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Cal State Faculty United

Open Letter to the CFA Membership: A Strategy for Winning Our Strike
by members of California State Faculty United (CSFU) representing ten campuses in the CSU system (for identification purposes only): CPP, CSUSB, CSUF, CSULB, CSUS, CSUSM, CSUN, SDSU, SFSU, SJSU 

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October 2023

Dear colleagues,
We in Cal State Faculty United (CSFU) consider CFA to be at a crossroads. We must take more effective action in response to current circumstances of collective bargaining; the mass firing of more than 300 lecturers at SFSU; unprecedented budget cuts on selective campuses; and the urgent timeline as we move toward a strike vote. We need the membership to weigh in on the direction our actions should take.
    Having been involved in organizing at least the last two strike threats we have learned some lessons about how CFA has tried to prepare the membership for an effective strike that we would like to share. This reflection will suggest an organizing strategy which we can use to prepare for and win an effective strike. This organizing strategy seeks to empower the majority contingent faculty, create a stronger bond between lecturers and tenure-line faculty, and collaborate with our other campus unions to democratically transform the CSUs from below.
    The organizing strategy we propose is based on a close study of past and present labor struggles, from the UAW in the 1930s to the UC grad student strikes last Fall to the Hollywood strikes today that have worked. We propose this organizing strategy at a time when momentum is growing towards actually striking rather than settling for the lesser evil of a tiny pay bump that doesn’t address any of the core needs of the counselors, coaches, librarians and faculty.
    As workers organize and strike all around us this is an opportune time to act, especially since two of the other large CSU staff unions are also considering doing the same and thousands of non-academic student workers are unionizing. It is also proposed at a time when more than 300 SFSU lecturers are being fired supposedly for a manufactured fiscal crisis when the CSUs have about $9 billion in reserve.
    The question for all of us—coaches, counselors, librarians, faculty, staff, and student employees—is:  what will it take to win? None of us can do it alone. We cannot win by repeating what we have done before which resulted in settlements that left too many dissatisfied. This is largely attributable to the fact that during the last two strike threats over the past seven years there was no discernible organizing strategy, even for those leading the strike organizing efforts on our campuses. Unfortunately, there is still not discernible organizing strategy as we move towards an October strike authorization vote.
    Some efforts have been made by CFA to move to open bargaining and begin speaking with the other CSU campus unions but it is not enough to win a strike. If we are going to win anything resembling the contract that our leadership has been fighting for in the negotiating room, we need a clear, effective organizing strategy.

There are four essential features of an effective organizing strategy:

• Tactics that escalate in intensity;

• Leverage applied at our employer’s vulnerable points; 

• Actions distinct from but coordinated with collective bargaining; and

• Members democratically develop the strategy.  

Let’s look at each feature of an effective organizing strategy.

Tactics that Escalate in Intensity
To organize a credible strike threat we need a rank and file led organizing effort with the full resources and support of the leadership. By organizing, we do not mean simply merely getting non-members to sign up as dues paying members. We mean strategically organizing bargaining unit members together across classification, campus and rank to build power and apply leverage towards our mutual benefit.
    In order to do this, the CFA needs to have a campaign plan with an organizing strategy designed by the membership in place at least 6 to 12 months in advance of a strike. The campaign plan should identify the organizing strategy and tactics needed to achieve the objectives. The campaign plan should also identify available and needed resources, who is responsible for which tasks, our messages, and include a timeline and a budget. Since there are faculty on many of our campuses who teach students how to design and carry out campaign plans we already have a wealth of knowledge among our own membership about how to design one. Unfortunately, any campaign plan by CFA appears either to not have been written, or to not have been shared, even with chapter leadership during the last two contract campaigns.
    CFA statewide has been attempting to organize member-led Contract Action Teams composed of trained rank and file organizers, but different CFA chapters are at vastly different stages of organizing CATs with little to no day to say to support or guidance. Some chapters are further along in this phase of organizing; some chapters have not even begun.
    In this phase, organizers recruit and train counseling, coaching, library and department and college representatives who in turn also train key other rank and file members to carry out one-on-one conversations with every member of the faculty. Organizers should use these conversations to identify each member’s level of commitment and ask them to participate in strike-related action.  This necessitates acknowledging the real risks associated with striking, inoculating them against employer threats, and helping members overcome the obstacles and often justified fears that workers experience when they take collective action. Organizers must track and document these assessments. Current contact information should be recorded to reach the membership through mass text messaging, phone trees, and phone calls. Organizers must follow up with members they assess as prospective organizers and leaders over the course of the campaign and encourage their participation. Those members who are on the fence need to be brought in as active supporters. We also need to protect ourselves from those who are opposed to the union.
    This organizing strategy should identify a series of actions that gradually escalate in intensity and disruptive power to complement bargaining. This tactical escalation begins with wearing t-shirts and buttons, signing strike commitment cards and the like but it cannot end there. Tactics should be decided in advance and organizers should be prepared to move the membership to organize and participate in each consecutive action of increasing intensity.
The objectives of the strike campaign should directly address the core shared interests of the widest membership and be ambitious enough to motivate the membership. These objectives should also be communicated clearly and consistently in every form of communication including bumper stickers, door hangers, buttons, t-shirts, hats, signs, banners, factsheets, press releases, videos, etc. The objectives should be communicated and framed for different audiences such as students, staff, parents, lawmakers, the public and even the system administration and trustees. Rank and file members should be trained to deliver the messages at every opportunity and to tell their stories as coaches, counselors, librarians, lecturers and tenure-line professors.
    The organizing strategy should also be shared with all the other campus unions whether they are in bargaining or not. If other unions are heading toward job actions, every effort should be taken to coordinate joint actions and to settle at the same time. If no settlements are possible, we must aim to strike together and only end our strikes simultaneously. Having our CBAs expire at the same time during the next round of bargaining would amplify the power of our joint strike threats in the future. 

