Last night, everyone at EMU got an email from the “VP of Academic Affairs” (though it was signed by the Hartmut Hoft, who is really the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences). Here is the email that I sent to them (and also to Howard Bunsis) in response:
Dear Dean Hoft, Provost Loppnow, Professor Bunsis, and anyone else who happens to be reading this:
Thanks for your “Negotiation Update” for 09/06/06. I read your email with interest because, obviously, I have been following the negotiation process closely and I have some strong feelings about how these talks have been going. I’ve also been writing quite a bit about the strike in a blog space that I keep that normally has to do with more scholarly matters, and I should tell you that I intend to publish this letter in that space at some point.
I am writing now to urge the administration to return to the bargaining table. I am certain that if the administration’s team returns to the table, we can get a contract not unlike the one that your team submitted before walking out of the talks Tuesday night. Return to the talks so I can return to the classroom.
Like all of you, I am an academic. My Ph.D. training was in rhetoric and much of my teaching and scholarship involves strategies for persuasion and the presentation of evidence in various forms of argumentation. As a result of this background (not to mention my “real world” experiences of working at Eastern since 1998, and working at other universities as a faculty member, part-time instructor, and graduate instructor since 1988), I think of myself, in these and many similar matters, as a skeptic.
Because of this skepticism, I do not entirely trust the EMU-AAUP. The current incarnation of the union is certainly much better than the dark days of my brief experiences on the Executive Committee. But for complex reasons, I am quite certain that rank-and-file faculty are not getting the complete story from the union about the contract, and about it’s strategies at the bargaining table. Let me stress that I believe that the people currently on the EMU-AAUP Executive Committee and the bargaining team are not attempting to be devious or deceiving; I just don’t think I’m getting enough information to accept the EMU-AAUP’s interpretation without question.
However, I don’t entirely trust the administration either. I could use the same phrasing in this paragraph as the last one: I think the current incarnation of the administration is better than the recent past, but I think (again, for complex reasons) we’re not getting the full story about the strategies they are using, and so forth. I don’t think the administration is being completely candid about what money the institution does (or does not) have, and I think there a variety of both good and bad reasons for this lack of information. Again, let me stress that I do not think that the folks on the administration’s side of the bargaining table, especially the people likely to get this message, are devious or deceiving: I just don’t think I’m getting enough information to accept the administration’s version of events without question.
With this in mind, you can imagine my mixed feelings about the negotiation update sent by the administration. On the one hand, it strikes me as a fairly reasonable offer, one where the salary compensation, the insurance options, and other provisions of the contract seem fair. On the other hand, I knw that there are many things here that the administration is conveniently leaving out or minimizing. This is, after all, a basic strategy of how to present evidence in order to persuade an audience.
Conversely, the union is taking a similar strategy by bringing attention to the weaknesses in the administration’s offer, pointing out what it lacks, and raising questions about the basic math of exactly how much compensation the faculty can plan to receive. Again, this is the sort of thing we teach in a basic argumentative writing classes.
So, what am I to do? How am I supposed to interpret this offer from the administration, which, at face value, seems like an acceptable deal? How am I supposed to decide who to believe?
Well, for me, the tipping point began with the letter that President Fallon and Regent Chair Valvo had Dean Hoft hand the EMU-AAUP negotiating team on Sunday night. I can only speculate on the intentions of this letter, and I know that the initial reason publicly given for this unprecedented fixed deadline was a desire to “hurry things along” for the first day of class. But I can tell you that the actual effect of this letter was to galvanize my faculty colleagues. I cannot tell you how many conversations I had via email this past weekend and during the day while picketing on Tuesday with fellow faculty who were perplexed and angered by this rather thinly veiled threat. Many of my colleagues who either share my skepticism about the union or are simply against the idea of striking were aghast by this letter. As one of my colleagues said in an email to me on Monday of this week, “If weâ€™ve made progress to that point (of the negotiations), I cannot imagine them walking away just because 10 PM hits. And if they do, Iâ€™ll almost become enthusiastic about being on strike against them.”
Now, I don’t have any particular inside knowledge about what happened that fateful night Tuesday, and, of course, I am a skeptic. But here’s what I do know, largely because the other side has not contradicted these claims, and also because I was outside of Boone Hall Tuesday night:
* The administration didn’t provide the faculty the data they requested on health care until after we were on strike.
* The so-called “last, best offer” was presented to the EMU-AAUP at about 9:45 pm or so– not exactly a lot of time for the team to mull it over. And yet the faculty team did come up with a counter-offer before 10 pm. (And as an aside: I have a gut feeling that the administration could have made something similar to this “final offer” in June.)
* At 10 pm (perhaps a little earlier, depending on which watch you were looking at), the mediator left the building, walked across Cross, got in his car, and drove away.
* About ten minutes after that, the administration’s negotiation team left Boone Hall. It was not a pretty site. Marching to the tune of the loud and persistent protester chant “Talk, Don’t Walk,” the administration’s team exited Boone, walked out to the sidewalk on Washtenaw/Cross, and walked around to a side entrance of Welch Hall. I won’t speak for everyone, but I for one was angry, perplexed, and ashamed, and, simultaneously, I felt sorry for that group of administrators who, I hope, were merely following orders.
In any event, three things are very clear to me at this stage. First, this action by President Fallon and Regent Valvo has been a tremendous blunder and has had almost the exact opposite impact of its stated purpose. Instead of forcing a “quick end” to the contract negotiations, the administration’s ultimatum has angered and galvanized faculty, and it has further eroded the rank-and-file’s trust in the administration. And, looking at this as a rhetorician, it seems to me that this move has also strengthened the union’s hand.
Second, neither side is likely to simply come back to the bargaining table at this stage, I think largely because this contract negotiation has morphed into a power struggle between the upper administration and the union. There are many colorful euphemisms to describe this stand-off; I believe one that is “PG-rated” is “pissing contest.” Caught in the middle are faculty like myself and the students we would like to be teaching.
Third, as is evident in the material sent to the university community with this negotiation update, the two parties were not that far apart. Glancing through the materials as they are presented here and without the context of actually being at the bargaining table, I can see that there are still some issues that I think need to be resolved, things like the rate of pay for continuing education classes, the rate at which we get to the 1% addition to TIAA-CREF, the missing language about hiring more faculty, etc. So it is not a deal that I think our bargaining team should have automatically taken. Still, it seems to me that this package is close enough, and it seems abundantly clear to me that if the administration had stayed at the table with the union, faculty would have been in classrooms on Wednesday.
So, it is with all that in mind that I urge the parties to come together and finish this deal. If the administration is planning on getting some sort of court order to force faculty back into the classroom, I suggest they get on with it. The union has suggested binding arbitration to resolve this matter, an option that seems extremely fair to me. And, of course, the union has never left the bargaining table, figuratively or literally, as I understand it. The administration’s team could return on a moment’s notice and I am sure we could have a deal.
I look forward to the end of this contract dispute and getting back into the classroom. It will take a tremendous amount of work on everyone’s part to restore some sense of trust tainted with academic skepticism after this strike is over, but I for one am willing to do that work. But I will end this now because I am late for my spot with my fellow faculty members on the picket line, the place I will be until the negotiations resume and a deal is made.
Steven D. Krause
Writing Program Coordinator/Interim Director of First Year Writing
Department of English Language and Literature
Eastern Michigan University | Ypsilanti, MI 48197
734-487-1363 | http://www.stevendkrause.com