California lecturers demand job security and fair pay

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It’s been a year since their contract expired and 21 months since they began bargaining for a new one, but lecturers at the University of California are still fighting for the most basic of workers’ rights: job security and a living wage. At a virtual rally Feb. 1, University Council-AFT members kept up the fight, demanding a fair contract and welcoming support from AFT President Randi Weingarten and California Federation of Teachers President Jeffery Freitas.

the faces of university of california aft members

“The entire 85,000-member CFT stands with you today,” said Freitas. Lecturers deserve multi-year contracts to establish career paths, he said—not short-term assignments with no continuing job stability. Accusing the UC of “trying to create a higher education system just like the gig economy,” Freitas said, “We need to stop deprofessionalizing our profession.”

Weingarten agreed. “The job you do every day needs to be valued and needs to be respected,” she told UC-AFT members.

Nearly half of all classes on the University of California’s nine campuses are taught by lecturers—known as nontenure-track or adjunct professors in other systems—who are responsible for most of the writing and language classes, many lower-division courses and some graduate classes. They cover every discipline from art history to zoology, have advanced degrees and hold esteemed positions in their fields. But the university refuses to guarantee them classes from year to year, instead doling out contracts for as few as three months at a time. Until lecturers have taught for six years, they have no access to ongoing appointments, and some have been terminated just before they reached that mark. That leaves many with no idea whether they’ll be teaching the following year.

uc aft

“I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories from faculty who didn’t know until the last minute that they wouldn’t have work for the next quarter,” said Alison Lipman, a member of the bargaining team. Some faculty have been rendered homeless, she continued; others worry about how to care for their children, and one faculty member with cancer was thrown off health insurance with no warning. 

Too many lecturers “live paycheck to paycheck, not knowing if the next one will come,” added Lipman. The vast majority earn below the low-income level for the cities in which they live: Median annual pay for UC lecturers was just $19,067 in 2019.

“I remember being in that exact position, desperate to keep my job and to pay rent and keep a roof over my son’s head,” said Lipman. “I can tell you that, as a mother, when you have no health insurance and zero job security, it is impossible to focus 100 percent on your teaching no matter how much you want to.” Ultimately, it is the students who lose out.

UC-AFT President Mia McIver applauded the nearly 200 people attending the virtual rally but noted that many were missing. “Nearly 2,000 of our colleagues lost their jobs last summer,” she said, which is typical of the turnover, or “churn,” among lecturers. “The average lecturer teaches for less than two years before being pushed out of the UC.” The institutionalization of short-terming lecturers damages the instructional continuity needed to help students thrive.

“When it comes to lecturers, the UC isn’t so much an employer, it is a dis-employer,” said McIver. “We’re here to say today that we will no longer accept this dis-employment. We will no longer tolerate how it Ieaves students high and dry without the teachers and mentors they need. We won’t stand for being turned out of our jobs while the UC grows and grows.”

Applications to the UC are up by 16 percent, said McIver. “There is no doubt enrollments are rising,” agreed Freitas. “The work exists. There is no need to cut back on the teaching workforce at the UC.”

What’s more, other colleges in California have more stable job security for lecturers. “Our demands already exist at every community college and California State University,” said McIver. “Do not force us to a strike over things that are already widespread and proven effective.”

UC-AFT membership has been intensely engaged in negotiations, with frequent updates from the “table team” that is bargaining the contract. Their open bargaining sessions at one point hosted nearly 300 members attending virtually to signal solidarity. Social media is abuzz with tweetstorms, hashtags and petitions that include not only union members but students, alumni and other community allies. Before COVID-19 limited in-person activities, rallies attracted crowds of supporters; since then, emphasis has been on email campaigns, phone campaigns and online picketing. The day before the rally, hundreds of supporters sent postcards to University of California President Michael Drake urging him to settle the contract.

“For more than a year we’ve been asking for the very bare minimum: that if lecturers do their job well and there are available classes to teach, they can keep working,” said Lipman. “This is not a radical demand.”

[Virginia Myers]