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How to lose a strike before it begins


Earlier in October, we faculty, counselors, coaches and librarians of the California Faculty Association voted to strike at the largest university system in the country.

The 29,000 members of CFA have faced a long decline in real wages, exploding class sizes and deteriorating working conditions. We are ready to strike in the 23 campus California State University system.

Unfortunately, union leadership is not ready to organize a successful strike and is once again losing the strike before it starts. During the last two strike campaigns, in 2016 and 2021, leadership failed to prepare and delivered two terrible contracts.

We will not win a strike if we don’t organize for it. There is virtually no organizing happening. Union officials are instead focused on small campus protests and a march at the CSU board meeting. We are not being prepared to strike.

As I have frequently written about on these pages, organizing requires a strategy. While the leadership once again says they have one, they will not share it. We cannot follow a strategy no one has seen or participated in developing.

The missing strategy is just one of the many reasons we do not have a credible strike threat.

Both the commitment to strike and the strike vote were taken online. Once again, the total number who voted and how we voted on each campus was not disclosed. The failure to take public votes is a missed opportunity to organize the membership and gain public support, especially from the students and their families.

There have been few statewide trainings. Two chapters organized their own strike school but it did not teach many organizing skills.

The leadership has not coordinated strike-related action with the largest staff union CSUEU, which just settled, or the Teamsters who are also in bargaining and getting nowhere. Imagine the impact if we all struck together, just as faculty, staff and grad students did at Rutgers earlier this year. No doors would open, no lights would turn on, no online classes would be taught, and no deliveries would come in or go out.

Actually shutting down all 23 universities is the way to win the strike. Pretending we can will lose the strike.

Even the basic structure tests advocated by labor scholar Jane McAlevey aren’t being done.

Because there is no gradual escalation of tactical intensity we have no idea who is willing to do more than put their name on an online card. So far, very few have joined the protests.

The lack of a strike fund broadcasts that we will not go on an open-ended disruptive strike. Workers cannot afford to stay out if there is no financial support especially for us poorly paid mostly part-time lecturers, librarians counselors and coaches.

There is no clear messaging, coordinated publicity campaign or visionary statement of the kind of university system we want. Posters and T-shirts are being recycled from the last failed strike threat in 2021. That year organizing started only one month before another terrible tentative agreement was announced over the Christmas break.

The recycled T-shirts weakly say “I don’t want to strike but I will.” We didn’t strike in 2021.

The message of solidarity for the 325 SFSU lecturers being laid off in retaliation during bargaining is a great organizing tool. The leadership was silent for over a month about the layoffs and has not called a ULP strike.

Instead, we are being rushed to strike without a strategy to win it.

The focus is once again on projecting an appearance of strike readiness rather than actually organizing a credible strike threat. We can be certain that the CSU’s anti-union consultants and administrators can see through our smoke and mirrors.

A strike threat is credible to the boss when they see that strike would be so disruptive and costly that they give us what we want to avoid it. It is also credible to the supermajority of the members who demonstrate their commitment to take escalating action leading to a strike. If the boss isn’t convinced, we must really shut down the entire system to win.

Hopes were high this summer when the leadership opened up bargaining during reopeners. Each day about 100 members from all over the state showed up for four day long bargaining sessions.

We prohibited the leadership from accepting the CSU’s terrible counter proposal. A wage increase is no longer sufficient. The members insisted that other core issues of ballooning class sizes, increased workload, family leave, and others would not be sacrificed yet again for tiny pay increases. It’s clear that these are really pay cuts after inflation and increased workload are factored in.

Our hopes for change were dashed when the bargaining team surprisingly declared an impasse and closed up bargaining.

The lack of a strategy to strike and win means that either they don’t want to strike or don’t know how to organize one — or both.

Rather than building worker power, our union is run like a nonprofit lobbying group that has repeatedly failed to get us what we want from normal politics. Organizing is replaced by political settlements in which the leadership lobbies with the boss for more money from the legislature in Sacramento. And each time we members lost.

The members are mad and ready to strike but are not being organized or led. Under this leadership we are losing the strike before it begins.

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back” and, most recently, “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few. Follow him at @OvetzRobert

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