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Strike vote begins at CSU
Faculty cast ballots amid debate within union over public perception
By Eric Stern - Bee Staff Writer

Published March 6, 2007

TO HEAR IT FROM the Sacramento State faculty, the dispute over a new salary contract is about everything but their salaries.

It is about President Alexander Gonzalez's pay raise and perks -- a $60,000 bump over the past two years. It is about the office he remodeled a few years ago and his push for new athletic facilities.

"It goes back to the campus priorities," said Robert Metcalf, a biology professor since 1970, standing Monday near a ballot box where faculty members were voting for the first time on whether to authorize a strike if contract talks fail.

Gonzalez has become a target of scorn -- the local face of the statewide CSU system that has battled for two years with a 23,000-member faculty union.

Gonzalez has no role in the salary talks.

"It's the sort of the thing that happens during contract negotiations, that sometimes things get personal," said campus spokesman Frank Whitlatch.

It is also likely to turn off the public as the rhetoric continues to increase, said Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

"The sum total of it is people will just get disgusted," said Callan, a former education analyst for the state. "It pushes all the contentiousness ... out in the public domain."

The contract dispute is, indeed, about salary.

The CSU administration agrees that professors deserve a raise, and Callan said he sympathizes with professors who are angry about receiving one raise in four years. But the level of raises under discussion -- ranging from 4 percent to 8 percent a year through 2010 - is disconnected from outsiders, Callan said. The average professor's salary at CSU is $71,000.

"The average Californian, I'm afraid, would say, 'They're being offered 4 percent? I got 1 percent,' " Callan said.

On Monday, professors across the state began voting to authorize a pre-emptive strike if an independent fact-finding report to be issued this month doesn't bring both sides back to the table.

If the fact-finding process is unsuccessful -- and if the strike vote passes -- faculty in the largest four-year public university system in the country will go on a two-day campus-by-campus walkout this spring.

Results of the vote, conducted on all CSU campuses over the next two weeks, will be announced March 21. Although the union represents about 23,000 people, roughly 10,000 are active members who can participate in the vote.

Union leaders need only a majority of voter approval to go ahead with a strike, but they are seeking a much stronger endorsement of its members to go forward.

About 20 union activists, from public schoolteachers to firefighters, joined in a noon rally Monday in the library breezeway on campus, where the voting was taking place.

"I worry that people think we're just being greedy," said Nancy Lapp, a government professor, after casting her vote in favor of striking. She said faculty members didn't go into teaching to become rich -- and they don't take walking out of class lightly.

"It's taken a lot for us to get to this point," she said.

Faculty salaries at CSU are 18 percent below the average of 20 peer institutions, from Arizona State to Wayne State in Detroit, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission. The figures do not factor in health and retirement benefits.

"I voted no," said Val Smith, a communication studies professor.

He said he's not opposed to getting a bigger paycheck but thinks the strike vote is premature with the negotiating process still underway.

He worries what the public will say about the faculty -- overpaid, with summers off, great benefits and unparalleled job security.

"It is hard to imagine them being overly sympathetic with our plight," Smith said. "I think we damage our reputation by saying that we're going to go out on strike."

Several students who watched the rally Monday said they supported their professors.

"Students can handle pretty much missing a few classes," said Philip Santos, 18, a freshman from Sacramento.

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