I am writing this to all of my friends and colleagues out there who are struggling over whether to vote “yes” or “no” to strike authorization on September 28. I believe that you should vote “yes” on the authorization, because if we don’t fight back collectively, the imposed terms will become the new status quo—or the new normal. These terms will eviscerate our tenure rights, undermine our academic freedom, give the administration unilateral control over our wages, and bring an end to collective bargaining on the SIUC campus. I have become convinced that preparations for a strike are now our only option, and here I want to explain how I came to this position.
It was only last spring that I started tuning in to what was happening at the bargaining table. Prior to that time, I was not really paying attention. I was busy--as we all are--with my teaching, research, and family responsibilities. When the Administration imposed terms, I woke up, and I got scared. In particular, the “Reduction in Force” section of the imposed terms gave the Administration the right to terminate me with thirty days notice. I read this as the abrogation of my tenure rights. The imposed terms also gave the Administration the unilateral right to impose furloughs, which I interpreted as a direct assault on my collective bargaining rights. I also began talking with people in the other three local unions—representing the NTTs, civil servants, and graduate assistants—and learned that they were facing similar assaults on their job security and wages. All of these things scared me.
But I was also scared because I did not believe the FA was strong enough to wage a successful strike. I simply didn’t think we could pull it off. I also realized that this was probably exactly what the Administration was thinking, as well, which was why its bargaining team was acting with such impunity at the table. I felt like we were trapped. In addition, I didn’t want to go on strike because I share everyone’s collective concern over declining enrollment, and I agree with critics who say that a strike is not something that SIUC needs at this time.
So, back in the spring, I made a conscious decision. I decided that I would do everything I possibly could to build union power on our campus. I believed that this was the right thing to do in and of itself, but I also wanted to try to persuade the Administration that they needed to take the unions seriously. Over the late spring and summer, a core group of us (representing all four of the locals) devoted a lot of energy toward that goal. We engaged in a series of collective actions (including a direct appeal to the Board of Trustees) with the aim of applying pressure on the Administration. I will always be proud of those actions, and the energy, humor, and passion that people brought to them. The problem was that they made absolutely no difference at the bargaining table. All four bargaining teams kept reporting the same thing: that no real interest-based bargaining was happening.
This brings us to the crisis we confront today. We are now faced with a grave decision about whether to authorize a strike. I have talked to a number of people—many of whom I respect very much—who have told me that they loathe the imposed terms, hate what the administration is doing, but won’t vote to go on strike. Their reason is that they don’t think we have the numbers, and that they don’t think we can pull it off. I understand that fear; I was right there a few months ago. But I always ask them what the alternative plan is. If we don’t fight back, the terms become the new normal. That is not an acceptable option to me, and I know I am not alone. And if we don’t fight back in the form of a strike, we have to come up with another kind of collective action that will compel the administration to take us seriously. Anyone have suggestions on that? This is not a rhetorical question. Believe me, I would love it if we could come up with something short of a strike that compelled the Administration to change its current course.* But many of us spent our summers trying to do just that, and it didn’t work. The Administration is not listening. And their actions at the bargaining table suggest that they won’t listen unless and until we pose a credible strike threat.
Here’s the thing: some of you may be sorely tempted to vote “no” on strike authorization. If we do not vote to authorize a strike, a short-term crisis will be averted, and everyone can get back to their day-to-day responsibilities. For a while, this may feel like it was the right decision, because everything will feel more or less the way it always has: we’ll keep teaching our classes, doing our work, living our lives.
It may feel that way for a while. Maybe for a year. Or even two. But let’s try to think about this a little longer term. I am not a prognosticator; I don’t know what is going to happen. But let us spin out some potential scenarios. Every time you hear a news report about SIUC’s declining enrollment or the state’s worsening fiscal crisis, you will worry about your job, which the Administration can now terminate with thirty days notice. The tenure protections you worked so hard to secure won’t exist anymore. With less and less money coming from the state, the Administration might say that it has no choice except to routinely impose furloughs. The furloughs, combined with virtual raise freezes and inflation (and combined with potentially huge cuts to our pensions), will mean a massive cut in pay. On top of that, once SIUC’s Distance Education program gets off the ground, you may have your chair come to you and tell you that you now need to teach Distance Ed courses, because the university’s future viability (and thus your job) depend on it.
You now have a fundamentally different job than the one you had a few years ago: you are teaching more and in a way that you never planned on, you are now working for far less pay, and you have virtually no job protection. And to top it off, you will have no power to fight back against these conditions, because you will no longer have collective bargaining rights. And here I am not even considering the impact of performance-based funding, which is heading our way as I write this. Again, no one knows what is going to happen in the future. But I don’t think that the above scenario is particularly crazy or far-fetched.
In the short-term, many of the things that critics say about a strike are absolutely true: it will be painful and divisive. It will also require a huge amount of work from every single member of the FA. I think that anyone who votes “yes” on a strike needs to be prepared: things will no longer be business as usual. All of us will have to work very, very hard to pull it off. The books and articles we want to write, the research projects we want to do: all of these things will need to be provisionally put on hold as we prepare for a successful strike. But I will take the short-term crisis of a strike over the “long emergency” scenario I am describing above any day.
And I no longer believe, as I did in the spring, that we cannot pull it off. New members are joining the FA every single day, and we are growing stronger. My work with the other three locals reminds me everyday that we are not alone. The prospect of all four locals going on strike together gives us a power that no one local would have on its own. I also truly believe that if every faculty member read and understood the imposed terms, the vast majority of us—whatever our differences—would agree that they are unacceptable. I have complete confidence that if we can agree on that, then we can collectively come together and refuse to acquiesce.
In the days ahead, try to gather as much information about the imposed terms as you can, talk to each other in your halls and offices, encourage people to join the union, reach out to your departmental representative with any and all questions. And on September 28th, vote “yes” on a strike authorization and join us in the fight to resist the imposed terms.
* Note that things like one-day strikes, working to rule, and other actions that go beyond informational picketing, rallies, and the like but don't go all the way to a strike may well not be legal. The IEA is very concerned to ensure we stay within the law, and the law, paradoxically enough, protects a massive action--a full-blown strike--far more than various lesser, partial strike actions. --Dave.