Interview with Sonoma State faculty association President Elaine Newman

Sonoma State University students can all breathe with a sigh of relief.

Although a tentative contract agreement is still awaiting final approval from the California Faculty Association and the CSU Board of Trustees, the threat of a statewide strike by CSU faculty has passed for now. Strengthened by unity and public support, the CFAeffectively bargained for a 10.8 percent salary increase over a three-year contract. They originally had asked for a 5 percent increase for this year.

Elaine Newman, Sonoma State CFA chapter president, stopped by the STAR on April 12to discussd the tentative agreement with the CSU, the debate about asbestos at Stevenson Hall and other issues.

Newman has been a math and statistics professor at Sonoma State University for 18 years. She joined the union in her early days of educating and continued through the years with varying degrees of responsibilities. Two-and-a-half years ago, she was elected president of the chapter.

When asked to describe her experience being chapter president, she said, “It’s been a very good experience for me. I cannot say it’s been fun, but it has been interesting.”

STAR: What do you think needs to happen next, now that an agreement was reached between the CSU and CFA and the strike was called off?

Newman: I’m going to say that everything that we’ve won recently, like this tentative agreement that called off the strike, is a start to fixing our salary issues. We are very pleased with this tentative agreement, but we feel that it’s just a start to fixing the sins of the last 10or 15years. 

In a perfect world, we’ll do what the fact-finder recommended. The CSU administration and CSU faculty will work together to advocate for more funding for the CSU from the state legislature. And if that happens, then that needs to translate into all kinds of improvements in the quality of the educational experience you receive. That means bringing salaries into parody, keeping workloads from getting worse and providing more sections and advising for students.

STAR: Ruben Armiñana has gotten a raise every year over the last 9 years totaling $33,000. Within the union, is there any discussion about that salary gap between administrators and faculty members?

Newman: Yes, that was part of the fairness side of this raise that we were asking for. When we chose to become faculty, we didn’t think we were going to be rich, but we didn’t think we were taking a vow of poverty either. So when we are asking for a raise, we were asking for something that was reasonable and fair. I don’t begrudge the president’s raises over the last few years, but we all should have been getting those raises. I think a mark of true leadership would be for him to have said, “If my faculty isn’t getting a raise, then I’m not going to take a raise either.” Again, I don’t mind if people are making more money, as long as we all are brought up to a certain level of fairness and we’re all receiving a living wage and we’re all receiving respect and dignity for the work that we do.

STAR: So two weeks ago, the CSU was offering a 2 percent raise. The CFA wanted 5 percent . You ended up with 10 percent. How did you do that?

Newman: Well, it’s actually 10.8 percent, with compounding. I think at the beginning of the negotiations, the chancellor and the [CSU] Board of Trustees did not believe that faculty could generate the power to do something like effectively threaten a strike. Up until when that neutral, third-party fact-finder’s report was released, I think they really thought that we couldn’t do it.

They thought that we would just take the 2 percent and like it. I think they were surprised the Legislature in Sacramento supported us. They claimed they didn’t have the money to afford our raises, but they hadn’t gone to the Legislature and asked for it either. Then faculty had gone and effectively argued for more funding for the CSU, and we received it. The funding for the CSU was augmented by almost 10 percentin the last year, and they still claimed they didn’t have the money.

I think they were also surprised that students supported us. They were really trying to divide us by saying that your student fees were tied to our salaries. And then we debunked the notion that your student fees were tied to our salary raises in any way. So I think they were surprised by what we could do. And we won this because there was near unanimity among the faculty for the strike. And students, you all were super effective in supporting us, too. I think we have great teachers here, and if they’re treated right, then we can deliver that great education that we all want to deliver.

STAR: How do you expect relations to change between faculty and administrationin the fall with the new president?

Newman: I’m very hopeful. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with this new president. She’s made some serious attempts to reach out to faculty on the academic senate to figure out what our concerns are. I’m hopeful that she’ll bring a renewed sense of commitment to our academic mission here at Sonoma State.

STAR: What is the union’s opinion on the allegations of asbestos in Stevenson?

Newman: We have filed a grievance on behalf of all faculty that have to work in Stevenson. We have asked faculty to request a transfer out of Stevenson, and to sign on to our class grievance. We have also asked faculty to contact CAL OSHA with their specific concerns about working in Stevenson. The university has produced a report that says everything’s okay. But there is a separate lawsuit, which has nothing to do with CFA, and the plaintiff’s attorney’s have had independent testing done and the results are alarming. We are not experts with asbestos, and we are not qualified to determine what’s going on in Stevenson. So we’ve hired an outside consultant who is a retired CAL OSHA worker that is going to advise us on what these reports mean and what we should be asking for. I believe what we will be asking for as remediation to remove the grievance is better abatement methods.

Every old building has asbestos in it, but in terms of cleaning, sealing floors, painting, and replacing ceiling tiles, we need to find the best practices to protect the students and teachers in those buildings.