Archive for January, 2014

An open letter to California State University Chancellor Tim White

January 26, 2014

Long Beach, California

Dear Dr. White,

I hope you had a restful holiday break. I wanted to wish you the peace of the season and share a few thoughts for the coming year and beyond. As a long-time staff person, union activist, and advocate for the CSU, higher education, and the public sector it is as important for me to tell my story as it is for you to hear it—so at the very least, thank you for listening. But, as the actor Alan Alda once said, real listening carries with it the possibility that what you hear might change you.

I wanted to start by complimenting you for making the effort to signal that this is, indeed, a new day for the CSU. As much fun as I know you had fulfilling your promise last year to see every campus, visiting this demoralized system cannot possibly be a joy-filled experience all the time. I appreciated you coming to my campus and offering the opportunity to meet you in person. Many tough decisions have been, and will continue to be required of you. I don’t envy your position but it was wise to put yourself out there first so your employees got the sense that one can deal with this guy and maybe he deserves our support.

We have been through a rough time the last five years, as you may well know. I spent part of this time in a voluntary (elected) position as a statewide union leader in charge of bargaining and representation for CSUEU. In June of 2009, the day after I was elected, I had to fly to Long Beach to prepare for the challenge of whether thousands of staff would be laid off or, with some luck, bargain a furlough agreement that the classified staff could accept. In the end we did get an agreement, and then, instead of taking our advice, the CSU messed up its implementation, creating all sorts of unnecessary problems for leaders on both sides. In the next three years I, too, visited every campus, my road time averaging three-to-seven days a week, facing painful issues that included layoff mitigation on ten campuses. At the time we were already down too many positions and even Chancellor Reed admitted that losing additional staff was threatening the very functionality of the CSU. Nonetheless, two handfuls of CSU presidents decided that some staff were expendable. In addition, some campuses (with support from the chancellor’s labor relations office) unwisely tired to manipulate the layoff agreement—which is, by design, fundamentally sound in providing options to mitigate and ensure worker’s rights—to, sadly avoid fairness to their dedicated employees.

This is a new day but we are still in a big mess. We know you didn’t create it. Please don’t ever feel you need to make excuses for those who came before. But at least part of the reason we are in this pickle has been a lack of dynamic leadership. The few good leaders in the CSU were overshadowed by the cynical, defeated, visionless, and outright twisted ones we’ve been saddled with. What we really need is a crusader, a champion to lead us forward. Let me explain.

The defunding of public higher education is a project that started in the Reagan era with the proliferation of corporate-funded “think tanks,” (affectionately known as “stink tanks” in some circles) whose purpose was to undermine the influence of the perceived bias of the “liberal” universities, both public and private. Along with this misconception of the universal mission of higher education came the CSU’s second strike: that we are publicly funded. The third was our affordability, the unfair competition that free market fundamentalists find so abhorrent, stripping so-called deserved profit away from the entrepreneur job and wealth “creators” we hear so much about. Thomas Jefferson’s vision is lost on these Americans, who feel that the relative advantage of privilege that their wealth provides should not be undermined by offering the children of working people the equal opportunity to succeed. Never mind that the society as a whole benefits, their argument seems to be: why should they have to fund it and unfairly undermine the price that all comers should have to pay?

Next came the 2008 budget crisis. Well, actually the crisis started well before Gov. Schwarzenegger played his game of smashing the state piggy bank in order to promote his economic neo-con agenda. It started with Prop. 13. Ever so slowly the heat was turned up on the frogs to the surreal point where the CSU trustees were arguing about changing the term for the non-tuition we are not supposed to be charging students from “fees” to “tuition-fees” and more than half the state portion of the CSU’s revenue now comes from those non-tuition-fees we are charging for what rightly should be a free education. In addition, this violates the other mandate of the CSU, that is affordability, but to maintain that pretense the amount of available student aid is increased with each upward tick of the temperature dial. And we can see how that is working as students are graduating, those lucky enough to get there, with higher debt than ever before. This has untold ramifications for our society. As John Garamendi said to me once, how can young people consider public service as a career choice like he did with this debt hanging over them?

