What’s at stake in the faculty fight at CCSF?

May 4, 2016

After a one-day strike at the City College of San Francisco, Carl Finamore, a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, documents the history of the struggle.

Editor's note: We learned over the weekend that Carl Finamore, a contributor to SW on labor issues and much more, fell ill over the weekend and remains in the hospital in serious condition as of Wednesday morning. Our best wishes and solidarity are with him and his friends and family.

AFTER A frustrating year at the negotiating table, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121 faculty at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) conducted a one-day strike of all classes at all 11 campuses on April 27 because the administration has not been bargaining in good faith. The unfair labor practice strike was intended to step up pressure on CCSF administrators who are proposing "to shrink classes by 26 percent and lay off more than a quarter of the faculty," according to the union.

These cuts are staggering. But as labor educator, author and AFT Local 2121 executive board member Joe Berry pointed out to me, it's all part of a decades-long attack on community colleges across the country to shrink their budgets and limit their mission to a technical and vocational curriculum. A genuine school failure and "student 'unsuccess' plan," said Berry.

On the picket line at City College of San Francisco
On the picket line at City College of San Francisco (Carl Finamore)

As it is, CCSF has approximately 1,500 faculty members serving around 70,000 students who are primarily working class, immigrants and people of color. It is the largest public community college in California and remains one of the largest in the nation.

However, "it was only a few years ago that our faculty was over 2,000 serving 100,000 students," said Berry. This downsizing is the result of methodical funding cuts and, most troubling, drawn-out attempts begun in 2012 to actually close the school.

Amid all this chaos, a majority of the CCSF faculty today is part time, working for less money per class, without as much job security as tenured faculty and, for many, without any health insurance. "In effect," Berry says, "we now have a large low-wage contingent workforce with many faculty getting paid well below $20 an hour."

Therefore, as political science professor and AFT 2121 union president Tim Killikelly told the press, the CCSF administration should make wage increases for all faculty part of its strategy to keep the college open--or risk depriving students of experienced educators who would be economically squeezed out of the classroom.

"The proposals, at the end of a three-year contract, would have over half of our members still below a salary that they were making in 2007," Killikelly said. "How can they possibly think that that kind of proposal is reasonable and that we would agree to it?" In fact, the vote at CCSF authorizing a strike was carried by 92 percent.

Unfortunately, much of the dismal experience described locally is not new nationally. But what is new is that more teachers, most notably in Chicago and now in San Francisco, are taking a stand and resisting further erosion of what should be free, open and accessible public schools.

So it is of some significance that CCSF union leaders openly model themselves on the extremely effective strikes and community outreach efforts of Chicago teachers. "We have studied their example very closely," Berry told me. "Their consistent coalition work with labor, political groups, parents and communities of color to keep K-12 classes open and accessible in Chicago is what we are trying to do at the community college level in San Francisco."

Of course, compensating teachers fairly is very much a legitimate issue--but so also is the union's support of preserving and expanding public education. Highlighting this point, San Francisco city supervisor Jane Kim recently announced, with AFT 2121 leaders at her side, "Free City" legislation that would eliminate city college tuition for all residents.

It is estimated this would cost the city $13 million a year, easily obtained by very modest fractional taxes on sales of ultra-luxury items or on some of the more grotesquely inflated real estate transactions in the city. There certainly are enough examples of both.

CURRENTLY, THERE are approximately 43.3 million Americans carrying student loans amounting to an astounding $1.2 trillion. This is greater than the country's towering credit card bill. And it's getting worse. 2015 graduates set a new record of indebtedness.

Yet there was a time not too long ago when community colleges were tuition free and when most state universities charged only modestly. This was true everywhere in the country.

For example, at CCSF, "tuition was zero before 1984," Berry proudly mentioned to me, while at San Francisco State University, tuition was only around $68 a semester in 1968, which, adjusted for inflation, amounts to $465 in 2016. Also in 1968, a full load of classes to obtain a bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois in Chicago cost only $630 per semester in 2016 dollars.

"It's disgraceful that young people have to go into such deep debt just to receive a decent higher education," said Rodger Scott, who's a Local 2121 representative. It just doesn't have to be this way."

Scott is a longtime teacher and veteran AFT Local 2121 leader who went to Texas Tech between 1954 and 1957. "I was charged $25 a semester," which is still only $215 in 2016 money, he explained. "I got my bachelor's, master's, Ph.D. and even enrolled in more extended post-graduate studies and never once had to take out a student loan."

