Thursday, March 24, 2011

From Wisconsin to Illinois?

Illinois isn't Wisconsin.  After all, legislators from Wisconsin and Indiana fled here.  And neither the state government nor our administration has made an open attack on collective bargaining.  Or are we too close to Wisconsin for comfort?  The administration has now cut off bargaining with the civil service union (ACsES) and with the NTT union, after short and rather cursory attempts at mediation.  And everyone expects that they will follow the same strategy with the Faculty Association.  They have declared that bargaining is at an impasse.  Is it? 

In each of these cases the administration can cite financial pressures, claiming they must impose furlough days before the end of the fiscal year; if the unions won't agree to the furlough days, then the furlough days must be imposed. There are at least two big problems with this argument.  
  1. The first is that their claim of a fiscal crisis is vastly overblown.  Yes, the state fiscal picture is pretty bleak, and yes SIUC enrollment continues to decline (though overall tuition payments, thanks to past increases in tuition, continue to go up).  But past cuts have offsets lower than expected revenues, and SIUC had a $15.8 surplus last year. See the FA white papers for more on this.  
  2. The second is that a fiscal crisis, even were it real, wouldn't automatically result in negotiations being at an impasse.  Negotiations can only be at an impasse if both sides have already made a bona fide effort to negotiate in good faith.  The unions claim the administration has made no such effort.  They may file law suits to this effect. 
But let us leaves these objections to the side.  The real canary in the coal mine, as far as I can tell, is GA United, the Graduate Assistants union. Unlike other staff members, GAs have not been asked to take furlough days.  So there is no fiscal necessity that would justify the administration's decision to break off negotiations with the GAs.  It is true enough that the GAs have raised issues that would cost SIUC money--including improving their miserable health benefits, and freezing graduate student fees.  But the administration has not only given absolutely no ground on these issues: it has also rejected proposals that would cost SIUC nothing, like allowing the GA union to participate in the orientation of new graduate assistants. It is hard to conclude anything other than that the administration has no interest in negotiating with the GAs. 

It is of course natural enough for each side in a contentious negotiation to claim that the other is not negotiating in good faith.  But that fact that such claims are routine doesn't mean that they are always false.  This administration has reached an impasse with three campus unions, and appears ready to declare an impasse with a fourth (the FA).  The unions have held joint rallies, and endeavor to support each other when they can, but they are independent groups with separate interests and issues. It seems likely that an administration interested in negotiations would have managed to remain on talking terms with at least one of these campus unions.  

There's a term for not being willing to negotiate with the unions that represent your employees.  It's called union busting.  

Are we in Wisconsin?  We may be, if we don't watch out.   

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