Faculty, staff, union members and students from across the California State University system rallied together Tuesday morning during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach to protest issues ranging from fair pay and compensation to proposed tuition hikes for students.

Most of the CSU workforce is currently in contract negotiations, and many union proposals are urging the university system to increase wages to be competitive with other comparable institutions and private employers, raise the floor for the lowest-paid faculty and staff, and to reinstate salary steps, which ended nearly 30 years ago and which union members claim have caused extreme pay disparities between long-time and newer CSU workers, according to the California Faculty Association.

Many employees have gone years without a pay increase and are underpaid compared to other people who do the same work, said Michael Harris, a painter at Cal State Long Beach. Harris added that some can no longer afford to live in the state they work in, particularly as inflation has risen.

An independent salary study commissioned by the state found support staff earn 12% below market rate, while faculty wages are stagnant, trailing at least 9% behind inflation, according to the California Faculty Union. Union members say that the fight for a fair contract extends past just better pay, but it also leads to high turnover and vacancies, which jeopardizes quality of education for CSU’s nearly half a million students.

Protesters chant with signs visible reading "CSU Step Up or Strike Out."
Union members say that their wages have not increased at the rate of inflation, and that it has become increasingly difficult to live in the state where they work. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

“They say they care. We worked through the pandemic. … I care about my campus, I care about the campus community, I wish the campus cared about myself,” said facility project supervisor Dave Unger, who has worked at Cal State Northridge for over 23 years.

Unger, who is part of the Teamsters Local 2010 union, which includes about 1,000 skilled tradesmen members across the 23 university campuses, plus additional members at UC schools, described interviewing, hiring and training a new employee, only to discover that the new employee was earning more than he was.

“I’m kind of stuck— I have so many years in, you know? What, I’m supposed to walk away from my retirement?”  Unger said. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, and I feel like I’ve been suckered in.”

Unger said he expects that a strike will be the only way to resolve the current conflict with the university system.

“On my campus, morale is down,” he said. “We keep building new buildings left and right, and the campus is looking amazing. But people forget about the people who get it to look that way.”

Current salary negotiations mark one of the first times that all of the unions (which includes the Teamsters, Academic Professionals of California or APC, California Faculty Association or CFA, the Union of Academic Student Workers or UAW 4123, the CSU Employees Union or CSUEU, and the Union of American Physicians and Dentists or UAPD) have come together in a “coalition of summer solidarity,” said Charles Toombs, California Faculty Association president and professor at San Diego State.

“We hope that the Board of Trustees actually understand that if negotiations for all the unions do not go well moving forward, we will go through the process that we have to go through,” Toombs said. “If we do not get a good result, then we are prepared to take action.”

Union member protesters with signs reading "CSU: Step Out or Strike Out," whistle over steps that say words varying from "Labor Unions," "Integration," and "Cloning Global."
Union members are urging CSU to increase wages in order to be competitive with other comparable institutions and private employers, raise the floor for CSU’s lowest-paid faculty and staff, and reinstate salary steps, which has caused extreme pay disparities between long-time and newer CSU workers. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

The CSU system is notably facing a $1.5 million budget gap between the revenue it collects and the money it needs to fund student academics, which includes instructor pay, tutoring support and other costs tied to educating and graduating students—and the proposed tuition increase is one way the school system could make up the difference.

Tuition could rise as much as 6% annually for both undergraduate and graduate students beginning in fall 2024.

While 33% of the increased revenue would support campus financial aid for low-income students, known as the State University Grant, students and union members in attendance Tuesday voiced concerns that the tuition hike will make college increasingly unaffordable for its students.

“The majority of students in the CSU are students of color, and the CSU should not be balancing its budget on their backs and on their shoulders,” Toombs said. “Students of color have witnessed so much in the last few months with legislation and Supreme Court decisions that are just not honoring who students of color are—and we expect the CSU to do better, to be a real leader.”

Cal State Fullerton student with Students for Quality Education Vaugn Wilbur noted that presidents across the CSU system have received salary increases—in Long Beach, President Jane Close Conoley received a 7% salary increase last year, in addition to equity adjustments based on performance and comparison to similar universities nationally. According to the California Faculty Association, CSU also has a “rainy day fund” of over $3 billion.

“They have the money to pay their workers a living wage—it shouldn’t be the student’s burden to fill that gap,” said Wilbur.

The purpose of the CSU system is to be accessible and to provide quality education, said Michael Lee-Chang, a Sacramento State student with the organization Students For Quality Education.

“The bottom line is that the later you attend a CSU, the more you will be paying,” said Lee-Chang. “Students from disadvantaged communities, from our Black communities, from our Latino communities—these are students that have been historically disadvantaged, and the CSU wants to put them at even more of a disadvantage. So we’re here not only fighting for us, but for pretty much the future of California.”

People scream and chant with signs that say "CSU: Step Up or Strike Out."
Protesters urge CSU to increase pay for employees and to not implement a yearly tuition increase for students on July 11, 2023. Photo by Tess Kazenoff.

Cal State Long Beach student Luis Ortiz, also with the organization Students for Quality Education, said that access to free education, along with resources ranging from mental health support, food, and housing accessibility, ensures that students are able to land on their feet after graduating, rather than struggling, which is the case for many students and employees living in Long Beach.

Meanwhile, within the Board of Trustees meeting, members discussed expanding accessibility and overall affordability for students, which includes assessing factors apart from tuition, particularly cost of living.

“We heard concerns that a tuition hike may decrease enrollment—we take that seriously,” said Trustee Julia Lopez during the board meeting. “The sticker price should never be the reason a student does not apply to college.”

The overall cost for students to attend a Cal State University school over a nine-month period from 2022 to 2023 (which can differ per campus) ranges from $21,133 for students who live at home, to $27,175 for students living on campus, and $30,191 for students who live off campus, which does not include costs for housing, food, and other expenses during summer months.

Trustee members noted that Cal Grants, Pell Grants and other scholarships assist many university students. While 60% of undergrads (about 249,637 students) have their tuition fully covered, and 81% of CSU undergraduates receive financial aid, board members discussed the need for improved communication and accessibility, particularly when it comes to better connecting with high school students and their families about financial aid, as well as simplifying the overall financial aid process.

The Board of Trustees is expected to vote on the tuition increase in September.

“California continues to leave genius on the table,” said Trustee Lateefah Simon during the meeting. “Those young people—with support and hard work, can revitalize the state if they’re given the opportunity to come into our university system. But we have a long way to go.”

Thousands of CSU undergraduate workers file for union representation