Sunday, November 9, 2014

Credit where it's due

I spend a lot of time criticizing the UIC United Faculty Union, and I stand by most of my criticisms, and when I don't, my goal is formally retract them or admit when I am wrong.  I also wish to acknowledge when it does right.  The recent election is one area where it did so.

From what I understand, the union decided at its last general membership meeting not to endorse any candidates.  (I did not attend the meeting, but you can find the notes/minutes from the meeting by clicking here [PDF]).  And it didn't go back on that decision.  I may have received one or two emails reminding me to vote. (I say "may" because I'm on the list serve for another union, and am not sure which one sent me the reminders.)  And none of them told me who to vote for.

Given that the majority of the union's members and an even stronger majority of its leadership probably favored certain candidates over others, that was a hard commitment to honor.  I appreciate them doing so.

I do not speak here about any of UICUF's affiliates, which as far as I know may or may not have endorsed candidates.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On geese, gander, and going dark; or, why some of the links on this blog don't seem to work anymore

In a recent post, I explained why I had briefly taken my blog offline and why I put it back online.  I say this now because in this post I am about to criticize the UIC United Faculty Union for doing something similar with its new website, which you can find here.

The site has a bit of an aesthetics problem, but my main criticism is that it does not have archives of older posts the UICUF had written, to which I have linked on this blog from time to time.  Whatever the intent behind the decision to make this new website, the function is to reduce transparency about the union's history.  The union had made statements on its old website, most of which, in my opinion, were reasonable for a union to make, even those with which I disagreed.  But now, with the older posts not online, it's hard to track the statements it made. 

Perhaps the intent behind this website change is indeed justifiable.  As a pseudonymous blogger, I have the luxury of setting up a blogspot account and then type away.  Mine is not the official voice of any organization with multiple members not all of whom agree with each other.  Also, I imagine a blogspot account is easier to hack into or to pirate.  When it comes into hacking into my own musings as represented in this not very widely read blog, that's a small thing.  If, however, someone were to hack into the union's website, that would be a bad thing.  Also, there's a lot I don't know about running a website.  Perhaps for the sake of functionality, that type of website is best practices.  Maybe there's something about the code or whatever that makes the website better.

I did send an email to the union, and their response was polite and open to discussing my dissension, and I very much appreciate the interaction.  Their response was further proof that whatever my disagreements with the union, they are willing at least to treat people who disagree cordially.  That's smart unionizing.  But the response left a little to be desired and didn't explain much.  It was basically this:  the union wants a more useful and better looking website.

I seem to recall, back when the last website was created, around January 2014 (maybe?  I don't recall), reading a statement on that site suggesting that there had been an older site the union had used.  I don't know if older posts were imported to that new site or not. 

Finally, kudos to one thing I've found on this website.  The union has posted the "minutes" on that site from its last meeting.  I didn't go to the meeting, so I don't know how faithfully those "minutes" represent what went on.  And the "minutes" seem actually more like a report from the union to its members and not minutes per se.  But that is a good thing to make public.  And the union deserves credit for that.

Monday, October 13, 2014

My unsolicited advice to the UICUF: shy away from electoral politics

The UIC United Faculty Union proposes to hold a meeting of members this week.  I won't be going, mostly because I think it would be wrong to go and be privy to a members-only conversation when it is not clear that I am a member.  But I have some thoughts about one of its proposed items of discussion:  "Should the UICUF engage in electoral politics."  (This item is listed on a public facebook feed.  One doesn't even need to "like" the union on facebook to read it.  Therefore, I do not feel as if I am disclosing anything confidential.)  By "engage in electoral politics," I assume the union means, "choose to endorse specific candidates or ballot measures."  I urge the union not to do so.

My argument is both practical and principled. 

Practical:  Union endorsements either don't work, or work very poorly and can have unexpected and bad (for the union) consequences.  While any glad-handing politician may be eager to rack up all the endorsements possible, I suspect very few minds are changed when a union, or other organization, endorses a candidate.  I won't deny the possibility altogether that minds are changed, but I doubt whether people are waiting for what the UICUF's position on, say, Rauner vs. Quinn before making a decision.  Also, and perhaps more important, a UICUF endorsement will probably alienate two groups of people in the union:  those who support the non-endorsed candidate and those of a contrarian nature who may support the endorsed candidate, but resent what they see as "the union telling me who to vote for."

