The Strike of 2006: Day Four (or, things get threatening)

Last night, things during the negotiations took a decidedly “hard ball” turn: the administration gave the negotiating team a letter and published a press release (both on their web site here). In what I read as being written in a rather patronizing tone, the letter sort of summarizes the negotiations from the administration’s point of view (the AAUP is not negotiating, the university has made all these great offers, etc., etc.). There’s a nice line on the second page which says a lot to me about the perspective of the institution on all this:

To maintain the viability and competitiveness of EMU in the postsecondary education market, the University must maintain a delicate balance between the needs of our faculty and other employees, and the need to keep tuition and fees at levels that do not unduly burden our students and families. We hope you can respect the fiscal limitations and breadth of responsibility that weigh so heavily upon the University. (Emphasis mine).

Just to pause here for a moment: first off, I was under the impression that we were a state-supported and non-profit institution. So this phrase about “viability” and “competitiveness” in the “postsecondary education market” is a pretty weird one to me. Second, it’s telling about who we’re dealing with here. Whenever the administration feels like its employees are costing too much, we always hear that universities like EMU need to behave more like a business. But whenever employees and faculty point out things that they need to get “the business” done– reasonable building facilities, technical support, fair pay, etc.–the administration basically says “well, we’re just a poor university, doncha know.” I believe there’s a line here about having cake and eating it too.

Anyway, the letter goes on and throws down the gauntlet in these couple of sentences:

If we have not reached a resolution by 10:00 p.m. on September 5, 2006, or if the strike has not been officially ended by that time, regretfully the University will have no recourse but to immediately suspend all further negotiations with the EMU-AAUP until the strike has ended and all faculty have resumed the performance of their full professional responsibilities to the University and our students. In addition, the University will pursue such other actions it deems appropriate under the provisions of the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act, or other applicable law.

Whoa! Dudes! This is so wrong in so many different ways:

  • Obviously, this is a threat, and I think it’s an unprecedented one at that. Not to mention an incredibly unproductive threat.
  • I think that the folks in the administration ought to have taken a page from the Bush administration’s failures at foreign policy and recognized that whenever you make a threat like this (do “x” or else), the natural reaction of the “threatee” is “oh YEAH?!” I mean, I wanted to settle this thing before it even started. I, like I think most of my colleagues, am reluctantly on strike. But after this letter, I kind of don’t want to settle so that the union can “save face” and make sure that no one can possibly interpret our efforts to settle earlier than this as “caving in.”
  • If the administration is going to make a threat like this, they sure as hell better be ready to follow through on it. That’s “How to Make a Threat 101.” Anyone who has been on either side of the “Quit that right now or I’ll turn this car around and go home!” conversation knows that.
  • I’m obviously biased, but I kind of think the administration has sort of painted themselves into a corner on this one. If we get to 10 pm on Tuesday night, close to a deal but not quite there, and the administration gets up and walks away from the table because of the need to “follow through,” then the union will have the “high ground.” They’ll just say “hey, we were willing to keep working this out and we were just a couple of hours away– they’re the ones that left the table.” And if the administration does keep talking after 10 pm on Tuesday (and I frankly think this is the most likely scenerio), then their original threat will look pretty idle (again, see “How to Make a Threat 101”).
  • I just see this strategically as a lose-lose for them, and I don’t really see how this makes the union look bad. I mean, we’re already on strike; people who don’t like unions already think we look bad. If anything, the union almost has to stay out now to “save face” with the faculty in the union.
  • Oh yeah, about the illegal strike thing: technically, I guess it is illegal; but like so many things that have always struck me as odd in Michigan, it is apparently “standard practice.” The EMU-AAUP has been on strike at least five times in the last 30-odd years– three times in the last contracts, by the way– and no one has gotten into trouble yet. I don’t see the university firing 600-plus faculty members, and the best thing that the adminstration could do to bring attention to the union’s cause is to start arresting folks. Imagine the TV coverage. No, I think the worst-case scenario is the administration seeks some sort of court order to force us back to work, and what that would mean is a) the EMU-AAUP would say we should comply with the order, and b) faculty would be able to both work (which we love to do) and to strike. Talk about having your cake and eating it!
  • There’s been a lot of wondering about “who are the bad guys here?”– that is, who in the administration is calling these sort of hardline shots. I think we need look no further than the folks who signed this letter, President John Fallon and Board of Regents Chair Karen Valvo. I somehow think that a lot of the “warm and fuzzy feeling” of Fallon’s first year in this job has just permanently left the building. So much for his “respect and value” for the faculty, huh?

I still hope that cooler heads will prevail. They’ve had a fair amount of coverage about all this this morning on WEMU, though it’s not available via their web site yet. Dennis Beagen, who was sent by the administration to talk about this stuff, said once again this morning that he thought (the administration thought?) enough faculty would cross the lines to make the university run fine on the first day of classes. Beagen is either lying and knowing it (because he was sent to the radio station to lie), has not been paying attention, or is just wishing that what he sees happening is not actually happening. Like I said in my previous post, there will be some faculty who cross lines and there are plenty of faculty who won’t picket. But I’d be very surprised if the number of faculty who actually taught on Wednesday without a deal was more than 100 out of close to 700.

And again, to give Howard Bunsis credit, he didn’t take the bait of the administration’s threat and was speaking positive about the chances to settle before classes start, the willingness of the union to work all night to make it happen, etc., etc. Again, I’m biased, but in a weird way, he sounded like the reasonable one here.

Which makes me wonder: who are the grown-ups in this car ride?

2 thoughts on “The Strike of 2006: Day Four (or, things get threatening)”

  1. Right below the WEMU page containing the story about the EMU-AAUP negotiations is this link: “Kofi Annan Will Appoint Secret Mideast Mediator”. Hmmmm.

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