It's not money: Here are sticking points in UI contract talks

It's not money: Here are sticking points in UI contract talks

URBANA — Nontenure-track faculty at the University of Illinois are returning to work today after concluding a two-day strike, but they aren't ruling out further job actions in coming days.

Shawn Gilmore, an English lecturer and president of the Nontenure Faculty Coalition Local 6546, said union members hadn't received any further communications from administrators about the negotiations but he was hopeful that might still come this week. The two sides have another session scheduled with a federal mediator on April 27.

"What we'd like to see is something concrete about what they'd like to do moving forward with negotiations — either tell us what they plan to do on the 27th, or come in with a clear set of proposals on issues we've been talking about," Gilmore said.

Union members authorized the two-day strike in early April, and the union announced its plans before this week's walkout.

An open-ended strike would require another vote from the membership, but Gilmore said members already authorized other job actions, such as holding a series of rallies or occupying a building.

"At the moment, we are not planning to do anything" before April 27, he said, "but we may internally decide to do that, and we may or may not announce it ahead of time. We may want to ramp up the impact."

Gilmore said the strike raised awareness across campus. The union handed out more than 6,000 fliers and saw increased student participation in the picketing outside the UI's English Building.

At least a half-dozen departments and programs passed resolutions of solidarity supporting NTFCs demands, including the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

A noontime rally featured Howard Bunsis, an Eastern Michigan University accounting professor and chair of the Collective Bargaining Committee for the American Association of University Professors; and Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. Bunsis said job security is "an important right that all of us should have."

”You are standing up for what everyone deserves,” Ricker told the crowd. ”You want students to know that faculty will be there next year.”

The day concluded with another rally outside the Swanlund Administration Building.

Union officials say hundreds of classes were canceled during the strike, though no official count was available. The campus said it would have better numbers next week. Employees have been asked to fill out a form indicating whether they missed work this week.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler did have numbers on how many faculty members requested that their classes be moved out of the English Building: 39 on Tuesday and 23 on Wednesday.

So what are the sticking points in the labor dispute? It's not money. The News-Gazette talked with Gilmore and interim Provost Edward Feser to get their views on the major issues.

Multiyear contracts

All but 19 of the bargaining unit's roughly 500 members have year-to-year contracts, and half have been employed for at least 10 years. It's something the campus says it's trying to address, but the union complains that it's taking too long.

The union has proposed that nontenure-track employees, also known as "specialized faculty," be given two-year contracts after five years and three-year contracts after 10.

CAMPUS: Administrators want multiyear contracts to be based on merit and performance — the same concepts used in tenure decisions — not awarded automatically based on length of service. Provisions for multiyear contracts, outlined in two 2014 "provost communications" on specialized faculty, are built around those merit-based processes.

Guaranteeing multiyear contracts in a labor agreement takes academic hiring decisions out of the hands of the department, "the unit best placed to make it," Feser said. Departments, not central campus, should develop the procedures for promotions and reviews, he said. But it's a complex process because the campus governance system is so decentralized, with different sets of bylaws for departments and colleges.

"There's this notion that they're not in place yet because we're resistant to them. The reason they're not in place is because it is complex to put them in place, and the decisions are consequential, and shared governance takes time," he said.

The UI is also facing even more financial uncertainty than usual this year with the unprecedented state budget mess — which could cost the campus $267 million if its state funding and Monetary Award Program funding doesn't come through, Feser said.

Even in a normal year, departments might not have resources to commit to two or three years without knowing what their funding will be, he said. Mandatory multiyear contracts could mean they'd hire fewer people, which isn't good for the employees or the campus, Feser said.

Enrollments — and therefore tuition revenue and the demand for additional instructors — also tend to fluctuate each year, so departments need flexibility to make budget adjustments, he said. If they're locked into multiyear contracts with nontenure-track faculty, they'd have to look elsewhere for cuts, such as graduate assistantships.

Feser noted that most UI employees, aside from tenured faculty, are "at will" employees without multiyear contracts, though they have notice rights of up to a year.

UNION: The new provost directives on specialized faculty "aren't bad ideas," Gilmore said, but the administration so far hasn't created a mechanism to implement them. The union has been hearing "it'll just take some time" for years, he said.

If multiyear contracts aren't enshrined in the contract, employees have no recourse in the event of continued delays or problems with implementation, he said. The union would like to negotiate how they're implemented, but the university has been reticent to discuss the issue at the bargaining table.

The UI's contract with the nontenure-track faculty union at the Chicago campus includes provisions for multiyear contracts, so it's not "untenable," Gilmore said, although there are no corresponding provost procedures for specialized faculty in Chicago.

The budget, and the possibility that fewer faculty might be hired, is a concern, Gilmore said. The union is willing to work on the contract language to address budgetary issues. Almost all of its proposals have included provisions for "financial exigency," in the case of a "legitimate, system-wide budget problem," he said. The proposals also make accommodations for jobs paid with "soft money" from grants or contracts, rather than recurring funding. The union is also willing to include language on merit and evaluations, or exceptions for very small units.

"But we actually need to discuss it," Gilmore said. "They raise concerns about things that they often don't want to have as real proposals. ... If you'd like to have that provision, you need to propose it for the contract or say how it's being addressed in the statutes or provost's communications. If you can't say that, it's just someone's aspirations. That's not what settling a contract is about."

Governance/academic freedom

Like their tenured colleagues, the nontenure-track faculty want guarantees of academic freedom and a formal role in the university's shared governance process, which gives faculty some say in decision-making.

CAMPUS: Feser called this a "fundamental disagreement." The contract is intended to address wages and conditions of employment, and "we do not regard questions of academic freedom as a matter of wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment."

"We feel like we have systems in place, and governance in place, to resolve issues like that," where nontenured faculty have a voice, he said. And where they don't, the campus is working to put it in place through changes in department or college bylaws as directed by the provost communications, he said.

The Academic Senate has proposed revising the definition of "faculty" in the University Statute to explicitly include nontenure-track faculty, so that they would have the same academic freedom protections as tenured faculty.

The danger of negotiating a governance system with each union or bargaining unit is that it doesn't keep the governance of the campus as a whole in mind, Feser said.

"It's hard to maintain a sense of unity and shared governance on a campus when it is really being driven by contracts, arbitrators and other outside parties, vs. the internal debates of the Academic Senate and at the college and department and school levels."

UNION: Gilmore acknowledged that some improvements could come about through changes to internal campus policies, but that isn't the same as a contract that can be enforced. And he noted that the proposed revision to University Statutes hinges on approval from UI trustees.

"We are willing to hear how they would like to solve on either side, the policy or contract side," he said.

The campus Academic Senate is considering changes to broaden participation by nontenure-track faculty. Currently, some can be senators, depending on their department bylaws, said Gilmore, a senator. But some departments limit it to tenure-track faculty.

The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors this week urged the university to agree to a contract clause that recognizes academic freedom for nontenure-track faculty and guarantees their right to a hearing before the campus senate's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Administrators have said they are concerned that the "loose governance nature of the campus" makes it hard to protect against grievances under a union contract, Gilmore said. "I understand that concern, but that is their responsibility. Academic Human Resources and the provost are in charge of hiring and employment on campus," he said.

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AreaMan wrote on April 21, 2016 at 2:04 pm
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I'm no rocket surgeon, but it seems to me that satisfactorily performing a job for five consecutive years might be considered a basis of merit on which to award a two-year contract.