Glenn Poshard's press conference has provided, if indirectly, the best explanation I've yet come to as to why there was a strike at SIUC last fall. The most important comment comes at the very end.
About midway through his statement, Poshard claimed that deposed board chair Roger Herrin was, as part of a pattern of errant behavior, communicating with the FA through some sort of private channel, and attempting to negotiate with us himself. Poshard waved a sheet of paper which he said Herrin had given him, a sheet which outlined the union's demands. What Herrin told Poshard I don't know, but I do know this: Herrin had no communications whatsoever with the FA leadership. I know this from my personal role on that leadership in the lead up to the strike and during the strike, and because the absence of any communication has been confirmed to me by others on the leadership, as it will be confirmed by Randy Hughes to the press (presumably in a story for the Southern tomorrow, assuming he and the Southern's university reporter, Codell Rodriguez, managed to get in touch before deadline). This isn't to say that Poshard was lying; what he said in his press conference is entirely consistent with him receiving a misleading impression from comments made by Herrin about his source for the document with FA demands. Herrin's comments were, even in Poshard's telling, rather cryptic. My guess is that either Herrin deliberately played up his FA contacts as some sort of power play, or Poshard jumped to conclusions, or a little of both.
Of course readers may not take my word for this, or Randy Hughes' word. There's a more substantive argument to support my position--though it won't convince the most cynical, it will lead me to a rather more important claim about our recent history. Herrin was wrong about what the union wanted, because he wasn't in contact with the union. But Poshard believed that Herrin was right. At the very end of his press conference, Poshard speculated that the union might have held out for salary gains because it thought Herrin could somehow deliver them. That's false: we had no such belief. We weren't in contact with Herrin, and we didn't hold out for salary gains. But that's what Poshard thought we were doing, so he thought that no agreement was possible, and this mistaken thinking, buttressed by Herrin's claims, may have played a large role in precipitating the strike.
Chief among the demands on Herrin's document, according to Poshard, was a litany of salary demands, demands Poshard said SIU simply could not afford. This is in keeping with administrative rhetoric in the lead up to the strike. As readers will remember, in the weeks before the strike the administration consistently said that our interest was primarily financial, that we were making unreasonable monetary demands. We for our part vehemently denied this. At the time we believed that the administration knew that it was spinning, knew well enough that our primary interests were in preserving tenure, defending our collective bargaining rights (primarily by demanding that the administration negotiate things like furloughs rather than impose them), and protecting academic freedom (especially regarding distance learning). Our financial stance was that any raises should be tied to rises in SIUC's revenues, an eminently fair proposal, but one we didn't hold out much chance of getting (at least after the other unions settled for 1%). We had, we thought, attempted to seize the high moral ground by not fighting for raises--which also meant that we feared, before and even after the strike, that we'd abandoned the financial issue by insisting on other things as higher priorities. But that was a choice we were willing to live with, in part because despite all our efforts to argue that SIUC was shifting money from academics to administration, most people, including many faculty, believed the administrative line that SIUC was flat broke. Of course our primary issues had financial consequences, as most university decisions do, but they were mainly about power, about whether the administration would have the power to insist that we do distance learning, to cut our salaries without negotiations, and to fire even tenured faculty, if it deemed such things necessary. The administration for its part argued that while it wanted the flexibility to do whatever it deemed necessary to deal with any future crisis, it had no intention of doing any of these things.
We were left with the bizarre situation of a strike breaking out over things the administration claimed it wanted only in the abstract and had no intention of actually implementing in the real world. As it turns out, the administration was willing to budge on most of these issues. Though the FA didn't get everything it wanted even on its central priorities (especially on the furlough issue), it got enough to declare victory. And we didn't exactly break the bank in doing so: it is very hard to see how concessions the administration made have substantially impacted the administration's ability to manage the budget. They can still shift money away from academics by simply leaving faculty lines vacant--at least until they come up against the contractual student-faculty ratio, something we may well hit next year (more on that, perhaps, in a subsequent post). Firing tenured faculty, at least in my view, must always have been a most unlikely proposition. Provoking a strike to preserve the right to fire faculty in a dire crisis, to force them to teach distance ed, and to cut their salaries without transparency, to do things you don't want to do and see no imminent likelihood that you'll have to do--it just doesn't make much sense.
The usual speculation was that there was a power game going on, that Poshard, or Cheng, or both, were determined to break the union--or at least thought it was worth a try. That could be part of what went on. But the tale of Herrin and Poshard suggests a somewhat more charitable explanation. Perhaps Herrin's intervention led Poshard and Cheng to believe that the FA was really set on salary hikes, and that there was no sense trying to negotiate with us given our unreasonable demands. Or at least it helped convince them of something they were all too ready to believe in any event. That, and the natural instinct of spinners to believe their spin, led to a fundamental misunderstanding, with the administration believing that the division between the two sides was financial, while our true interests were in precisely what we said they were--transparency and accountability. This led the administration to conclude that a strike was inevitable, as we were demanding things SIUC could not afford, and so they didn't bother to make the rather reasonable and moderate concessions on tenure, academic freedom, etc., that we needed to settle until too late--perhaps thinking that concessions on matters they regarded as peripheral would only embolden us to hold out for our true, secret goals.
This is not to absolve the administration of blame. If this hypothesis is correct--and it can only be a partial explanation of why the strike took place--Poshard and Cheng made a major misjudgement of the FA's intentions. If they took Herrin's bizarre document at face value, then they may have believed that we had some secret agenda, and that all our fine talk about tenure and the like was actually a smoke screen. If this hypothesis is correct--and I'm fully aware of how speculative this all is--they made a profoundly cynical mistake. Of course we did not tell the administration what our bottom line was at any point in the negotiations, any more than they told us. No negotiating team can fully reveal its bottom line, or its exact priorities, without fundamentally compromising its negotiating position. But a bargaining team representing a democratic body like the FA cannot have secret priorities that aren't even among the list of proposals it stresses as it enters the final stretch of negotiations. If any such secret priorities had emerged during negotiations, we would have lynched our bargaining team: you can't tell people to strike for tenure if what you're really bargaining for is money.
If I am right, then, at the end of his strange press conference Glenn Poshard, in speculating about why the union held out for a strike, actually explained why his administration mistakenly provoked one. He thought we wanted money SIU didn't have, and that there was no way of getting an agreement with us save by forcing us to drop our financial demands; the only way to do this, he came to believe, was by showing that his administration could endure a strike. We had no financial demands of this sort. The strike was an unnecessary result of a mistaken judgement by the SIU administration.
My speculation here is offered in more of a historical spirit than a partisan one, I think it is fair to say, though of course every history is partisan to some extent (and I, with my background in ancient historiography, don't believe that historians should withhold praise and blame). But I do recognize that my sources are one-sided (unlike Thucydides, I haven't been exiled from one side and thus enabled to improve my sources on the other). I would be very curious as to whether those with access to administrative circles agree with any of this analysis. We all, after all, have an interest in understanding why the strike took place, the better to avoid one in the future.