California State University faculty members appealed to trustees Tuesday to do more to avert a strike at the nation's largest university system, but the two sides remain at odds over salaries for about 26,000 professors, lecturers, librarians, counselors and coaches.
Members of the California Faculty Assn. urged trustees meeting in Long Beach to consider their legacy and find a way fund the 5% pay raise that faculty members have been demanding for nearly a year. Without a new salary deal, union members have pledged to go on strike in April in what would be the largest academic walkout at a four-year university in U.S. history.
But the trustees' Committee on Collective Bargaining spent the bulk of its time Tuesday hearing about plans to keep campuses open if the strike comes to pass. Athletic and civic events will proceed, students will be expected to attend classes unless the professor cancels them and campus presidents will find ways to provide mental health counseling and other critical services.
"We're seeking to minimize the impact on students," said Lori Lamb, vice chancellor for human resources. "We remain hopeful about a potential resolution; however we must plan for the eventuality of a strike."
Board of Trustees Chairman Lou Monville said that no one "relishes where we are now" and asked all sides to work together to secure additional state funding. The Cal State system, he said, is still historically underfunded and has yet to recover from steep budget cuts enacted during the recession.
Those comments elicited groans from faculty members who crowded the meeting room and held up signs with the words "36 days," in reference to the time remaining before a strike.
Union members at all 23 campuses said they won't hold classes or perform other academic work April 13 to 15 or April 18 to 19 if no salary agreement is reached. Strikes could continue beyond April 19 if an impasse persists, faculty union President Jennifer Eagan told trustees.
Eagan, a philosophy and public administration professor at Cal State East Bay, suggested that system leaders are "fiddling while Rome burns."
"Your house is on fire, please pay attention," Eagan said, directing her comments at Chancellor Timothy P. White. "This is your responsibility, and it is happening on your watch."
The union is demanding a general 5% pay raise for all faculty, plus smaller additional increases for those at the lower end of the pay scale.
According to the union, more than half of Cal State faculty earn less than $38,000 in annual gross income, and the pay has remained stagnant for more than a decade. Cal State administrators have said those figures are inaccurate.
White is offering a 2% raise, which he says is in line with increases given to other Cal State employee groups this year. Anything more would cut into funding for academic programs and student enrollment, he has said.
Eagan maintains that with increased state funding and an improved financial outlook since the end of the recession, management can afford to pay faculty more.
She appeared to have some support from Howard Bunsis, a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University who conducted an analysis of the budget situation. He told the mediator negotiating with both sides that Cal State had about $500 million in excess cash flow in 2015 and more than $2 billion in reserves.
Lamb disputed some of those assertions. There is no leeway in the operating budget to shift more funding to faculty compensation, she said. In addition, half of the system's reserves are legally bound to campus organizations that run the schools' student unions, cafeterias and other auxiliary services, and the rest are capital and operational funds that can't be used for recurring obligations such as salaries.
The mediator will issue her recommendations in a final report later this month. Faculty would be authorized to strike 10 days later.
The union previously held one-day strikes at two campuses in 2011 to protest budget cuts.
Trustees will continue meeting Wednesday.