The strike had been supported by hundreds of faculty members and students across the UC system.

UCLA student leader Breeze Velazquez had intended to join the picket line Wednesday to stand in solidarity with lecturers. She said many of them provide more “care and love” than some professors, who focus more on their research than teaching. Velazquez, president of the UCLA Undergraduate Student Assn. Council, recalled one lecturer during her sophomore year who took extra time to help guide her when she was struggling to decide on an academic path and write a final term paper.

“I was really freaking out,” Velazquez said, “but she sat with me for an hour, and I got an A in the class.”

She added that, as a low-income student, she understood the hardships faced by lecturers who earn a median income of $19,000 annually and work multiple jobs, while trying to teach, research and, for some, raise families.

Branstetter said he is currently working three jobs and is anxious about his job security. But he said Tuesday he was unwilling to settle for a contract that doesn’t meet the needs of all members.

“We’ve been out of a contract since January 2020,” he said. “What that means is I haven’t gotten a raise in two years now. … I want to get to a contract where I’m not worried if I’ll have a job next year.”

Constance Penley, a UC Santa Barbara professor who serves as president of the Council of UC Faculty Assns., said more than 800 tenure-track faculty members had pledged solidarity with the lecturers, and most of them were prepared to honor the strike by cancelling classes. That show of support by tenured faculty for their lecturer colleagues is unprecedented, she said.

“Lecturers on our campuses are integral to our being able to deliver high-quality education that is a signature of the University of California,” Penley said. “But their precarity is dire and bad for them, our students and the university. At the same time, their demands are so reasonable.”

She added that the labor conflicts at UC are being replicated at campuses across the country and sparking a national movement to increase tenured faculty rather than rely on lecturers who lack the same level of pay, benefits or job security.

The last outstanding issue, McIver said, was pay. The university agreed to a 7% pay increase 60 days after the contract’s ratification and annual salary increases of 3% for the next three years and 4% in the final year of the five-year contract. UC also agreed to provide merit raises, shifts to a new salary scale and a $1,500 signing bonus to each lecturer on ratification.

UC currently ranks among the top three public universities in the American Assn. of Universities for lecturer compensation and at a higher rate than the California State University and California Community Colleges, according to a UC fact sheet. The average UC salary, based on a nine-month rate, was $70,089 for lecturers with less than six years of service and $92,549 for those with more than six years. But most lecturers work part time, and more than half do not return for a second year. Some of them leave for better jobs, faculty said, while others are not reappointed for various reasons.

The union had refrained from agreeing to the contract’s terms until the university bargains over a paid leave policy and other items.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.