My job here today is to say why, given the failure of bargaining to date, we should prepare ourselves to go on strike. The best way I've found to do this is to do it in the first person, to say why, if things do not change, I will go on strike.
I will go on strike if it is the only way to protect the values that led me to join the union in the first place. I believe that a strong faculty union is the only way to protect academic values on this campus, in this political climate, and with this administration. Only we the faculty can protect the principles we believe in: the idea that students are more than consumers in search of job training and more than sources of revenue; the idea that faculty must be free to teach their students, and to do their research in keeping with their own expert understanding of their academic responsibilities; the idea that shared governance must be more than a slogan, that it requires faculty to be true partners in shaping the future of this university. A faculty union cannot and should not do all of these things alone. But without the legal status and, yes, the power that only a union can wield, a power that rests, ultimately, on the willingness of its members to go on strike, only with a union do we stand a fighting chance of protecting the values we all believe in and making this a university that we can all be proud of.
I will go on strike if the administration continues to divert resources away from faculty and into non-academic priorities of its choosing. I am not ashamed to support our union's efforts over the years to secure fair compensation for faculty at this university. Total compensation for SIUC faculty still lags 6% behind our peers, according to the IBHE. Last year SIUC spent some $2.8 million less on faculty than it did the year before, and this year we are on track to spend still less money on faculty, despite overall higher revenues. So, yes, while I recognize that the economy and state budget are both in bad shape, I am proud to have my union fight to close the gap between what I am paid and what my peers are paid—peers who also work in the real world, and also face similar economies and similar state budgets.
But salaries have not been a major issue at the bargaining table and are not the most important issue for me. More important than the absolute salary figure we agree on is the very principle that my union has the right to negotiate a salary for me in the first place. This is obviously a core part of our collective bargaining rights, and the administration's imposed terms, and current bargaining posture, strip us of that right. I will go on strike if the administration continues to deny my union the right to negotiate my salary, if the administration continues to claim the unilateral power to slash my wages whenever it sees fit, through furloughs, administrative closures, or whatever verbiage the administration chooses to employ. My union is willing to negotiate reasonable fixed salary figures; it is also willing to establish a process that would allow SIUC to adjust salaries in times of acute financial stress, but only with the approval of the union. What our union should not and shall not do is to agree to cede total control over salaries to the administration, as the administration continues to demand. I will go on strike if the administration does not withdraw this demand and engage in genuine good faith negotiations about faculty salaries on this campus.
I will go on strike if the SIUC administration continues to demand the power to infringe upon my academic freedom to teach as I see fit, and if it continues to demand the power to determine my workload, by refusing to negotiate binding contractual language about distance education and overload teaching. My department chair has authority, within reason, to tell me which courses I must teach; but it has always been understood that I have the freedom and the responsibility to determine how I will teach those courses. Our union is defending us against the administration's efforts to claim the power to tell us that we must teach students via any means they choose, on campus, off campus, at a distance, via the web, over video. I am not opposed to distance education, and neither is my union; but we are opposed to giving the administration the sole power to choose which courses are taught at a distance and which faculty members must teach them. And we rightly demand the right to negotiate fair, transparent, and equitable compensation guidelines for those faculty who choose to teach such courses as an overload.
I will go on strike if the SIUC administration continues to strive to undermine tenure on this campus. On any fair reading, the imposed terms give the administration far more power than it had in the past to fire faculty in the event of a financial crisis. The imposed terms fail to meet most of the procedural safeguards promoted by the AAUP, safeguards SIUC's own policies protected not that long ago. These guidelines were set in place to implement an agreement made by university professors and university administrators some seventy years ago. Under these standards the American system of higher education has become the envy of the world. But today's administrators apparently know better. Tenure is under attack on many campuses; it is not paranoid to worry that the terms our administration chose to impose last spring are terms it may well choose to make use of. When I went up for tenure, I took it very seriously indeed, and assumed that SIUC meant what it said when I was told that tenure was a lifetime commitment. When I evaluate colleagues going up for tenure now, as I am doing this very week, I take that difficult and sometimes painful process very seriously indeed, and hold those colleagues to high standards. The current administration's imposed terms are an affront to all of us, faculty and administrators alike, who have gone through the tenure system, and enforced the tenure system here at SIUC.
This is no radical agenda. It is, in fact, a conservative agenda, in the best sense of that word. These are principles that have guided academia for generations. Unions' rights to collective bargaining have been in place for generations. Our current crop of administrators believe that they know better; that they must have the flexibility, the power, to gut these principles. I disagree. That is why I will go on strike, if the administration continues to demand the power to disregard these principles.
Now by saying "I will go on strike" I have of course been engaging in a sort of rhetorical shorthand. No one person decides that a union will go on strike, and there are no one-person strikes (or at least no very successful ones). When I say that "I will go on strike" I mean first of all that I will vote in favor of a strike. I mean also that I will in fact go on strike, if my union votes to do so. I would do so, if that is the majority view, even in the unlikely event that I were in the minority voting the other way, because I believe in my union, and in the democratic process which guides it, and I recognize that we can remain strong only if we remain united.
A strike is a serious means to a serious end. But it is not the most serious of things. It is not, as some of the rhetoric on campus might lead one to believe, the moral equivalent of war. A strike would be a means to securing an agreement between faculty and administration--a collective bargaining agreement--and once that agreement is struck both faculty and administration have a duty to resume a professional relationship and indeed a cordial and productive relationship, one in the best interest of all of us who work at SIUC, and all the students who study here. A strike would indeed lead to disruption on campus; students would miss classes, though perhaps those classes would be made up. But this would not be the first or last time students miss class. A strike would lead to division between faculty on either side of the picket line; but professional and cordial and indeed even friendly relationships could and should survive a strike. I have friends on the faculty who will likely not go on strike, despite (or perhaps because of?) my best arguments to the contrary. I fully expect that we will remain friends.
But going on strike will still take courage. (As a classicist I'm used to using old-fashioned words like courage.) There are risks, particularly but not only financial risks, and though they are sometimes overstated, no one can know precisely how a strike would unfold or how or when it would end. So striking takes courage. There is another thing that will take courage, I suspect. Debating whether to go on strike will take courage. There will be rooms in which it will require courage to support a strike, and there will be rooms in which it will require courage to oppose a strike. Let us all have the courage to debate a strike in a way that is both true to our own principles and respectful of those with whom we disagree.
To close. I will of course listen, intently, to the debates to come, and there could be changes at the bargaining table that will affect my position. But one cannot base one's current position on what may happen or on what one hopes may happen in the future. My position is based on the current situation, and on the principles I've tried to sketch here. On the issues I've outlined above, progress at bargaining is essentially at a standstill. The current administration policy is utterly unacceptable. I am therefore prepared to vote to authorize my union to go on strike. And if my fellow union members join me in voting for a strike, and the union leadership thereafter sets a date for a strike, I will be there on the picket line, on that morning when a strike would start. I will go on strike if I must. I don't want to, but I will.