Besides the manipulated and purposeful underfunding of the entire public schooling sector, the real crime for the CSU was that California’s Master Plan for Higher Education was abandoned with no public debate and little fight. Unfortunately, the CSU leaders (the so-called trustees) were either salivating over the contracts they were going to see their corporate fellow travelers get or (the one’s who cared) wringing their hands saying: “What can we do? TINA.” All while distancing themselves from the groups that could have marshaled the political power to actually make a difference, the students and the employee unions. Oh, for a brief time there was the Alliance For the CSU, which actually worked (on many campuses and in Sacramento) to create the political pressure to turn back some threatened cuts, but it too soon fell apart, as if it were not needed anymore after securing a brief respite, just one victorious battle in the ongoing war. And all the while the chancellor’s governmental affairs office continued to push an indifferent agenda as if it were just another day in the life of dismantling a great institution. I don’t know if you could hear the violin music emanating from the 6th floor in Long Beach, but whatever the former leadership was doing, we were not clued in. Like I said, why would you not use the one power you have, the massive university community, including the parents, to turn back the anti-public higher education agenda? Instead they ran the other way.

The entire university community, and the state itself, is a victim of this ongoing crime. Not least the non-faculty staff. Going forward, first we need recognition that our problems are both the external, corporate-driven attacks that are part and parcel of the project to destroy the public sector (by “proving” the private sector can do it better, a wild assumption at best, and totally discredited over and over again), and the attack from within to demoralize the workforce (to better promote the private sector as the only alternative to a supposedly coddled, over-privileged state employees).

Thus we end up with “solutions” to budget shortfalls that make the overall problem worse for the people of the state, while dialing down the mission from excellent education to sort of OK. But we survived. The CSU would have been much worse off if not for the heroic efforts of the entire university community in struggling to maintain quality with much fewer resources and at great personal sacrifice. But if state employees, and specifically CSU staff, are coddled, then maybe we deserved to be cut. But what is the reality?

An internal problem that the budget crisis only exacerbated is the CSU’s broken staff classification and compensation system. The underlying philosophy is outdated and the system is dysfunctional in more ways than just being underfunded. This isn’t just my own opinion. There is plenty of empirical evidence. So much so that a joint labor-management committee wrote a report with recommendations for making significant changes (Long-Term Compensation Strategy LMC Report, June 2010). Some of these items are ever-so-slowly being implemented but the overall dysfunction has not been addressed. This needs to come from your office, from your leadership. Oh, you may have a battle with some of the trustees, who will object to this change in direction away from the Social Darwinian, corporate-inspired, philosophy to a system that rejects the race-to-the-bottom regime and honors public service and honestly values those providing the service. We are not making widgets. We are a service institution. Contrary to the view that too much of our budget goes to wages and benefits (as your predecessor was fond of saying without this clarification, effectively pushing the anti-tax panic button). It is both right and healthy for the majority of our resources to be put into the people providing this service for the greater good. The CSU is an investment in our children that we cannot afford to not make.

On top of the systemic issues there really has been serious underfunding and misdirected priorities. We, the staff, have been without cost-of-living raises since, in 2006, we were denied the raises in the third year of our contract at the time. This goes back to the beginning of the last round of the state budget crisis, when Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a fiscal emergency (after he made the crisis worse, of course). When we bargained those well-deserved raises at that time the CSU was still reeling from previous budget cuts. Our bargaining team successfully showed management that our represented employees—the life’s blood of the CSU—were already terribly behind market wages, averaging 20 percent for most classifications. Since that time, things have gotten much worse, especially for the long-term employees.

As I stated earlier, in FY 2009-2010 we were faced with the choice of massive layoffs or furloughs. I helped negotiate the agreement that cut staff compensation by 10 percent for one year to help preserve positions. The staff in our bargaining units voted by better than 80 percent to take the cut. However, we still saw layoffs in subsequent years; the chancellor’s office not being so keen on furloughs anymore. We did our best to mitigate those layoffs to lessen the damage both to the individuals and for those campuses. Most of those affected have since returned to work but, as predicted, the system is just now beginning to fill long-vacant positions and address the increased workload burden our staff endured.

Unlike most other state employees, we do not have regular salary steps. Back in 1996 the CSU unilaterally took steps away when they implemented their merit pay system, featuring manager-discretion, open salary ranges—which were never adequately funded, and are only partly justified for a handful of classifications in the first place (mostly in Bargaining Units 2 and 9). The ranges look great on paper, but the reality for most CSU employees is that they are hired at the bottom and that is where they stay for most, if not all of their careers.

