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Teachers, Staff Block Traffic in Escalating Labor Dispute at California College of the Arts

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OAKLAND — Union teachers and staff at California College of the Arts (CCA) blocked traffic in front of the school’s Oakland campus on Sunday, November 22, escalating demands for the administration to negotiate a fair contract. 

Seventy workers and supporters, linked by 6-foot lengths of caution tape, held “Fair Contract Now” and “People Over Profits” signs as they blockaded one of the city’s main arteries for nearly an hour. 

In one pointed chant, demonstrators addressed CCA president Stephen Beal and provost Tammy Rae Carland, the photographer and video artist, as well as school’s lead attorney Michael Vartain: “Tammy Rae! Stephen Beal! They let their lawyer rob and steal!”

According to faculty and staff union members, represented by SEIU Local 1021, the administration has undermined its avowed commitment to social justice by stalling contract talks with both bargaining units. They also denounced the concurrent layoffs and pay cuts, accusing the school of excluding workers from institutional decision-making, including how to safely continue operations during a pandemic. 

“You don’t balance a school’s budget on the backs of workers,” Elizabeth Travelsight, an adjunct CCA professor, said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “That’s how they balance budgets at Walmart.”

The dispute comes during a precarious transition for CCA. The school has been moving out of its historic Oakland campus and studio arts facilities to consolidate in San Francisco, raising concerns about the college’s identity. The pandemic led to layoffs, students demanding tuition refunds, and additional, uncompensated work for adjuncts tasked with remote teaching. 

CCA labor action in Oakland on November 22 (photo by and courtesy Donald Smith)

The dramatic near-closure of the San Francisco Art Institute earlier this year, where dozens of union adjuncts were laid off, also looms over CCA workers’ demands for a strong contract. 

Especially in light of SFAI’s unraveling, the union wants CCA to uphold its commitment to the arts community with wages reflecting local cost-of-living, breaking the “churn and burn” cycle of adjunct gig-work prevalent in higher education. “It’s about priorities gone wildly awry,” said Travelslight, who was among the teachers laid off at SFAI. “If the school really cared about sustaining the arts in San Francisco like they say, they could pay their workers a living wage.” 

In a statement to Hyperallergic, a CCA spokesperson declined to comment on specific negotiating points. “The college is committed to negotiating in good faith with the unified, overarching goal of reaching collective bargaining agreements for our employees that prioritize the health and safety of our faculty, staff, and students while fulfilling our academic mission at the highest level,” the representative said. 

Staff at CCA, an art, architecture, and design school boasting alumni such as Robert Arneson and Susan O’Malley, voted to join SEIU last April. The previous contract for adjunct professors, who teach the bulk of the coursework offered to nearly 2,000 students, expired this past June. 

A motivator for the staff union drive last year, and a sticking point in the current talks, is workers’ desire for a voice in decisions related to the ongoing campus consolidation as well as pandemic-related safety measures in the workplace. Workers were not consulted regarding the administration’s recent decision, for example, to resume hosting in-person classes in tents. 

Meanwhile, staff say they’re directly suffering the decisions of well-paid CCA administrators. “We’ve beared the cost in terms of layoffs, we’ve beared the cost in terms of furloughs, we’ve beared the cost in terms of reduced healthcare,” said Brian Harte, furniture studio manager, who was furloughed in August. “And right now we don’t have the strength of a contract to respond.”

Kseniya Makarova, a graphic design teacher and bargaining committee member (photo by and courtesy Donald Smith)

Kseniya Makarova, a graphic design teacher and bargaining committee member, said the administration is also resisting adjuncts’ attempts to enshrine in their contract ideas materially supporting CCA students, including recommendations from a student union organization.

In May, school leadership refused to negotiate pandemic-related safety and compensation measures with college adjuncts, accusing the teachers of trying to solicit an illegal work-stoppage by offering student union representatives the opportunity to address classes. Adjuncts, in turn, accused the administration of attempting to deter student-teacher solidarity.

“They want to drive our unions apart,” Makarova said. At the most recent bargaining session, 25 teachers attended as silent observers, prompting Vartain to end the meeting abruptly. The teachers consider this an administrative attempt to subvert union democracy. “They basically walked out of the room, and haven’t provided a date for the next session,” Makarova said.

The union, as Hyperallergic previously reported, has also been calling attention to the college’s finances, arguing its institutional debt, combined with enrollment decline, siphons resources from students and workers. In August, union members demonstrated outside CCA’s new debt-financed dorms on student move-in day. They chanted, “Money for workers, not for banks!”

CCA labor action in Oakland on November 22 (photo by and courtesy Donald Smith)

SEIU also filed a grievance with CCA claiming that the school “ summarily and arbitrarily alters the wages, hours and work conditions of Adjunct professors — and in the process circumvents its legal obligations under our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to bargain,” Corey Sherman, the union’s higher-education field representative, said in a statement to Hyperallergic:

We know the same regressive lawyer [Vartain] advises multiple schools to enact this illegal slashing of wages. Our members took to the streets today in no small part to protest this absurd practice wherein CCA cuts wages of low wage teachers while administrators continue to earn $200,000-$700,000 a year.

The action Sunday included participants from the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America as well as staff from Mills College in Oakland, who are also represented by SEIU. 

Kalie Caetano, a communications manager at Mills, where workers are similarly at odds with the administration over pandemic-related safety and contract talks, said it was important for her and her colleagues to “stand in solidarity” with CCA staff. “The law and demands will only get us so far,” Caetano said. “As workers the power we have ultimately rests in collective direct action.”

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