Oct 18, 2023
Tuesday’s rally featured students and staff who raised their voices over two allied campaigns: student opposition to tuition hikes and faculty disputes over salary negotiations.
For 60 seconds, 75 Sonoma State University students and allied faculty members made as much noise as they could. Some were equipped with makeshift drums — Home Depot buckets turned upside down — and handmade mallets. Many were shouting.
One math instructor brought her trombone.
The so-called “noise barrage,” involved students and faculty members who’d come together Tuesday on the university’s center quad to raise their voices over two allied campaigns: student opposition to tuition hikes and faculty disputes over salary negotiations.
The combined rally was spearheaded by the California Faculty Association and involved five other organized labor coalitions, representing a range of campus positions from academic faculty to maintenance workers.
“I’ve seen a lot of really good staff and faculty leave,” said fourth-year psychology major Robbie Campos. “I see these professors, and I see that they’re trying, but how much longer are we going to ask them to continue being resilient?”
He and other students rallied with faculty members as they protested a controversial decision by the California State University system to hike tuition nearly 34% over the next five years.
When Campos arrived on the quad, he brought nearly 10 other students with him; most of them a part of M.E.Ch.A, a student-led advocacy group geared toward social justice, culture and history of Latino students.
Many of them were concerned about the tuition hikes further stressing their finances.
“My rent is over $6,000 per semester and I can barely afford that,” said first-year student Manny Lopez. “If they raise the tuition, what am I going to do?”
Annual increases of 6% start in the 2024-25 school year and will continue for five years. In-state SSU full-time undergraduates like Lopez can expect to pay an extra $344 for next year’s tuition.
By 2028-2029, annual tuition alone will jump to $7,682.
With fees included, Sonoma State has the third highest tuition and fees at just over $8,000 according to a CSU cost of attendance breakdown of the 23 campuses.
Noriega, a second-year environmental science major, said that while he does receive aid from FAFSA, he is “consistently” working part-time jobs to make up for what tuition his aid does not cover.
He is also concerned about housing.
“Housing prices here are already huge, so imagine with this additional cost?” Noriega said.
The California State University system’s board of trustees voted 15 to 5 to approve the annual increases in early September, stating that the additional revenue will help their equitable graduation initiative by channeling a third of the funding back into financial aid.
Outcry from students across CSU, the nation’s largest four-year university system has been sustained and critical.
In Rohnert Park on Tuesday, it was also loud.
Lopez and Noriega both participated in the noise barrage and the march that followed, as protesters held up signs that read in capital letters: “F#&k the tuition hike!” “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions;” and “SSU runs on union labor.”
‘SSU runs on union labor’
At about 12:30 p.m., the group gathered outside Ruben Salazar Hall, directly under SSU President Ming Tung “Mike” Lee’s office. Members of six labor unions chanted in unison “Fewer classes, higher fees — the CSU is run by thieves!”
Two of the six groups have reached tentative labor agreements — the CSU Employees Unionon Oct. 11, and the Union of Academic Student Workers earlier this month.
Together, the six groups represent the bulk of SSU’s unionized employees.
The faculty association, one of the groups that remains in negotiations, representing most student-facing academic positions, is asking for a 12% one-year increase in salary. The Sonoma chapter President Napoleon Reyes says the increase accounts for money he said they are owed following the pandemic, and will help them recoup after two years of record inflation.
“It’s not even asking for salary increases, we’re just asking to be caught up,” said Damian Wilson, CFA Sonoma Labor and Community Outreach Chair.
The California State University Chancellor’s Office responded with either a one-time offer of 5% or a three-year guarantee of 4% annual increases, calling the request by CFA “unreasonable,” according to a letter from Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester.
“Contract negotiation isn’t going anywhere,” Reyes said.
CSU representatives have rejected additional employee proposals including one full semester of paid parental leave, five paid days of crisis leave, increases to salary minimums for lecturers, and workload caps for counselors and mental health professionals, according to the faculty association.
“We’ve gotta fight,” said Martha Byrne, the math and statistics faculty member who carried the brass trombone during the barrage. “We’re losing good faculty because they can't afford to live here, and we're losing people due to burnout.”
Byrne mentioned she has recently had to relocate because she could no longer afford her rent while also working as an instructor at SSU.
This sentiment was shared among the Teamsters at Tuesday’s protest. They’ve negotiated since January for trade employees at CSU schools to get pay steps, where an annual percentage increase is added to their salaries, a fairly routine provision in many public sector salaries.
Brian Schneider, a plumber for 20 years on the SSU campus and member of Teamsters, said this plan would keep him from living paycheck to paycheck.
“It’s just the inequity of it,” Schneider said. “I’m a single dad … one job should be enough here.”
SSU spokesperson Jeffery Keating said campus officials were closely following negotiations between the unions and the Chancellor’s Office.
“The University fully supports faculty and staff in their efforts to maintain a living wage. We also are supportive of their right to engage the campus community in an effort to be heard on this issue, and to do so in a safe and welcoming space,” said SSU’s spokesperson Jeffery Keating on behalf of university administration.
The protest ended around 12:45 p.m. as the group circled back to the main quad, returned their drum buckets and put down the picket signs.
“At the end of the day, they’ve seen us,” Lopez said. “If they don't do anything, that’s on them. They know the struggle we’re going through.”