Modesto Junior College and Columbia faculty schedule two-day strike

Modesto Junior college students walk outside the Science Community Building in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.
Modesto Junior college students walk outside the Science Community Building in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.

Instructors at Modesto Junior College and Columbia College near Sonora will strike Nov. 27 and 28 to protest what faculty calls unfair labor practices by their bosses at the Yosemite Community College District.

District administrators have said classes will not be canceled for 25,000 students at both campuses. The classes, labs and online courses presumably will be staffed with substitutes and faculty who cross picket lines.

The Yosemite Faculty Association, which is the union representing instructors, said 86 percent of members voted Friday, and 89.7 percent favored the two-day strike.

The union and district have spent more than three years negotiating pay, class size and other terms of employment, and both sides declared impasse in March. Union membership in September authorized a post-impasse strike sometime in the future; the Nov. 27 and 28 work stoppage is separate and specifically protests what the union sees as bad-faith bargaining by the district.

Specifically, the district threatened to fire faculty for exercising their right to engage in lawful union activity, the union said. Also, the district came forward Nov. 9 with a new contract offer featuring less money than the district had proposed in its “last, best and final offer” in February, and eliminating a promise eventually to increase faculty wages to match median pay at comparable colleges throughout California, the union said.

“YFA must respond to these provocations by calling for an unfair labor practices strike,” reads a declaration approved Tuesday by union leaders.

The colleges and YCCD offices were closed Friday as union members voted, because of poor air quality caused by smoke from the disastrous Camp Fire in Butte County. But Chancellor Henry Yong responded to an email inquiry expressing his “sincere desire and wish that we can reach an agreement, and move forward into the future with confidence, and provide our students with a great education.”

A message on the district’s website posted Sept. 26 says YCCD developed a “strike contingency plan” with this goal: “Classes at both Columbia College and Modesto Junior College will continue to be offered and maintained for student success even if a strike is implemented by members of YFA.”

Faculty here are paid 22.3 percent below the median at comparable campuses, the union says. The district in February had offered a 6 percent raise spread over three years, with some professors getting 7 percent. The union disagreed, and also objected to a proposal to increase class sizes to as many as 45 students.

On Wednesday, the YCCD’s elected board released a statement accusing the union of failing to specify its wage demands. “It is unfair for the community and students we serve to live in fear of a potential walkout by faculty and the damage that action could cause when no one knows what salary increase YFA is demanding,” the statement reads.

YFA president Jim Sahlman, an MJC communications professor, fired back a letter outlining specific salary requests presented to the district “on no fewer than four occasions.” He called the statement “misguided,” “easily refuted” and evidence of “more bad faith by the district in these negotiations,” and requested a retraction.

“If the board was misled or not informed by the district of these multiple past offers, it is a problem,” Sahlman said in the letter. “If the board was aware of this history of YFA salary offers, including ones with specific salary percentages, and still elected to issue its false statement claiming otherwise, it is an even bigger problem.”