Friday, May 6, 2011

Q & A with the Chancellor

I've got just enough energy left as the semester stumbles to a halt to give you a report on the two difficult questions at the Town Hall meeting this afternoon.

Fairly briefly on the one such question I didn't ask.  Rachel Stocking asked the Chancellor what she thought about Interest Based Bargaining (IBB), and why she'd hired a union-busting law firm to help her bargain in a rather different style. The Chancellor said they'd hired the outside lawyer because they were understaffed. This seems rather disingenuous to me, as the administration usually hires some outside labor lawyer during negotiations. (I don't, as it happens, find this as heinous as some do, though I suppose that will depend on just how heinous a lawyer they hire; but it's a bit like complaining that a politician has hired a political consultant.)  She said little enough about Interest Based Bargaining to lead one to conclude that she has no clear understanding of how IBB is supposed to work, but she covered herself a bit by admitting that she hadn't been trained in IBB.  Neither had any on the administration team, as it happens, as they chose not to get trained, citing the expense, when the FA suggested that each team get this training, with each side paying its own expenses.

Finances here (as elsewhere!) are clearly not the real story.  The real story is that the administration isn't really interested in getting a good contract signed with the unions. They are interested in preserving their own "flexibility" (a.k.a. power) to make decisions without being hampered by any silly old contract. So the less that's in the contract, and, in many cases, the more ambiguous or unclear the contract is, the better. This explains otherwise bizarre oddities like the administration's lack of interest in providing the contract with an index.

To some extent, of course, any administrator will desire to retain the power to act without following a contract--and it is perfectly possible to imagine a excessively burdensome regulatory regime under a contract. But this administration has, I fear, taken the natural dislike for yielding power to a new extreme, one that leaves very little room for any meaningful negotiation with the unions.  Which leads us to my question.

I boldly if a bit incoherently asked the first question of the session, saying something like this:

Could you solve the following puzzle? Should I encourage the people negotiating on my behalf to sign a document that is supposed to be setting the terms and conditions of my employment, including a salary, but actually gives you the power to cut my salary by however much you want?

The Chancellor responded that she cannot guarantee anything in the future; that no management can guarantee future income streams. She then went on in some detail about how the furlough days were a better fate than layoffs, etc.  While I carefully noted in my question that the imposed terms allowed for any number of furlough days, she went back to her board policy, which allowed for only six days, but did not clarify whether she would indeed limit herself to six.

One interesting thing she didn't say was that the bargaining about furloughs allowed for by her imposed terms would be anything substantial; this seems a pretty clear admission that such bargaining would indeed only be a sort of consultation about how to adopt the administration's proposal in a way least disruptive to employees, rather than a genuine negotiation which could modify the administration's proposal. In other words, if she tells us we need to take four, five, or six days, we will take, four, five, or six days--but we might get to decide which (non-teaching!) days to take off in which month.

The premise of her answer--that the future is uncertain--is true enough but not exactly earth-shattering news.  It is the sort of thing that a Greek chorus would say at its most banal.  And the present case isn't exactly the first union-management contract to be negotiated in the absence of complete knowledge of what the future will bring--such occasions would include, well, the first union-management contract and every contract since.  I had been too nervous to ask the version of my question designed to circumvent this reply, and quickly sat down rather than trying for a follow-up (which probably was against the groundrules in any event). For the FA, at any rate (and perhaps other unions as well) has suggested the obvious way past her claim that budgetary uncertainty means she must retain the sole authority to cut our pay if she decides that SIUC's fiscal plight makes this necessary.

For while her answer sounds reasonable, it essentially amounts to the following position: unless you give me 100% certainty about the future of the budget, I'm unwilling to commit to anything. I'm not, in other words, willing to sign a meaningful contract. For signing a meaningful contract (one that actually spelled out terms and conditions of employment) would tie my hands. I wouldn't be able to decide, somewhere down the line, that I can't afford to pay you what I said I would. Just trust me to make the right call. I'm the decider. 

Now let us grant that some times are more uncertain than others, and that these are among those times.  So what do you do then? If you want to sign a meaningful contract with someone in uncertain times, but need to maintain flexibility, you must set some clear criteria for how to change the contract in the event of a significant change in circumstances.

The FA proposal would set up a joint faculty-administrative commission to decide whether an acute budgetary problem justified furloughs. One can quarrel (or even negotiate about) the details of the proposal, but the fundamental principle, that the FA (and other unions) can't justify simply handing over control of future salaries to the administration, seems pretty clear.

A contract that one side can change without the permission of the other isn't much of a contract. It's a bit like having a variable rate mortgage that is tied not to some independent third-party criterion (like the Fed's interest rate) but having the banker tell you something like this:  Sure, I'll give you this loan and charge 5% interest.  But if business isn't going well, I may need to up the rate. Don't worry, I'll consult with you, and if I have to raise your rate to 10% I'll let you decide whether to pay your mortgage electronically or via snail mail. Trust me.

If you think that's a good deal to sign on to, I've got a deal on a bridge I'd be happy to talk with you about. Drop me a line at

1 comment:

  1. "The Chancellor responded that she cannot guarantee anything in the future; that no management can guarantee future income streams."

    As you point out, this simply means she won't sign any contract. A contract after all is a guarantee.

    Flexibility means she and the BOT will decide whether to trim the bureaucracy or further gut academics. Academics here and at many other schools have been degraded for years. Any class that is so large that the grade is primarily derived from multiple choice tests is a class that has been gutted. How many high schools rely on part timers and hire many of their teachers on six month contracts?


I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.