Strike vote, taxes, and public opinion
Yesterday the California Faculty Association (CFA) announced the results of the strike vote: 70 percent of union members participated, and out of those, 95 percent voted to authorize the CFA leadership to call a strike, should bargaining with the administration fail. That’s a strong majority in favor of going on strike, most likely this fall.
Less patient than the faculty, today a small group of CSU students on five campuses started a hunger strike.
Of course, only a little over half of CSU faculty are CFA members, even though the union represents all CSU professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors, and coaches. So the ever-charming CSU administration spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp called the strike vote “fairly meaningless,” because only 8,300 out of 22,000 faculty voted for it. But that discounts the many faculty who are not CFA members but may support the union on this issue, or at least not oppose it.
The media coverage I’ve seen has been mostly favorable, including these stories in the Sacramento Bee and on NPR, taking care to point out that the strike is not only about faculty pay. In addition to a 1 percent salary increase, specific faculty demands include preserving lecturers’ current right to a 3-year contract following six years of good teaching evaluations, as well as contract provisions regarding class size and academic freedom.
Would going on strike be a good idea? It depends on the purpose. Faculty need to avoid both false humility and false egoism. We need to promote legitimate faculty interests, while making clear that this is also about the larger question of whether our society is going to provide high-quality university education for people from the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
In one sense, going on strike is a simple display of economic power. By calling attention to the administration’s economic dependence on the faculty, a strike aims to strengthen the union’s bargaining position. When used as a last resort, a strike is often a justifiable use of economic leverage, especially when the administration seems unwilling to negotiate in good faith.
But critics will challenge the charge of bad faith, and they may see a strike as disrupting a collaborative process of negotiation. Some will say that university faculty dedicated to education should not stoop to the crass assertion of economic power, especially when a strike potentially harms students.
Such criticisms point to the need for going beyond the use of existing economic power and generating new political power. A strike could create an excellent opportunity to persuade voters and public officials that public universities need and deserve public support.
That’s important, because our real employer is not the CSU administration, but the people of California. That employer may be grumpy and conflicted, but it also seems willing to listen.
While the loudly misinformed publicize an image of lazy and overpaid faculty, opinion polls offer a more encouraging picture. According to a November 2011 survey, only 24 percent of respondents say there is a big problem with the quality of higher education in California, but 74 percent say higher education does not get enough state funding. Of course, only 45 percent say they’re willing to pay higher taxes to maintain current funding.
Within the California State Legislature, the situation is much worse. Nearly all the Republicans in the legislature have signed Grover Norquist’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which requires the signer to pledge to “oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” As William B. Daniels points out, the Norquist pledge arguably violates both the U.S. Constitution and the California State Constitution. For example, the California Constitution states (Art. 13, Sect. 31), “The power to tax may not be surrendered or suspended by grant or contract.” A strike could be used to publicize the folly of elected representatives who surrender their independent judgment to an anti-tax ideologue.
A strike could also be an opportunity to rally support for Governor Brown’s tax initiative, which would increase the state sales tax by one-fourth of a cent for five years, and raise income taxes by 1-3 percent on people making over $250,000 annually for seven years. If it doesn’t pass, there will be additional large cuts in CSU funding. A recent poll found a slim majority in favor, but the vote in November could be very close.