May 2020 Advocate: Virtual May Day rally reignites contract campaign


Virtual May Day rally reignites contract campaign

by Evan Kaiser, CSM, English as a Second Language

Over 120 SMCCCD faculty, staff, and students joined a Virtual May Day rally on Zoom video conferencing platform to discuss the impact of the COVID crisis on teaching and learning conditions and the need for fair compensation and pay parity for part-time faculty.

Attendees wore AFT “Red for Ed” T-shirts, sported a custom AFT backdrop, and flashed signs reading, “fair contract now!” or “part-time parity now!” Trustees Richard Holober, Karen Schwarz and Dave Mandelkern, newly-appointed CSM Chancellor Mike Claire, Pacifica Mayor Dierdre Martin, and Assemblymember Mark Berman were also present.

25 of the more than 120 attendees at AFT 1493’s May Day rally

Brief history of May Day

Skyline Professor of History Rosemary Bell framed the discussion with a look back to 1894, the year of the first federal Labor Day holiday that grew out of International Workers Day movements. Today, after fifty years of disinvestment and neglect, labor protections in the U.S. are at their weakest precisely when they are the most needed. Due to COVID-19, over 30 million Americans have lost their jobs. With 47% of Americans unable to afford a $400 out-of-pocket expense, workers woke up to May 1 unable to pay rent and other crucial bills. Suddenly, America’s best-kept secret was laid bare, again – that prosperity for some depends on an underclass of workers weeks away from bankruptcy. In the California Community College system, those are our part-time instructors, who comprise 69% of all faculty system-wide.

The COVID-19 pandemic is dramatically impacting teaching in both the short term and the long term. Skyline Professor of Economics Masao Suzuki said that the transition to online instruction was the hardest six days of his career. As such, he argued for an extension of the AFT MOU on Emergency Action due to Coronavirus Pandemic as long as “forced distance education” is our reality. Faculty need support for their extra labor and a measure of academic freedom to conduct effective online instruction appropriate to their strengths, disciplines, and students.

Faculty recognition & compensation are key

The core issue of the rally, however, was not the Coronavirus pandemic, but the long-standing failure on behalf of the District to recognize and fairly compensate faculty work. For adjuncts, this has meant anything from deferred plans to financial ruin. CSM Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics Ali Shokouhbakhsh shared his experience struggling to buy a condo in the South Bay Area for the last 8 years. With adjunct wages set at 60-70% of full-time faculty, little to no job security semester to semester, and banks “know[ing] what ‘adjunct’ means,” he found himself chasing skyrocketing prices. One quarter, the price jumped from $200K to $250K. Today, the same property would cost over $600K. He and other adjuncts often struggle to pay rent, let alone buy a condo. The urgent need for part-time parity is compounded by the extreme cost of living in the Bay Area.

Strong support for improving part-timer pay and benefits

Following Shokouhbakhsh’s comments was an outpouring of support for giving part-timers more job security and health benefits (as by some estimates Covered California premiums are set to rise by over 40%!) As one of the richest districts in the state, SMCCCD should have one of the highest part-time compensation packages in the Community College system, but instead, it is ranked 22nd. As CSM Professor of Economics Steven Lehigh pointed out, on average over the last five years, the District paid $0 to address pay parity or workload recommendations despite an average annual surplus of $15 million, $7 million of which had already been allocated to academic salaries.

The rising numbers of attendees at AFT events suggests that the burden on faculty is acutely growing, not shrinking. Some will rightly blame the state’s 2008 austerity measures for the expansion of part-time positions and decimation of the higher education budget, but this does not mean the District’s hands are tied. It is past time for the District to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. As CSM English Professors Teeka James and Anne Stafford mentioned, good faith negotiations do not begin with balance sheets, but rather with the recognition of faculty labor — the recognition that instructional continuity during a pandemic requires even more labor as faculty give 110% to not only develop quality online materials but also support individual student needs, which are now greater than ever before.

The final union speaker, AFT President and Chief Negotiator Joaquin Rivera, thanked faculty for their support and pledged to “continue our fight for a fair contract, particularly in areas around workload, part-time parity and fair compensation.”

Chancellor supports settling contract on-time

At the end of the rally, Chancellor Claire said of the administration’s negotiators, “It seems like we’re late every time, and that has got to stop.” Faculty agree. Why should adjuncts not be paid a living wage – at least 85% of full-time wages, as AFT has proposed? Why shouldn’t non-teaching responsibilities be quantified, evenly distributed, and compensated accordingly? Why have our institutions become so top-heavy, with administrators sometimes making three times what faculty make?

The point bears repeating: faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Cassidy Wilkins, a student at Skyline college, attended the rally after learning that her Oceanography teacher got paid less for a lab than for a lecture, despite having spent at least three times as long developing an online lab experience. Wilkins said  “The dedication from Skyline professors is amazing” compared to the previous community college she attended and that she wouldn’t have been able to transfer to a UC without the guidance and support of caring professors. She said that faculty “deserve far more than they are asking – they are just asking for basic rights.”

It is said that the true test of leadership is how one responds during a crisis. In this crucial time, will the District invest in its most valuable resource – its people?

To show the District you support fair compensation for adjunct faculty, please sign and circulate the SMCCCD Part-Time Faculty Pay Parity Petition. AFT’s goal is to collect 500 signatures by May 13.