Leverage Applied at Our Employer’s Vulnerable Points
Contrary to widely held opinion, the timing of a strike is not the only factor to consider. What is more important than timing is striking when and where the employer is most vulnerable. These vulnerabilities are not stagnant but change with new management, technology, methods of controlling our work, budgeting, and important deadlines. To understand where these vulnerabilities are located, it is necessary to do what is called a “workers’ inquiry” to analyze the organization of both the administration and our work.
    A worker’s inquiry will help us identify critical junctures, seams and connections where well-organized members can amplify the impact of their disruptive actions. While we must organize a supermajority of the members to take collective action, some members’ actions will have a greater disruptive impact than others because of their strategic location on our campuses and in their work. Supermajority commitment to action alone isn’t enough anymore. We also need to coordinate our actions in conjunction with other campus workers who are also strategically placed to take collective action that potentially disrupts the day-to-day functioning of our shared workplace.
    Today a strike cannot be won just by threatening to strike without organizing disruptive action. It also will not be won with symbolic protests at the trustees meetings or walking picket lines. Even refusing to teach our classes or file grades will no longer be sufficient to win a strike.
Because our class records and materials are now stored on Canvas in “the cloud,” and many of our classes have moved on-line, most likely for good, the faculty alone do not yet have sufficient power to use tactics to disrupt the remote aspect of our teaching. While strikers can unpublish their classes those who cross the picket lines can keep teaching. Recent faculty strikes in South Africa and the UK have been weakened when the administrations moved struck classes online and used canned course content or strikebreakers to teach them. Recent UC and University of Michigan graduate students’ grade strikes lost some of their disruptive impact when administrators went into their learning management systems to enter bogus grades.
    Since strikes prevent the entering of grades, and thus gum up the operations of the administration, we need to identify which courses serve as choke points for the greatest number of students and be sure to organize the faculty teaching them to join the strike. If a large number of students’ grades are not filed, students cannot register for the next semester. The administration then cannot charge tuition; campus funding will decline. While this all might sound scary, if these things happen it will give the members immense leverage to achieve our objectives. It is likely to make our strike shorter and more effective. We seek to create improved learning conditions for our students so they are more likely to support us.
    Refusing to hold classes and enter grades by themselves are not sufficient to win a strike. We also need to make sure that the basic essential services that make the campuses run also stop. To do that we need to take cooperative action with campus staff. If staff strike alongside us the classrooms will be locked, the internet won’t work, projectors will not turn on, Canvas won’t load, Zoom will not be accessible, the power won’t go on, deliveries won’t arrive, and the bathrooms won’t get cleaned or the trash emptied. If these happen we will have succeeded in truly shutting down every strategically important aspect of the campus.
    We not only need our campus co-workers to join us but we also need the students to publicly support us by not coming to campus or logging onto the web portal. The administration has done half the job for us by recently voting to raise tuition by over 30% in the next five years. Many students who aren’t even involved in Associated Students or campus clubs are now furious  about this. They can easily see that they, the faculty and staff are all getting screwed in the same way. Since many thousands of students are also campus workers they too have shared interests in pushing up the miserably low pay they receive the system minimum wage is, in some cases, less than the local minimum wage in the cities where our campuses reside.

