The California Faculty Association (CFA) has begun the “Fight for Five” campaign in a dispute with the administration of the California State University (CSU) system after seeing faculty wages stagnate for ten years and real wages fall by up to 25% between 2004 and 2013. The CFA is demanding a general salary increase of 5% for fiscal year 2015/2016, whereas the CSU administration has proposed a mere 2% increase. This miserly offer adds insult to injury in the context of the administration’s history of never settling during the mandated mediation process. Over the same period, the average tuition paid by students in the CSU system has increased by over 300%, discrediting the administration’s claim that increasing faculty wages would lead to tuition increases—they have already risen dramatically despite stagnant wages. In light of all this, the CFA has called for a strike authorization vote.
Deteriorating working conditions for instructors directly affects the quality of education students receive. With an average yearly salary for CSU faculty of $45,000, and with more than 50% of faculty making less than $38,000 in gross earnings per year (often with terminal degrees and hefty student loans), instructors are commonly driven to teach numerous courses at multiple school sites. This leaves them less able to devote time and attention to individual students and courses. A general salary increase for instructors is an important step for ensuring quality of education for all university students.
Following the enactment of the California Master Plan for Higher Education in the 1960s, public higher education in California was relatively low cost and well funded . What, then, has led to the massive tuition increases and deteriorating wages and conditions for the employees of the California State University system? Following World War II, capitalism (especially US capitalism), experienced a revival, known as the postwar boom. After the severe economic decline of the Great Depression, this recovery was largely due to the destruction wrought upon European production and the resultant ability of the US capitalist class to export both capital and consumer goods to Europe. Based on the expanded markets and rising profits, the bosses were able to concede some concessions fought for by the working class, temporarily buying a relative degree of class peace.
With the end of the boom in 1973, however, the inherent contradictions of capitalism were exacerbated once again, leading to a prolonged crisis. With the productive forces of Europe having been reconstructed, the capitalist class once again was driven by competition to produce more goods than could be purchased back by the working class. Since all value is created by labor, and workers are compelled to sell their labor power (their ability to work) for a wage, but work longer than the time required to produce the value of their labor power (the socially necessary labor time required for the maintenance of the workers their families), more values are produced than can be absorbed by the market. This is what Marx called a crisis of overproduction. The value created over and above that which is paid back to the workers in wages is called surplus value. This is the source of the capitalists’ profits. The struggle over this surplus is what constitutes the class struggle. Along with things like Social Security, state-funded education represents part of the social wage the working class has won from the capitalists in the course of this struggle.
In the midst of the crisis of their system, the capitalists are driven to roll back reforms won in the past in order to claw back more of the surplus value created by the workers. Reducing wages (both paid and social), lengthening the workday, cutting education, and shifting the burden for funding it to working people are all ways in which they seek to increase their profits. The irony is that at a time when we are told “there is no money,” there is actually more than enough wealth in society to provide free, quality education for all, living grants for students, a living wage for instructors, and to wipe out all student loans. Under capitalism, however, in which a small parasitic minority controls society in its own interests, this is impossible.
The CFA, in its struggle against the CSU administration, should be supported in this by all California students and workers. Their demand of a 5% pay increase, far from being extravagant, merely aims to slow down the onslaught. Such an increase would not even make up for the loss of the purchasing power due to inflation over the last decade. By linking their demands with those of students and the working class in general, thereby gaining their support and solidarity, and by backing these demands with rallies, demonstrations, strikes, and occupations if forced to do so, the workers of the CFA could win much more than they are demanding, such as a greater pay increase that is tied to inflation and the rising cost of living. However, to secure any such gains against future rollbacks and to ensure a high and ever-improving quality of life for all workers, we need to unite to fight both in our unions and in politics. For this we need working class solidarity, a strong and militant labor movement, and a labor party of, by, and for the workers, fighting for socialism.