'We are not trying to be greedy.' CSU faculty walk out for higher pay in tough times

Pomona, CA - Faculty at Cal-Poly Pomona strike on campus on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, Faculty at four California State University campuses are going on strike this week for higher pay, and other demands, including lactation spaces on campuses. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Faculty at Cal-Poly Pomona strike on campus, the beginning of one day rolling walkouts this week on California State University campuses. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hundreds of Cal Poly Pomona faculty members Monday crowded on sidewalks near main entrances, carrying signs that read “On strike!" as they called for higher wages — and shared stories about why they walked out, launching the first of four one-day strikes throughout the California State University system.

Some faculty members say they have delayed decisions to start families because they can’t afford to raise a child. Others juggle several jobs to pay rent and other necessities, or live with multiple roommates.

Jessie Vallejo, an associate professor of music at Cal Poly Pomona, said she’s played in mariachi bands during her nine years working in the system to make ends meet. Before receiving a promotion in 2021, she made $61,000 a year.

“Just nonstop work for almost a decade, seven days a week, even during the summer,” she said. “We’re not trying to be greedy or selfish or anything. We want what’s fair for everybody.”

The California Faculty Assn., which represents 29,000 workers statewide, and Cal State are locked in “reopener bargaining,” in which they can negotiate parts of the existing contract before it expires in June. Pay remains a key point of contention: Faculty members want a 12% increase for the 2023-24 academic year, while the system has offered a 5% increase each of the next three years.

The union says that the university system’s offer is not enough to keep pace with inflation, and that members are not willing to accept the system's current offer, in which the last two years of salary increases would depend on the availability of state funding. Cal State officials insist they are committed to pay increases but simply cannot afford to offer more money.

Read more: Thousands of Cal State faculty walk out in rolling strike, demanding higher pay

One-day work stoppages are planned later in the week at San Francisco State, Cal State Los Angeles and Sacramento State. The faculty members from multiple campuses — including professors, lecturers, librarians and counselors — who converged at Cal Poly Pomona also spoke out for their colleagues who are the lowest-paid educators in the system.

Among them are lecturers, who often have to teach classes at multiple campuses to cobble together a living wage. The union wants to raise the salary floor for full-time faculty from $54,360 to $64,360.

Vanessa Kettering said she makes about $65,000 a year as a psychology lecturer. She teaches four classes at Cal State San Bernardino and one class at Cal Poly Pomona, sometimes having to commute between both campuses on the same day.

“That commuting time would be time that I would prefer to be sitting in the office, being available to students,” she said. “We’re here because we want to be able to get back to our students and we’re just asking for that little bit of support.”

Kettering, who has a doctorate in cognitive developmental psychology and a master’s in evaluation, said she’s had to make significant financial sacrifices to continue teaching in the system. She lives in a co-op shared with seven people, and worries about paying off the more than $200,000 in student debt she’s accumulated.

“As far as other goals in life — starting a family, those types of things, are just not even within reach at this point,” she said.

The union is also demanding other improvements: expanding paid parental leave to a full semester, better working conditions for counselors, accessible lactation rooms and gender-inclusive restrooms and changing rooms.

Read more: Cal Poly Humboldt students live in vehicles to afford college. They were ordered off campus

Chelsi Dimm, a lecturer who teaches five courses in the agriculture business management department at Cal Poly Pomona and one class at Cal State Fullerton, said boosting parental leave would be a huge relief to her.

“When considering having a family, I consider the disruption it will have on my classes throughout the semester and how to navigate that,” she said. “It would be a big part of the decision on whether or not I would choose to have a family and I don't think that it should have to be.”

Students, workers from other labor unions and faculty from other CSU campuses turned out to show their support for striking faculty at Pomona.

First-year student Emily Summers also wanted to protest the recent decision by the system to increase tuition by 6% each year for the next five years.

“Students [can’t] get a hold on their education,” said Summers, an English education major. “They’re just constantly running to a finish line that’s never there. It’s constantly out of their reach.”

Vang Vang, a librarian at Fresno State University, traveled to Pomona to stand on the picket line with her colleagues. Before receiving tenure, Vang said, she made an annual salary of $52,000. Her salary has increased, but she doesn’t want any of her colleagues to experience the financial strain she faced — Vang decided to delay having children until her late 30s because she didn’t make enough to support a family.

“I remember how I struggled. And I want to make it equitable for all of us,” she said. “It’s not right.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.