Building community, understanding the world and transforming what needs to be changed are all goals that Cecilia Lucas strives toward in everything she does.
As a director for Albany Park Theater Project, a theater company for youth, Lucas created plays based on the stories of real people in the Albany Park neighborhood of Chicago. After five years, however, Lucas craved a deeper understanding of the structural implications behind those stories. She briefly taught creative writing and current events to those incarcerated in a Boston jail before enrolling at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
After completing her doctorate degree, she had the opportunity in 2013 to fill a lecturing position in campus’s global poverty and practice minor, a program in which she had taught as a GSI.
“I had a history with the program and an affection for the program and for the students in it,” Lucas said. “It really felt like a wonderful opportunity in that way.”
Lucas has continued to teach as a campus lecturer. By January 2020, she had completed an excellence review alongside the 12 semesters required to earn a continuing lecturer appointment — and in theory, some job stability.
However, Lucas received notice of a “reduction in time” Nov. 13. This means that although she will still have active status with the university, she will not be teaching any classes or receiving compensation for the spring semester. Supposedly, Lucas said, she will still be employed and back to teaching at least one class in the fall.
If she had been laid off, Lucas said she would have been compensated given the university did not abide by its one-year notice required for continuing lecturers. To reduce a continuing lecturer’s appointment, however, requires only a 30-day notice.
Dwindling appointments and low income
When Lucas first began teaching at UC Berkeley, the global poverty and practice minor was committed to ensuring each lecturer taught at least four courses per year with goals of decreasing lecturer turnover, which they believed was harmful for students.
In the wake of budget cuts, however, the department had to pack more students into fewer sections and cut all of the enrichment elective courses, according to Lucas.
“It’s always an issue of budget priorities,” Lucas said. “Teaching is just not a priority for the university, unfortunately, in spite of that being central to the mission.”
Lucas added that the department could no longer guarantee all of its lecturers four courses.
Those who ended up retaining the most classes were continuing lecturers, Lucas noted. This is because their contracts require their department to provide them with the same number of classes each year, so long as the classes they teach are not cut.
“In addition to my electives being cut, some of my core courses were given to my colleagues in order to maintain their percentages,” Lucas said. “I went from having four courses in the department to having one course pretty much overnight.”
Having four courses gave Lucas at least some cushion in that, if one course was cut, she would still have three more to depend on, she said. One course, however, left her employment and benefits at risk.
In order to be eligible for benefits, one must be teaching at 50%, or three courses per year unless the previous year presented circumstances that allow your benefits to extend a bit longer.
On top of that uncertainty, Lucas said she worried about income, especially given the high cost of living in the Bay Area.
“Even if we had full-time employment, so six courses for a year that we were teaching as lecturers, the salaries are incredibly low compared to senate faculty,” Lucas said.
Fighting for benefits
Another big piece of her story as a lecturer, Lucas said, is her battle for health care and other employer-provided benefits.
When the university is not able to provide stable employment of 50%, that is not only impacting income; it impacts their eligibility for benefits, including health care. Given that her appointment percentage fluctuated from semester to semester, so did Lucas’ access to benefits at a time when it mattered most.
“My partner, who I’m married to, they are a cancer survivor three times over, so having reliable health insurance is a huge priority, and they were insured through me,” Lucas said. “The amount of unpaid labor that I put into over the years of battling to figure out maintaining health benefits … is itself just really frustrating, and emotionally, a lot of upheaval because there’s a lot at stake there.”
Having taught 30 classes, the equivalent of five full-time years of teaching, Lucas said she should be vested in the retirement system.
Nonetheless, she has been missing service credits for 10 months now, a mistake that the university acknowledged was its responsibility seven months ago but has yet to fix. Even when she does receive the credit, there is no guarantee it will add up to 30 courses given the way the university allocates said credit.
Rather than allocate service credits based on the number of classes, it is based on the percentage of time employed, Lucas added. Even if a lecturer has taught the equivalent of five full-time years, they may still not qualify for retirement benefits depending on how their percent employment has been rounded.
“The main motivation for staying in this job besides the teaching and the students is that if you have a high enough appointment, the benefits are really good,” Lucas said. “It’s frustrating to see how easily those can be taken away.”
The reason Lucas continues teaching in spite of this is because it’s the profession she wants to be pursuing. Every semester, she said, she learns something new. It is that opportunity to learn and grow alongside her students that she values most.
In the past, she has continued to teach at UC Berkeley because, as frustrating as the university can be, she loves the work and is fueled by the letters she gets from her students that remind her she is important to them and their education.
As the years have gone by, however, Lucas added that she has questioned whether the ends really justify the means.
“I’m getting pushed more and more in the direction of actually really asking myself that question: ‘Is it still worth it? Do I really still want to be coming back semester after semester?’ ” Lucas said. “That’s really sad because I am so passionate about this work, and (the university is) making it really untenable, unsustainable, and at some point, it’s just really not going to make sense anymore.”
Lucas said her story emphasizes that even those who have continuing lecturer status and consistently receive excellent reviews don’t have real job security.
As of Dec. 3, the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, or UC-AFT’s, four-and-a-half-year collective bargaining agreement with the university has been ratified by 99.99% of its members. According to an email circulated by team UC-AFT on Dec. 7, the contract includes “groundbreaking protections” for lecturers in the areas of job stability, workload, compensation and more.
The contract, however, does not change her current employment instability, Lucas said. She hopes the university will follow the example lecturers have set by engaging in collective action to create meaningful jobs with living wages for the rest of the campus community.
“(Our experience) is proof that organizing matters, that unions are still important in an age where they’re being attacked left and right,” Lucas said. “We’re powerful together.”