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By John Sullivan, CCA Secretary, in collaboration with CTA PCS Robin Devitt

Over the years, I have heard varying opinions about the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in negotiations: from never negotiate COLA, to only use COLA as a baseline, to always start with COLA, and many of these interpretations have been adversarial to the other opinions.


This seems obvious, but it underscores the rhetoric we hear, particularly from districts, when COLA is announced in January, adjusted in May, and finally negotiated sometime during the summer. That then creates misunderstanding about COLA and what it is and who should get it and how much should be gotten — all to the benefit of the district.

COLA is based on a formula that is calculated by the state Department of Finance, which determines the percentage amount of COLA funding that will be passed on to districts, as a means of keeping salaries comparable and maintaining the ability to keep up with the rising costs of living. While districts and the the Community College League of California want to always keep ownership of the full COLA increases, COLA is specifically defined as a cost-of-living adjustment to be utilized by the district to keep its salaries and rates on par with inflation and maintain buying power for utilities and other consumables that have risen over the year. It is essential for districts to distribute the COLA percentage to its employees. It is not, in fact, stated anywhere that the district can or should keep the full COLA funding; the percentage should be “passed through.”

To get this “pass through” requires an agreement in negotiations and recognition by the employer that the state, through tax revenue, is supporting the ongoing cost of living increases with funding.  Some districts are hesitant to commit to the funding as language we refer to as “pass through” but others commit to it as an ethical principle. COLA funds are an “adjustment” to current salaries, not a raise. It often is played out as something the district will be reluctant to do, but we need to hold firm. When bargaining COLA, be it for the year, the duration of the contract, or permanently, provide the basic definitions even though it may feel a bit elementary to explain what a cost of living adjustment means (in other words, get them in your bargaining notes and specifically say “the intent means…” because I’ll bet you will have to go back to it).

“Preach this to your members, the trustees and the administration: Raises increase wages above the current level adjusted for inflation with COLA. A raise is meant to increase our buying power, not to keep up with inflation — the latter is the purpose of COLA.”

While negotiations need to include COLA, the best approach is to establish the foundational principle with the district that COLA is the starting point, not the end point. All wage increases need to be on top of COLA, but also keep in mind that this is just the beginning of discussing COLA.

COLA has been interpreted by districts in different ways, and you will hear different definitions of COLA discussed. Statutory COLA (SC) is the amount determined by the state under the statute with the COLA formula. Effective COLA (EC) or Net COLA is the district attempt to reduce statutory COLA by claiming deductions or offsets they claim need to be factored into SC before EC is determined. Beware of these attempts to increase the district coffers while shrinking faculty wages’ buying power.


A multitude of districts now sit on large growing reserves that in some cases are well above the 50% mark. Incidentally, the 2008 required reserve was moved from 3% to 5%, and more recently, the state Chancellor’s Office has only recommended 15-17%. That most districts are well above those percentages testifies to the fact that they don’t really need to keep all or a major portion of the COLA but should pass on the funded percentage equally to the cost of salaries. Bald-faced greed or prioritizing administration and managers above those groups that engage the most with students and facilities should be confronted and fought; hence, we must maintain the principle that the A in COLA is an adjustment, not a raise.

One of the tools that districts will use comes from School Services of California (SSC; a private company) — accessible from CTA’s Center for Organizing and Bargaining through your chapter’s Primary Contact Staff person. SSC’s Dartboard gives projected statutory COLA for the next five years, and while it is not always accurate, districts use this to plan and project their budgets, so chapters should use it to prepare for bargaining over wages and benefits. PCS can train their chapters’ bargaining teams to read and interpret the Dartboard, and CCA offers negotiations academies at our Fall Conference each year. The CTA Summer Institute is also a good place to send your bargaining team for this training, and holding a chapter workshop for all your members on this topic will help prepare your members to support the bargain.

The bottom line is this: COLA is not a raise. Treat it as a part of the salary schedule, and negotiate increasing salaries based on current salary, adjusted for COLA, plus a raise. (Qualifier: never negotiate to lower salaries when COLA is a negative — that’s what those high reserves are for – the “rainy day when COLA isn’t funded”).

Chapters will be in stronger bargaining positions if they are 1) knowledgeable and tracking the district’s finances, especially reserves; 2) clear about the district’s budget and priorities; 3) firm in establishing the guiding principles — including that COLA is an adjustment, not a raise; 4) have access to and work with PCSs to understand the Dartboard and organizing for bargaining; and 5) knowledgeable about your comparison districts.

All of this typically means that chapter negotiations teams are the most informed in the room during bargaining. Having served on negotiations and sat on several of my chapters’ executive boards (I teach at multiple colleges) during at least a dozen negotiation periods, I can definitely say that entering negotiations with the data and laying it out before the district representatives will put us in a much stronger position. Whether we are successful will depend on how detailed our information is, how much we can leverage faculty in supporting the organizing around bargaining, and our relationships with the trustees – to see how negotiations proceed.


The final spoke in the wheel of successful bargaining is organizing your faculty. To do this requires creating a unified atmosphere, and that starts with — SURPRISE — educating!

Set up an Organizing Committee — call it a Social Committee if that makes it less intimidating — and gather your faculty to get to know each other, gather non-school emails, and set up ye ol’ phone/text trees. Publish a newsletter and share those with the trustees at each board of trustees meeting. Educate the membership and the trustees; rarely have I seen a trustee who is knowledgeable about faculty issues – they only know what the district chancellor or president tells them, which isn’t much. Invite them to events, ask them to come watch student presentations, or interesting lectures – perhaps they can provide one as a guest speaker.

Communication is essential. If you are bargaining next year, now is the time to get started with organizing: Plan negotiations from the desired end date backward, schedule member luncheons; pass out chapter-branded items (like mugs, t-shirts, pencils and pens); keep building connections with California School Employees Association, surrounding K-12 unions, labor councils, etc.; keep posting events and messaging on social media (does your chapter have a Facebook page? Instagram? X?); hold workshops and webinars for your faculty on bargaining and on the topics that you expect to conform to Sunshine policies; invite individual trustees to lunch or coffee to talk about their priorities and

Get support. Remember too that CCA has Membership Development Grants and Innovative Grants that are intended to help chapters pay for these events and swag. CTA also offers many grant funding opportunities for organizing and special projects; your PCS can explain these options.  As the old saying goes, “it’s your money; put it to work for you.” Grant details and application processes are all on the CCA website at

The Discussion 1 comment Post a Comment

  1. Todd Maddison says...

    “COLA funds are an “adjustment” to current salaries, not a raise. ”

    Regrettably, as handy as it may be, one does not get to redefine English to suit your beliefs, something particularly egregious when it’s for personal financial gain.

    The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a raise as “an increase in the amount that you are paid for the work you do”

    A COLA is most certainly a raise. If someone wants to call it something else, they should look up the definition of “Orwellian”.

    Regarding “COLA is specifically defined as a cost-of-living adjustment to be utilized by the district to keep its salaries and rates on par with inflation”, where is this “specifically defined” this way?

    Regarding “never negotiate to lower salaries when COLA is a negative”, of course not. Personal financial self-interest is a one way street, isn’t it?

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