Thousands of classes canceled as MJC, Columbia instructors walk off the job

Professors refused to teach classes Tuesday at Modesto Junior College and Columbia College, launching a two-day strike to protest what they called unfair labor practices by their employer.

The walkout is expected to result in 2,600 canceled classes at MJC, affecting 18,000 students, said a spokesman for the Yosemite Community College District. Five instructors crossed the picket line Tuesday to teach classes.

At the smaller Columbia College near Sonora, the strike Tuesday and Wednesday will cancel 154 classes, affecting 2,000 students, while 84 classes will be held, the district said. The faculty strike is believed to be the first in the 97-year history of MJC. Classes will resume Thursday.

The strike created empty classrooms at MJC’s East Campus, where about two-thirds of the main parking lot was bare. Sign-toting members of the Yosemite Faculty Association formed picket lines at busy intersections at the east and west campuses in Modesto.

The union’s leadership assured that professors and instructors are also prepared to strike in January, after the holiday break, if there is no meaningful progress in contract negotiations with the YCCD. The teachers and district administration are far apart on pay issues even though the negotiations began three years ago.

“If they reach out, we will reach back,” said Jim Sahlman, president of the union representing almost 700 professors, instructors and counselors. “It’s important for the district to understand we are not going to be bullied. We are not going to accept bad-faith negotiations anymore. It’s time for the games to stop.”

The YFA said the strike this week was a last resort after resolutions posted on the YCCD board agenda Oct. 10 threatened disciplinary action against faculty members who engage in a work stoppage. The union charged that the threats were illegal, and the items were pulled from the agenda.

Faculty members are upset that their salaries have fallen to the bottom of a survey of 10 community college districts in California. At the same time, the YCCD has proposed larger class sizes that would put up to 45 students in some classrooms, the union says.

With the two sides at impasse, a fact-finding process was conducted in September, and there is some hope that a mediator’s report with recommendations, due Dec. 6, will point the way to a settlement.

The YCCD, which has offered an 8 percent raise over four years, counters that raising faculty salaries to the middle of the 10-district comparison would essentially require a 22 percent pay increase. Such an increase would lead to financial instability for the district and would not be fair for other district employees who settled for smaller raises, the district says.

Dave Lyghtle, a spokesman for YCCD, said the district expects negotiations will resume shortly after the fact-finding report is released next week, “with hopes of reaching a settlement that’s amenable to all.”

Sahlman said the faculty pay was close to the median in 2015 but has slipped low on the survey as the negotiations failed to produce a new contract. He said faculty members know it will take time to move higher on the salary survey and are willing to work with the district on a multiyear plan for getting there.

Without progress in the talks, Sahlman said, a two-week strike could occur with the start of the next semester in January, but only if that is necessary.

Dale Pollard, who teaches agriculture and soil science at MJC, said instructors who planned to participate in the walkout this week gave prior notice to students via email. To minimize the impact on students’ education, the faculty chose to teach classes on Monday, which have the most holiday cancellations, and limited the walkout to two days, Pollard said.

“We are disappointed we have to do this to be treated fairly,” Pollard said.

Interim MJC President Steve Collins, who mingled with strikers at the east campus, was aware of only two previous strikes at junior colleges in California since legislation in 1921 created community college districts. Collins said the fact-finding report from the mediation process in September is overdue, but it should serve as a good starting point for resuming negotiations with faculty.

Collins said the library and tutoring services remain open at the MJC East Campus.

MJC student Kristina Young said she received messages from three instructors participating in the strike, one canceling a biology lab Tuesday and the others saying they wouldn’t check emails from students in online classes. Young said students in the biology lab missed an exam last week when MJC was closed due to smoke from the wildfire near Chico.

With the faculty strike this week, Young said, she didn’t know when students could make up the exam. “A lot of people in the class are allied health students who are trying to get into the nursing program,” she said, adding that there’s concern among students about losing credits if too many classes are canceled by the labor strife.

MJC student James Gonzalez of Turlock said students are already hearing about another possible strike the first week of spring semester.

According to the YCCD, the average base salary for full-time teachers at the two colleges is around $80,000 a year. Some teachers represented by the YFA are part-time employees paid hourly rates. Sahlman said it takes almost 30 years for the base annual salary of senior-level faculty to reach $100,000 on the schedule.

Most of those earning above $100,000 a year have doctorate degrees and teach extra courses or summer classes, he said.

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