The Janus decision has made it more challenging for public sector unions to be effective in the US. Seeing this threat coming, the California Faculty Association has engaged in mobilizing campaigns to activate their membership and strengthen their union.

The Janus decision

“We were a strong union before Janus, and we will be a strong union after Janus.” That was the message in a series of state-wide meetings, conferences, and trainings for California Faculty Association (CFA) members in the critical period leading up to the significant United States Supreme Court “Janus decision” announced in June 2018.

Over the last several decades, public sector unions have faced many challenges in the US as states have sought to limit or ban collective bargaining. In five states it is illegal for teachers, police, or firefighters to join a union, and many other states have passed legislation to weaken unions, including limitations on the scope of bargaining and requirements for annual union recertification.

The Janus decision is national in scope and overturned a long established 1977 Supreme Court ruling that workers could decline to join a union, but they would still have to pay an “agency fee.” Those agency fees could only be used to cover the cost of direct union representation activities, not for lobbying or political activity.

In Janus, the Supreme Court ruled that unions must continue to represent everyone—members and non-members alike—but non-members would no longer be required to pay the agency fee to take advantage of the benefits of union representation. This is often described as the free-rider problem, where an individual can benefit from the dues of others, without having to contribute themselves.

Mobilizing members

Earlier this year, I spent six months in California studying the membership engagement strategies of the CFA. It was a fascinating experience observing the CFA as it worked to educate and mobilize 28,000 members across 23 campuses.

The CFA, like many other unions across California and the US, has been stepping up its member engagement, organizing, and activism to take on the new challenges resulting from increasingly conservative legislatures and courts.

The CFA, like many other unions across California and the US, has been stepping up its member engagement, organizing, and activism.

Given what’s at stake—the financial strength that allows the CFA to represent and defend its members—it was surprising how little cynicism or self-doubt there was at the faculty association’s many meetings and events. California faculty are confident that their union will survive. In fact, many faculty members firmly believe that the CFA will be stronger with a more dedicated and engaged membership. And so the slogan: “We were a strong union before Janus and we will be a strong union after Janus”.

In anticipation of the decision, unions across the US were intensifying membership engagement and organizing. Throughout the winter and spring, the CFA initiated a program of hall-walking and membership blitzes. Faculty members visited fellow faculty in their departments to talk about the current work of the CFA and common member concerns.

These blitzes were overwhelmingly positive experiences. Within Ontario faculty associations, much of our outreach energy focuses on getting people to come to meetings. Every faculty member in North America has seen a dramatic rise in workload over the past decade, and it is increasingly difficult to get members involved.

The strategy to build support and gain visibility by talking to people in their departments and offices created many new connections and relationships. While it may seem intimidating to walk into a department and initiate conversations about a colleague’s workplace challenges, it is actually quite energizing. It provides a collegial environment that inspires conversation, much like talking to a next-door neighbour.

Faculty who go out to talk to colleagues come back invigorated by their experiences. They find it rewarding to make new connections and hear different perspectives. When they share their experiences, they have often gained insight into new ideas for solving their most challenging workplace problems.

Supporting contract faculty

Over the past decade, we have seen a dramatic growth in the number of contract faculty and sessional instructors, or lecturers as they are called in California. Without job security, many contract faculty members work several jobs, some teaching at other universities or colleges, some with other part-time or full-time jobs.

Unfortunately, this increase in contract and part-time teaching has led to a reduction in the number of faculty actively working in departmental offices. It is not unusual to come across an office door with a dozen names on it, but no one there. Lecturers may have access to a shared office, but with multiple jobs and limited time on campus, these offices are often empty. It’s also simply not practical for twelve people to share an office.

The biggest organizing challenge today is finding contract faculty. Accurate class schedules, office hours, and mapped networks of coworkers and friends have become important tools for contacting this hard-to-reach group.

Throughout the California State University system, 40 per cent of faculty are tenure-stream, while 60 per cent are lecturers on renewable temporary appointments. Since lecturers are not paid to do any research or service, the growth of precarious work has not only exacted a personal and emotional cost on lecturers, it has significantly increased the workload for tenured faculty and transformed many departments. A small number of tenured faculty now juggle the demands of research and service, along with the work of supporting students.

Universities run on service. Within a department, service is responsible for all aspects of the planning and implementation of teaching and research. It can mean many things—designing new courses, creating carefully organized and balanced course schedules, organizing guest lectures, and coordinating departmental hiring committees and evaluation committees. A massive amount of work goes into making every university department function. Service at the university level involves sitting on university boards, senates, and attending many university events, including convocation.

