Lecturers are (still) Demanding Change from the University of California

(PRE-COVID) UC-AFT holds a rally during a break in their bargaining session with the University of California on June 19th, 2019. Photo via Sasha John.

Four hundred and twenty-seven days ago, I wrote an unpublished article for a journalism class about lecturers at the University of California fighting for their livelihoods in contract negotiations with the UC Office of the President (UC-OP). A little over a school year, an economic crash, and a pandemic later, the University of California has failed to meet the key demands the union has been fighting for from the start.

The labor union, University Council-American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), represents 5,000 lecturers and librarians across University of California campuses. UC-AFT is still in the process of negotiating contract changes with the UC system- with their original demands including fundamental job stability, employee benefits, and recognition of their importance to education. Teaching faculty have been working without a contract since February 1, 2020. The union’s most recent bargaining session took place via Zoom on September 9th, 2020.

I followed up with Dr. Crystal Chang, a lecturer in the International and Area Studies Department at UC Berkeley, who I initially interviewed when negotiations had just commenced seeing what progress had been made. The University of California has denied about two-thirds of the union’s original demands, including wage increases, citing COVID-19 as the main reason for stalling payment negotiations, despite the fact these bargaining sessions started in early 2019. Small victories have been won, including health benefits for those teaching summer session courses and paying into retirement, which they were previously denied. The last core demand the lecturers are fighting for is job stability for early career lecturers in the form of multi-year contracts and rehiring rights.

A Liveable Wage | Status: Denied Until Next Contract Negotiation

A liveable wage is one of the primary sticking points in negotiations and, as you’ll see, the lecturers are making nowhere near that. In 2018, the median lecturer salary within the University of California is $20,000 a year. Living in Berkeley on this salary, or any California city for that matter, is out of the picture as the cost of rent in Berkeley averages over $3,000 a month- this cost of living is 80% higher than the national average. Summer session wages are even lower than the school year.

(Berkeley Average Cost of Living Via PayScale)

The pay scale changes depending on the number of classes an individual teaches per semester (typically 33% appointment = 1 course, 66% appointment = 2 courses, 100% appointment = 3 courses). The full-time salary for a 1st-year lecturer in 2018 was $54,000, but because the majority of lecturers work less than full-time, the median salary that year was only $20,000. Many lecturers would like to teach full time but are simply not given the option. The University gets to decide what classes to offer, who teaches them, and how many courses they want to give to existing lecturers. Some lecturers are forced to take multiple jobs outside teaching just to keep up with bills.

Interested in how much your favorite lecturer makes in comparison to your favorite senate faculty member? This website has public data on the salaries of UC employees up until 2018/2019. The discrepancies are vast and show no real prioritization by the University of California to pay their lecturers competitive, or even liveable, wages.

Job Security Through Proven Performance | Status: Pending

One of the biggest hurdles left in negotiations is establishing a process of measuring job performance that leads to job security. Right now, the process in place is minimal and believed to be flawed. Much of the research surrounding teaching evaluation suggests that evals are biased against women and people of color, yet the UC still relies heavily on them as the primary method of assessing effectiveness. Early career lecturers must be rehired every year for the first 12 semesters that they teach.

UC-AFT is asking for increased levels of job stability in the six consecutive years (12 semesters). During the 8th year, lecturers have the opportunity to go through an Excellence Review to advance to Continuing Lecturer status, which comes with more security and a modest salary increase. According to UC-AFTk’s calculations, only about 7% of lecturers reach this status. Although an improvement, Continuing Lecturers can still be laid off with little recourse.

What the UC-AFT is advocating for is a tiered review process. This could look like a review after 1 year that qualifies them for a contract until the next review in 2 years, which then qualifies them for a 3-year contract which brings them to the end of 6 consecutive years and consideration for “continuing lecturer” status. This would improve job stability and employment even for a short period of time, which is a significant improvement from no guaranteed courses for lecturers up until weeks before the next school semester begins.

This is the last major demand the union appears to be fighting for, and the focus of their supporters and allies. The union is waiting on UC-OP to bring forward a new proposal that directly addresses job security.

The UC-OP has continuously denied many of the proposals by UC-AFT in contract negotiations and appears to be doing the same with the last core demand for job stability. However, UC-AFT has a lot of support behind it from its members and allies. During the most recent bargaining session on September 9th, 2020, union members and allies, including former and current UC students, took turns introducing themselves to the UCOP bargaining team, vocalizing the same statement that they expect, quote “real improvements” from the University’s next proposal. I sat in on this bargaining session and can tell you union members, students, and allies alike did not approve of what the University has put forward.

Responses from Faculty within the University of California

Lecturers make up a significant percentage of paid educators in the UC system, and will likely make up the majority of them in a few years. In 2018–2019, lecturers at UC Berkeley taught 42% of the student credit hours, a figure which has steadily increased over time. Does it make sense to have this many employees unhappy with their current treatment by the UC-OP? Why should they be willing to continue with unlivable wages and lack of job security? Historically, whenever the University of California places a hiring freeze on senate faculty due to the economic crisis (there is an active hiring freeze currently due to COVID-19), they hire more lecturers. Those lecturers feel disposable and that the UC system has no intention of keeping them. This can’t go on any longer for the people they employ and rely on to educate their students.

So, how are other employees of the UC system reacting to these negotiations? While lecturers have received support from senate faculty in their negotiations, these faculty members, unfortunately, do not hold decision making power. Dr. Chang said support from deans and more senate faculty would help their cause, but many senate faculty members have received of involvement from the Vice President of Faculty at UC Berkeley.

I asked the UC-OP in July 2019 about these negotiations and the treatment of lecturers and received this email in response;

I followed up with UC-OP on August 30th, 2020 asking for a current statement and, at the time of publication, have yet to receive an answer.

A Call to the Student Body

Negotiations have been ongoing for well over a year, and with several months worth of meetings on Zoom, the work is exhausting on both ends. One of the most powerful sources of support for these negotiations comes from the group that makes up the biggest percentage of the UC population: students.

Dr. Chang stated that once classes have fully resumed, UC-AFT is going to benefit from the support of the student body. With UC campus average tuition and fees for in-state students being around $14,000/yr and out-of-state students paying around $43,000/yr, choosing to attend one of the University of California’s campuses is a huge life decision and economic decision. According to the UC-AFT website,

As an alumna of UC Berkeley, my main concern as a student was making sure that my money went to the people who made my education impactful. What I didn’t know was after crafting one-of-a-kind syllabi, holding engaging conversations in my small classes, and challenging me to be a better student all day, my lecturers went home to a paycheck which was a fraction of the size of what my senate-faculty professors received. This discrepancy in payment, and in prioritization of employees, was frustrating as a student and made me feel like the University of California wasn’t just ignoring lecturers, it was (and is) ignoring the students that rely so heavily on them.

When I look back on my experience as an undergraduate in the UC system, what I remember most is my favorite educators. I remember being in awe of all that they had accomplished and was honored that they chose to educate with their knowledge and life experiences. I remember them knowing my name, knowing what I was capable of, and being a guiding force in my education. Every educator who advocated for me as a student at Cal was a lecturer, and it’s time I do the same for them.

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