Amidst a pandemic and an economic recession, lecturers at the University of California — who total about 6,500 — still remain without a collective contract to guarantee greater job security, healthcare benefits and workplace protections.

Lecturers — who teach half of all undergraduate classes at the UC — are faculty not on a tenure track. Max Abrams / Daily Nexus

The UC has lost $2 billion in revenue due to COVID-19, according to the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) in September. Many lecturers say the economic fallout has worsened fears among their ranks over potential cuts and job losses.

“Nearly 2000 UC-AFT [American Federation of Teachers] teaching faculty lost their jobs over the summer with the UC. So there’s a huge brain drain,” said Mia McIver, the president of UC-AFT, a union that represents UC lecturers and librarians.

“It’s an intensification of what happens every year. On an annual basis, about 1,600 teaching faculty lose their jobs. This year, it’s even worse,” she continued.

UC-AFT has been embroiled in negotiations with UCOP’s labor relations division since March over COVID-19 relief for lecturers. On top of that, the union has also been bargaining over a new two-year contract since their last one expired in January 2020 — meaning that lecturers have been working for almost a year without a contract.

Sarah McBride, a UCOP spokesperson, said in an email that “the University is doing everything possible at the bargaining table to reach an agreement quickly, but needs the partnership of union leaders.” 

“UC has been bargaining with the UC-AFT for more than a year and believes a contract for our lecturers is long overdue,” McBride continued. McBride also stated that the contract UCOP offered in June to UC-AFT is “especially fair in light of the significant impacts employers everywhere are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Lecturers — who teach half of all undergraduate classes at the UC — are faculty not on a tenure track. On average, they have fewer benefits and less job security than professors, who are tenure-track faculty represented by the Academic Senate. Lecturers also make less than professors, with a median salary of $19,067, compared to $141,183 for professors, according to payroll data. Despite the pay gap, lecturers have similar qualifications to professors, including doctorate degrees, according to McIver. 

When remote instruction began in Spring Quarter 2020, UC lecturers began working furiously to adapt in-person classes for the digital world as soon as possible.

“It took basically the whole spring break [to transform classes to fit remote instruction],” Valentina Padula-Castleberg, a lecturer in UCSB’s Department of French and Italian, said.

“We didn’t even think we should get compensated extra because we think it’s part of our work. However, we didn’t expect that amount of work in such a short time,” she added.

In the spring, UC-AFT filed a workplace grievance with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) against the UC for failing to compensate lecturers for the extra time spent transitioning classes to online instruction.

“Every single directive they got from UC Santa Barbara was ‘You have to do more, we know you have to do more and you need to.’ None of that communication was accompanied by ‘And we will pay you for that time’,” said Holly Craig-Wehrle, UCSB’s local UC-AFT chapter organizer.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet, a lecturer in UC Santa Barbara’s Writing Program, is juggling teaching a creative nonfiction class while taking care of her five-month-old daughter, Louisa.

“She’s been on a lot of calls, which I hate because I don’t want her to see screens. But there’s really no option, ultimately, and sometimes I’ve had to breastfeed during faculty meetings,” Whittet said. 

Whittet is on paid parental leave, which allows her to work a reduced schedule while she balances teaching and caring for Louisa. She has birth parent benefits, which entails a decreased workload and the ability to teach one class this quarter as opposed to two, which would constitute full-time employment. A new policy instituted this July will grant lecturers up to eight weeks of paid family leave beginning July 2021.

In its ongoing bargaining with UCOP, the UC-AFT wants to expand childcare benefits to non-birth parents, as well as adoptive parents, meaning they would receive the same kind of allowances for a reduced schedule like Whittet’s. 

The pandemic exacerbated the economic strain on many lecturers, leading some to take up side jobs to earn extra cash on top of UC’s wages, Whittet said, noting a colleague of hers who is working in a tattoo parlor part time to make ends meet. 

McIver used to teach at two different universities — UC Irvine and Loyola Marymount University — and said she knows lecturers who supplement their income through gig work like Uber and Lyft.

Lecturers’ job insecurity stems in part from their short-term contracts, which vary in how much time lecturers are promised a job depending on their department. Contracts can range from a single quarter to a few years, and after their contract expires, lecturers must re-apply for their jobs and hope the university decides to hire them again, according to Whittet.

After six years, or 18 quarters, lecturers are eligible for an excellence review, a process of review similar to academic tenure where a lecturer may be granted a continuing appointment in which they do not have to reapply for their jobs but still lack the protections that tenured professors have, according to McIver. Therefore, a lecturer who passes the review may still be laid off by the university. 

Through contract negotiations, UC-AFT is demanding greater job security than what is provided by the current appointment system and is hoping to expand the time on lecturers’ contracts to provide more job security, said Craig-Wehrle.

But the negotiations have not been running smoothly, McIver said. In October, UC-AFT filed an unfair practice charge with PERB, alleging that the UC Board of Regents failed to bargain in good faith with UC-AFT. The complaint may receive a hearing from PERB if the two parties cannot reach an agreement.

UCOP most recently offered UC-AFT a contract on Nov. 12 extending lecturer benefits, but UC-AFT has not accepted it. McIver said the contract, while signifying some promising compromises, was disappointing overall because it offered a revised appointment process but did not address retaining lecturers before they reached a two-year appointment.

The contract UCOP offered expands job security by restructuring lecturer appointment times before the excellence review in a “1-1-2-2” year schedule before they receive an excellence review, according to McIver.

“What’s key for us in order to bridge the gaps between appointments are 1) a fair and consistent review/evaluation process and 2) a commitment to rehiring competent faculty before new candidates are recruited,” McIver said in an email. “Management hasn’t shown any interest in either of those common sense concepts […] yet.”

UC-AFT has also put forward contracts that the UC has not accepted. McIver said UC-AFT is continuously working towards an agreement both parties can accept, though she says she is still frustrated with the UC and concerned for public higher education as a whole.

“One of the greatest tragedies of our generation is the adjunctification of higher education and particularly public higher education,” McIver said. “There are hundreds of thousands of really brilliant, talented, dedicated faculty members out there who just can’t get jobs because the universities won’t employ them in a steady way. And it is just a tragedy for the fate of public higher education.”