There is one lecturer who sits on the California State University Board of Trustees, the members of whom are appointed by the Governor and who in turn appoint the California State University Chancellor. In addition, the CFA is actively supporting increased participation by lecturers in departmental structures as well as individual California State University campus boards and committees. An important argument in favour of increased representation on university boards and committees is to address the high levels of workload by tenured faculty in service to the university.

Promoting anti-racism and social justice

For several years, the CFA has been committed to being a union actively engaged in anti-racism and anti-bias social justice work.

Most agendas and other official materials include this statement:

As part of our continuing commitment to Racial Justice Work, when we experience examples of racial narratives, racism, or whiteness in our meetings, or as we conduct our business, we will speak up. This means we can interrupt the meeting and draw the issue to one another’s attention. We will do this kindly, with care and in good faith. This statement is a reminder that we commit to do this in the service of ending the system of racial oppression.

The CFA started with training for executives and staff, and have used new communication outlets like podcasting to explore anti-racism and social justice issues.

Recognizing that members sit on hiring committees for new faculty, the CFA has initiated an anti-bias training program. In several cases, they have been invited to train both administration staff and faculty who sit on hiring committees.

The faculty association regularly produces data to measure diversity on each campus, including faculty and student statistics on race and ethnicity, tenure status, gender, and the intersections of those issues. Building upon this rich data, the CFA has been engaged in groundbreaking work to quantify “cultural taxation”.

Cultural taxation, first defined by Amando Padilla in 1994, is the burden placed on ethnic minority faculty in carrying out their responsibility for service to the university…it is important to note that increases to workload related to student engagement directly impacts scholarship. These two pieces are intimately tied. The more time a faculty member spends with students, the less time they have to dedicate to scholarship. (CFA Equity Matters Data Book)

To quantify the level of cultural taxation for racialized faculty, the CFA compares the percentage of students and faculty from racial and ethnic groups, looking for campuses with poor student/faculty ratios.

The CFA has built a structure of caucuses, including the African American Caucus, Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, Disability Caucus, Indigenous Peoples Caucus, Latia/Latino Caucus, Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Caucus, Teacher Education Caucus, and Women’s Caucus, to ensure equity groups have space to meet and organize. These caucuses enable the recruitment and training of members and pursue innovative research that support the CFA’s equity goals.

Building stronger relationships with students

The CFA has a robust advocacy agenda that involves working closely with other sector stakeholders to lobby the state government.

The partnership between students and faculty members to support high-quality education is of particular importance. The CFA runs an internship program where students work out of faculty association offices on individual campuses, helping to coordinate the campaign. It is quite remarkable to see students and faculty working side-by-side, campaigning for more university funding to improve education quality and a tuition fee freeze to keep university education accessible.

For the CFA, working in close partnership with students has meant real benefits. To compliment focused lobbying at the state capital, the CFA and Students for Quality Education organized a rally attended by 1,000 people, 800 of whom were students. The rally and support from legislators, who had met with faculty and students, were important factors in efforts to increase university funding.

In 2018, the CFA and Students for Quality Education played a pivotal role in achieving a substantial increase to funding for the State University system. According to the CFA:

The $364 million in additional one-time and ongoing funding will result in enrolment growth to accommodate 3,641 additional full-time-equivalent students and will support that cohort for four years. The increased funding also includes $25 million in dedicated funding for tenure-track hiring with legislative oversight—earmarked funding for which the CFA alone advocated. The increase far exceeds the CSU administration’s original augmentation request of $263 million, and is nearly four times the governor’s original CSU budget augmentation of $92.1 million.

The recipe for a strong faculty union

The California Faculty Association has been working hard to strengthen their union in recent years. This work has been distributed over many campuses, where members are educating, training, and mobilizing their colleagues to step up and become more active in their union. This approach includes:

  • being creative and innovative in reaching out to members;
  • developing caucuses that promote inclusion and equity within the structures of the faculty association;
  • promoting anti-racism and social justice in the work of the faculty association; and
  • building mutually beneficial relationships with students.

There will be tough times ahead for the CFA, given the increasingly challenging legal and legislative environment in California and across the US. However, for many years CFA’s membership, leadership, and staff have been working hard to build a strong faculty association that eliminates barriers to participation and proactively organizes members. These members get involved because they support better working conditions and an affordable, high- quality education for all qualified students in the state.

The recent Supreme Court ruling will mean that the CFA has fewer resources. To deal with the challenges of doing more with less, the CFA has focused on training leaders to develop personal relationships with members, reduce barriers to participation, and strongly defend the interests of faculty. They have built a strong union that is in an excellent position to survive in the new labour landscape and ensure the voice of faculty makes a difference in shaping the future of the California State University system.

Andrea Calver is the Engagement and Campaigns Coordinator for the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. In 2018, she took a six-month leave to study the membership engagement strategies of the California Faculty Association.