In fact, even schools offering advanced degrees were financially accessible in those days. The very conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute conceded in 2011:

[T]here has been a truly mind-boggling increase in college tuition since 1960. For example, law school tuition has risen nearly 1,000 percent since around 1960 when the median annual tuition and fees at private law schools was $475 [$3,800 a year adjusted for inflation].

Thus, far-reaching opportunities to obtain a higher education were available to millions of working-class youth in the 1960s. Many were the children of returning veterans of the Second World War who themselves enjoyed the enormous benefits of the 1944 Servicemen's Readjustment Act, or GI Bill.

The GI Bill provided cash payments for tuition and living expenses to attend a university, high school or vocational training center. In the peak attendance year of 1947, veterans made up almost half of all college enrollments nationwide. It was affectionately termed the "GI Bulge."

By 1956, roughly 7.5 million vets went to school. The GI Bill was one of the most democratic social initiatives ever, extending financial assistance to millions who sought to acquire vital knowledge so essential for living life as aware and conscious citizens.

But as the children of these returning GIs came of age and also began enrolling in college some 18 years later, a downside began to appear.

IN THE case of education, the elites became particularly alarmed beginning in the late 1960s at the level of rebellion and protest on campuses. Schools were becoming centers of intellectual inquiry. Nothing was off the table, including the interrogation of the whole social order.

Campus discussions began tilting away from the Cold War assumptions of McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts to calls for less military spending and for more civil rights, more women's rights, more gay rights and more labor rights.

Knowledge, as leading champions of education have universally observed, is democratizing, equalizing and socializing. It is also the best antidote to ignorant biases. "I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one," abolitionist Frederick Douglass once noted.

True enough--learning was clearly invigorating and energizing millions of disquieted youth who now had the tools to analyze and interpret their very troubling competitive world of corporate control, capital greed and world imperialism.

But there were even more disturbing red flags for the rulers of this country.

With civil rights victories and college "open admissions" struggles successfully requiring enrollment of people of color, this country's top strata nervously anticipated rising social expectations of an educated, diversified class of young women and people of color who were, making it all the more horrifying, working together and supporting each other's issues.

Putting all these fear factors together, it is no exaggeration to say that the top rulers in this country declared war on public education. As with everything else that has gone wrong in this country, the education crisis isn't an unfortunate accident; it is the result of social policy, engineered by corporate and financial interests and executed by their compliant political vassals.

Their first shots were fired in early 1973 when the Trilateral Commission (TC) was formed by banker and global oligarch David Rockefeller and intellectual elitist Zbigniew Brzezinski.

In 1975, the TC issued a major report entitled "The Crisis of Democracy," in which the authors railed against the "democratic surge" of the 1960s that involved "marches, demonstrations, protest movements and 'cause' organizations." The report decried the "overload" this imposed upon institutions of authority.

The offensively frank report specifically singles out "the blacks" as one politically active group that posed a "danger of overloading the political system with demands."

A powerful critique of "Crisis of Democracy" is contained in a 2012 paper by independent researcher Andrew Marshall, who describes the report as calling for dismantling free public education and its replacement, as Marshall tells it, with "less democracy and more authority" on campuses and in society as a whole.

He quotes the TC report complaining that governance was suffering from "democracy itself in a highly educated, mobilized, and participant society," and that what is needed is "a more balanced existence" in which there are "limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy."

There you have it, in the words of the rich and powerful--there was too much democracy, too much expected of government and too much dissent. And the nerve center of this dangerous concoction of promise and hope were the college and university campuses. The ruling elite insisted something had to change. In fact, everything did, beginning in the 1970s.

Even earlier, the "Great [Corporate] Communicator," California Gov. Ronald Reagan, offered his services. As soon as he was elected in 1967, he cut state funding for higher education and even argued the critical importance of tuition-based funding by suggesting that if students had to pay for their education they would be far less likely to protest.

More and more, schools began operating like businesses with tight budgets. Auditors and administrators became far more influential than teachers and counselors. Activism, dissent and freewheeling intellectual inquiry were curtailed as colleges and universities became more integrated into the economic machinery of state.

Curriculum was prioritized that would channel students into lucrative jobs and careers. Education began primarily serving economic objectives, with end results measured by how many hard dollars were earned instead of by how much human and intellectual advancement and personal growth were achieved.

This shameful transformation subordinated human development to economic considerations. All these factors combined to channel youth into the "Crisis of Democracy" controlled paradigm.

But with Chicago and San Francisco teachers as only two examples, and with mounting protests against student debt, it seems an upswing in activism is ahead of us. Let's hope the corporatization of education is coming to its inglorious end.

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