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Labor activists cancel faculty unionization vote at CalArts

Labor activists withdraw their federal petition to hold an election to unionize faculty at CalArts in Valencia

Labor activists have halted efforts, for now, to unionize the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts, a move that reflects deep divisions at the Valencia campus and slows what had been a burgeoning trend to organize college professors in California and nationwide.

CalArts activists formally withdrew their petition for a federally supervised election just hours before ballots were to be mailed out last week asking whether faculty wanted to be represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721.

Unlike a growing number of colleges where the SEIU and other unions have come to represent part-time adjunct professors frustrated by low pay and uncertain employment, the CalArts movement sought to unionize nearly all professors since the school has no tenure system for full-time faculty.

Jen Hofer, who has taught writing part-time in the master's program at CalArts for the last decade, said the pro-union movement in which she participated withdrew the election petition because it did not have broad enough support.

But, she said, professors would watch for "real substantive change" in how the CalArts administration addresses such issues as pay, job security and faculty input in campus governance. If matters do not improve, she said, the union movement may be revived and probably then with more support on the campus, which is known for its programs in music, art, film, animation, writing and other creative fields.

CalArts President Steven D. Lavine, who had opposed unionization at the 1,500-student campus, said in a statement that the election cancellation "is a somewhat surprising turn of events and one that I, personally, am happy to see because I believe it's the right thing for the future of CalArts."

"There's no denying that the last few months have been difficult, but now is the moment for all of us to take a deep breath, recognize that what's past is past and begin to move forward together as one community to tackle the concerns we all share," Lavine said.

On Wednesday, demonstrations on some campuses across the country showed that many adjunct professors remained upset by their working conditions, never knowing year to year how many classes they might be hired to teach and whether they will have to take on other work to support themselves. Wednesday was declared a National Adjunct Action Day, and rallies were held at San Diego City College, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz and other schools.

Many part-timers at UC and Cal State long have been represented by unions. But a wave of organizing successes at mainly private colleges in the last year or so was fueled by part-time faculty discontent over job insecurity at a time when they are relied on more to teach undergraduates.

Many college administrators say they are worried that the resulting union contracts could mean less flexibility in academic hiring and higher tuition costs.

In California, SEIU locals won recent elections to represent part-time professors at Whittier College, Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester and Dominican University of California in San Rafael, Mills College and California College of the Arts in Oakland, San Francisco Art Institute and other schools. Efforts have stalled at the University of La Verne after tension between the union and administrators, and the Laguna College of Art and Design administration is challenging its tight pro-union election results. Organizers are in early stages at USC and Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Under National Labor Relations Board rules, another petition for a union election at CalArts cannot be filed for at least six months.

CalArts uses its full-time faculty to teach about 75% of its classes, more than most other art schools, but not even veteran professors can receive tenure. Part-timers are usually paid $5,000 or $6,000 per class and some also teach at other colleges in the same semester to earn a living.

Jon McNutt, a Los Angeles attorney who worked for CalArts and other colleges in seeking to fight off faculty unionization, said the election cancellation showed that "the tides have turned" after all the union victories. He said professors see that the newly negotiated union contracts are not that impressive.

However, union officials portray the CalArts situation as a temporary, strategic retreat and say the movement is winning significant contract gains for faculty on college campuses nationwide even as unions are losing ground in other industries.

larry.gordon@latimes.com

Twitter: @larrygordonlat

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