By Zack Haber
The staff union at California College of the Arts (CCA), a small, private college founded in 1907, engaged in a four-day strike and protest. They’re accusing the school of unfair labor practices that include stalling contract negotiations in an effort to withhold pay increases and benefits.
“We have a unionized workplace now,” said SEIU 1021 chapter President Matt Kennedy, who’s worked in the tech department of the college for 10 years. “CCA needs to acknowledge that. It’s taking forever to come to an agreement because they aren’t.”
The protests featured rallies, teach-ins, group art-making projects and daily pickets that started February 8 and end on February 12. The actions are taking place on the school’s San Francisco campus every day except Wednesday, when the protest moved to the school’s Oakland campus. Around 200 people, including union members and their supporters, showed up each day to the pickets.
In interviews with this reporter, Kennedy, along with three other current or former workers at CCA, all accused the school of bargaining in bad faith.
“CCA has been stonewalling and dragging their feet,” said Kēhau Lyons, an academic advisor who’s worked at CCA for about two and a half years and has been observing the bargaining sessions. “The management side just doesn’t want to get this completed.”
CCA’s staff successfully voted to unionize with SEIU 1021 in April of 2019. Since then, staff members say they have not received any raises outside of those required by law. While contract negotiations started in October of 2019, CCA’s staff is still working without a union contract. A study by Bloomberg Law based on National Labor Relations Board data shows that, between 2004 and the first half of 2021, the average amount of time it took employers and unions to agree on a first contract was a little over one year and one month. The union and CCA’s negotiations have, thus far, taken over two years and four months.
In an email, CCA Director of Communications Daniel Owens-Hill, disagreed with staff who accused the college of stalling negotiations.
“CCA remains ready and willing to negotiate as frequently as needed to achieve a fair and mutually beneficial collective bargaining agreement,” Owens-Hill wrote. “The college has a comprehensive proposal on the table that provides wage increases for our valued staff while also maintaining our ongoing commitment to student financial aid and a financially sustainable future.”
On September 27 of last year, National Labor Relations Board Regional Director Valerie Hardy-Mahoney sided with the union by issuing a Complaint and Notice of Hearing stating that CCA had “been failing and refusing to bargain collectively and in good faith with the union.” In that same document, she also proposed new bargaining guidelines for the college to follow going forward.
CCA is currently offering a 2% wage increase to all staff in the union. Workers interviewed for this article see that raise as inadequate and stressed that their most important request while bargaining has been “raising the floor” for staff salaries. To pay the expenses needed to live in the Bay Area, staff said, they want a minimum wage of $55,000. Kennedy said salary records show 40% of CCA staff makes less than $55,000 per year, and 10% make between $36,000 and $45,000. For many workers, the 2% increase would fall short of providing the minimum salary.
CCA workers point to salaries at the administrative level, which they see as excessively high, and question why the school isn’t paying their lower wage workers more. The school’s 2020 990 filing shows four administrators made well over $270,000 in 2019. President Stephen Beal made a base salary of more than $580,000 while working 37.5 hours per week. Such a salary is over $150,000 more than both the current Mayor of San Francisco and the President of the United States. The 990 also estimates Beal made over $100,000 in addition to his base salary in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations.”
In April of 2020, Beal’s base salary was cut by 25%, while the senior vice president’s was cut by 10%, and the vice president’s was cut by 5%.
CCA staff union members say they have noticed a high employment turnover rate which they attribute to their co-workers not receiving high enough pay. Emails from CCA’s Human Resources Department show that, since August, 19 staff union members have stopped working at the school, which is about 15% of the total union staff.
Randy Nakamura has taught as an adjunct at CCA’s graduate design program for the last six years, and is also part of CCA’s adjunct union’s bargaining unit. CCA’s adjunct union is separate from the staff union, but Nakamura and other adjuncts are also trying to reach a contract with CCA.
Nakamura says that since the CCA adjunct union contract expired in June of 2020, he and his fellow union members’ experiences bargaining to renew their contract have been similar to the staff union’s efforts to get CCA to agree to a first contract.
“CCA has taken every opportunity to not bargain with us,” said Nakamura. “Sometimes they’ll make us wait an hour and a half in a three-hour bargaining session just to talk.”
After a year and a half of bargaining, the adjunct union has not yet been able to renew its contract with CCA. Seeing themselves in a similar struggle as the staff union, over 100 CCA’s adjunct union member supported CCA’s staff union by sympathy striking, and not teaching classes during the strike.
Some adjuncts also joined staff on the picket line. Additionally, members of the CCA Student Union and some other CCA students who sympathize with the staff strike criticized CCA’s 2% wage increase offer as too low and picketed and did not attending classes to show their support.
“The staff and adjunct’s working conditions are student learning conditions,” the CCA Student Union wrote on a recent instagram post. “We as students completely benefit from union bargaining and a fair contract for our beloved staff.”
CCA faculty who are tenured or on tenure track are not part of the staff union and have separate independent contracts. But they also showed support.
“We are not willing to cross the picket line,” reads a support letter released on February 7 that 99 such faculty members signed. “[We] will instead find ways to express peaceful solidarity during the strike, including engaging in strike-related teach-ins and pedagogical activities.”
Through their spokesperson, David Owens-Hill, CCA criticized the strike.
“At a time when we are making rapid progress in negotiations and have reached agreement on so many items, a strike benefits no one,” wrote Owens-Hill in an email, “not our staff, not our faculty, and certainly not our students, who have just returned to fully in-person classes for the first time in nearly two years.”
CCA staff union members disagree with Owens-Hill.
“It’s important to show in our strike that CCA can’t get away with this,” said SEIU’s Kennedy. “Better working conditions and compensation make better learning conditions, and the college needs to make that a priority. But they’re not.”