Actions Distinct from but Coordinated with Collective Bargaining
The organizing strategy should not only be developed through a transparent democratic process by the rank-and-file membership; it should also be independent from the collective bargaining process. There are several strategic reasons to develop them separately.
    First, bargaining is about making concessions to come to an agreement with the employer to end strike-related action and organizing. The organizing strategy we propose here is a fundamentally different approach because it is based on escalating tactics to apply leverage and pressure to force the employer to concede to our demands.
    Often a bargaining team is under pressure to give something to get something. A disruptive organizing strategy does not offer concessions but makes firm and unbending demands. While these two approaches are complementary, they are not the same. For this reason, they should not be developed in the same way or carried out by the same people. 
    Another important reason why they should be developed and implemented separately is that bargaining works by de-escalating to reach an agreement while organizing for disruptive power is most effective by escalating. To come to a settlement, the bargaining committee must be willing to de-escalate their demands in order to obtain concessions from the employer. However, an organizing campaign de-escalates only if it is weak and lacks support from the membership for applying higher levels of intensity, faces repression, or accepts a concession. It is reasonable to tactically de-escalate when an acceptable concession that meets our objectives is offered. Negotiators that de-escalate without the presence of outside pressure of gradually increasing tactical pressure are doing so as a sign of weakness. For this reason, they are unlikely to achieve their objectives and will be defeated.
    That is why the bargaining and organizing strategies are complementary but are not the same. The bargaining committee can demonstrate a strong position to achieve its demands when they can point outside the bargaining room to an organized membership engaged in disruptive tactics that increase in intensity as the employer digs in their heels. The bargaining team has no leverage of its own other than what the organized members provide it. As UAW president Shawn Fain recently said during their ongoing strike, “But I also know that what we win at the bargaining table depends on the power we build on the job. It’s time to use that power.” Because the two strategies are based on fundamentally different logics they must complement one another but should not be developed or carried out by the same people. 

Members Democratically Develop the Strategy
While there is a strong case to be made for developing the bargaining strategy in private by a large and diverse bargaining team representing the entire variety of the membership, we believe a more effective organizing strategy would be developed in a democratic and transparent way that is open to and facilitates the participation by the rank-and-file membership. An organizing strategy that is developed only by the leadership in private will fail to achieve its objectives.
    In contrast, an organizing strategy developed democratically and transparently is the most likely to succeed because it will have the greatest buy-in from the broadest swath of the membership who helped design it. This is because participation breeds commitment while exclusion breeds resentment. Any of us who have a role in developing the organizing strategy will be most enthusiastic about carrying it in a successful and effective way; we will take “ownership” in it. Our enthusiasm will be attractive to other members who will also want to participate and join in on the organizing. It will also allow us to organize around campus specific issues that may vary widely across the system but that can be linked back to the bargaining goals.
    When unions employ an organizing strategy developed in private and do not publicly share it with the rank-and-file, members will have comments, questions and suggestions: How was it developed?; Who wrote it?; Can we adapt it as conditions change? Members will have nowhere to direct their input, and that is what has often concerned us in CSFU. The strategy will appear to be opaque, inflexible, and disconnected from our day-to-day organizing needs and priorities. Rather than feeling attached to the organizing strategy as something we helped create, it will feel like someone else’s plan that is imposed on us from above.
    While some town halls are being held they are mostly for the leadership to speak at the members about plans that have already been made. We need assemblies organized both statewide and on each campus to democratically and transparently discuss, plan and implement an organizing strategy. Assemblies should be longer than one hour, have an open chat, and open discussion. The decisions made by the members should direct the leadership and staff, not the other way around as it has been for too long.
    People don’t like being told what to do and will resist the top-down strategy. They will lack commitment to it and will likely drift away and become uninvolved. When that happens the organizing strategy will fail and we will lose. It is then that we end up settling in bargaining for a bad or mediocre contract that no one is happy with.
The low levels of member involvement in the last two contract campaigns reflected the lack of democratic and transparent participation in developing an organizing strategy. In fact, there was none and as of early October 2023 there still isn’t one.
We call on you, therefore, colleagues, to work immediately to develop a CFA wide strategy that you are willing to fight for in these coming months.
An organizing strategy developed by the rank-and-file, members sets the union apart from the employer is a very clear and distinct way. While work is often felt as something we are forced to do, and something that is arbitrary and coerced, an effective organizing strategy encourages members to feel empowered and liberated. It gives us a vision of how our work could and should be organized.
    After all, that’s what unions are all about. A union is about workers organizing together to bring democratic control, decision making and power to our work. A union contract creates the rules for that to begin happening. A union in which the rank-and-file lead the preparations to strike is most likely to then use the protections and rights in the contract to genuinely transform work, to make it less exploitative and onerous.
    This is why we are at a turning point: CFA members, us, need to tackle directly the necessity for an organizing strategy across the state as we hurtle toward a strike vote in late October.
    We ask everyone reading this open letter to immediately ask their chapter president and eboard to direct the CFA statewide leadership to call a statewide meeting that will allow all rank-and-file members to democratically and transparently develop an organizing strategy.