Although we do have the contractual right to ask for a raise through the In-Range Progression (IRP) process, they are, again, entirely discretionary and the CSU campuses do not typically have a budget line for staff promotion, so mostly it’s a futile exercise only to hear: “We recognize that you have taken up more duties at a higher level, but there’s no money for raises at this time.” Managers are doubly affected due to the frustration of not being able to reward their hard-working staff on top of themselves not seeing raises, and, like their staff, taking on increased workloads as they struggled to hold onto staff and avoid layoffs, mostly by not filling positions vacated through attrition. Staff know that the rule is: the longer you work for the CSU the farther behind you fall. For example, I was helping a union member—a health center nurse of 20 years—with her IRP (raise) request and discovered that she was making $2,000 a month less than a recently hired nurse doing the same work. Of course, she had to show this newly hired employee the ropes.

So, with the CSU in periodic budget crisis, coming in waves, classes cut in the early 1990s have still not returned. In addition, SF State’s plans to expand education pedagogy into innovative inter-disciplinary directions with it’s NEXA program was entirely sacrificed to the “budget crisis” gods. Meanwhile some staff who spent their entire careers during this time have experienced stagnation, no movement through salary ranges; asked to take on more without compensation; literally overworked and underpaid; often working out of classification; and then hit with furloughs and effectively told over and again that we are the most expendable members of the university community.

Any effort on your part to restore what was lost, and beyond that, secure adequate funding for the CSU will be greatly appreciated. The state legislature must be shown that to lose 33 percent of our operating budget over the last five years (not to mention previous cuts) and then have 18 percent trickle back in puny increments (the governor’s “5-5-4-4 plan”) but still be expected to take in even more students and meet other enhanced performance criteria is not reasonable. As we are public servants and also citizens of the state we take to heart our mission and can’t help but be disturbed about the unmet needs of a state in economic recovery. California’s citizenry and government leaders need to be shown that not to invest adequately in our collective future is a less than prudent path, to say the least. In addition, there was a cruel joke played on us with the so-called “equal” cuts made to both the CSU and UC. The same dollar amounts have not had the same affect because our overall budgets and funding sources are not the same.

You join us in somewhat better times, but the very real threats to the CSU are still out there. It is heartening to see the system begin to go in what appears to be the reverse direction. I commend your effort to recognize our neglect the last seven years by carving a 1.34 percent raise out of the $125 million the Legislature provided the CSU in the last budget. This is a significant sign of hope. In addition, your support for our bargaining team’s proposal to fund a minimum $40-a-month increase for those below that threshold has not gone unnoticed. While it was a hopeful move and very much appreciated by those employees affected, it is sad that it was even necessary. Imagine living in the SF Bay Area on less than $3,000 a month gross pay, working full time.

However, to watch a democratic leader (one of our supposed friends that some elements like to say are in the union’s pockets) campaign against the BART employees by promoting a petition against public transit employees’ right to strike (in his bid to join the State Legislature) is extremely disheartening, especially since he is the governor’s man on the CSU Board of Trustees. We are left wondering, who are the trustees, let alone legislators, with the courage to stand up for public service employees?

The next round of full-contract bargaining is upon us. In the last round we proposed similar language to that of other state employees to protect bargaining units from overuse of outside contractors performing our work. Unfortunately, we did not have the leverage at the time to convince the CSU, and this problem has only gotten worse since. We may be pushing this in the state legislature. We are convinced it is the right thing to do for the sate as a whole. The reality is, contracting out is a very efficient way to waste already scarce state resources. California as an employer does not need to join the race to the bottom with the creation of junk jobs that don’t provide for healthy communities and a career we, as state employees, can be proud of.

You and I have our respective roles, but they aren’t so different, at least they shouldn’t be in some respects. We both need to champion the public sector, value the workforce, and figure out how to restore what has been stolen from the citizens of California and ensure that it doesn’t happen again by securing an ongoing commitment for the future.

Again, thank you for listening. Your heartfelt respect for what we do is important to us. Now let’s see some action, taken with the help of the entire university community. Speak up on what we know is good for us all, a strong public sector, and, we got your back.

I remain a proud public servant at your service.

California State Employees Association Vice President Russell Kilday-Hicks
ITC at SF State, CSU Employees Union member and activist