Principled:  The members of the union's bargaining unit are required to give money to it.  If they do not wish to be a member of the union and thereby pay dues voluntarily, they are required to pay them anyway, with only minimal provisions for opting out.  The money is taken from their paycheck.  If the union "engages electoral politics," the members of its bargaining unit are being compelled to endorse speech they may not agree with.  I admit that my case is stronger if the union actually funds advertisements for or against a candidate, while what is at issue is probably something like a press release that costs almost no money and simply says, "the UICUF endorses x candidate for y office."  But the union does claim to speak for the interests of its members and the members of its bargaining unit, and political endorsements are usually at least one step removed from a determination of what those interests are and how best to pursue them.

Of course, the $100 billion elephant in the room is what to do about the state's outstanding pension obligations, and a smaller, but still sizeable, elephant is the prospect that the state might further cut funds to higher education.  And it seems (to me) very clear that if one candidate is elected governor, the hits against public employee pensions and funding to higher ed are likely to be less severe than if the other candidate wins.  What could be more relevant to the people the union claims to represent than the fate of their pensions and the funding for their jobs?  Why can't that fact justify at least endorsing a gubernatorial candidate?

My answer is twofold.  First, I cannot deny those are probably the most important and most discussed issues at play in this election.  But I ask people to keep in mind that there are many reasons to support or oppose either of the major candidates.  We don't vote for party platforms.  We vote for people.  And we vote given the likely outcome of who will control the statehouse.  And sometimes we weight our interests differently.  To one person, the possibility of a tax increase may be more ominous than the possibility of a cut in education funding. To yet another, a cut in education funding is regrettable, but to be preferred if the money saved goes, for example, to health care or to food stamps or to other ways to help people who are less well off.

Second, we can have good faith disagreement on the appropriate approach to addressing some of these problems.  Take pension reform.  One person might very well conclude that 90 percent of a loaf from any pension reform that is likely to be enacted is better than the half a loaf, or the quarter loaf, that a non-reformed system could bring about in 10 years, assuming the most dire predictions of pro-reformers are realized. 

Those types of issues are not easily addressed in a union meeting or in an up-down vote on any given candidate.  The union should keep that in mind and its leaders and voting members should exercise caution before entering those waters.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Blog backup

A while ago, shortly after my last post in which I explained I may not be in the union after all, shut down my blog.  I did so largely for self-interested reasons.  A reader of the blog inquired about what my intentions to it were, and that inquiry got me thinking about some of my stated policies, particularly my first post, in which I promised in part to do the following:
I will keep post-hoc editing of my posts to a minimum, and I will try to be as clear as possible about what I've edited.  In other words, once I've written a post, I would like readers to be confident that what I've said is there to stay.  I may, from time to time, tweak the formatting, especially in the beginning as I try navigate the in's and out's of the blogger templates.  In exceptional circumstances, I may delete a post, but even then I pledge to announce such deletion and explain the reasons for it. 
So I put the posts back up, but until now have written nothing more.

I have now decided to reopen comments and to recommence blogging, at least occasionally.  My original fears--that continuing to blog might harm my own interests--stemmed from my own realization that I might very well be outside of the bargaining unit.  I believed that should the university realize I had gone out with the union during its two-day strike back in February--even though I did so in full belief and in good faith that I was in the bargaining unit--it could fire me.

I have decided that the risk is probably very minimal and that regardless the risk is worth it.  I also believe that the doings of a union that represents public employees are matters of public concern.  That does not mean the union has no prerogative to deliberate privately, but it does mean that I, as a private citizen, can comment upon the union's actions and its public statements.  I realize that recently, the U of I system has taken actions that call into question its commitment to respecting the private speech of its employees.  But I believe everything I have said on this blog so far falls into realm of bona fide political speech.  And I'll also point out that I never visit this blog while at work and have never logged into this blog account or email from work or from a workplace computer.

So, the blog is back up.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I may not be in the union/bargaining unit after all

I have a confession to make and the short version is that it appears I might not be member of the bargaining unit and therefore not a bona fide member of the UICUF.  Although I have had reason to suspect this was the case since the Non-tenure-track contract was made public, it's only in the last week or two that I have had compelling reasons to believe so.  If that is true--that I'm not a member of the bargaining unit and therefore not a union member--it obviously vitiates my claim to speak as a dissenter from within the union.  And, again if it's true, I apologize for not acknowledging the signs earlier.

The longer version of the story is this.  Back in January or early February 2014, I asked an acquaintance who is active in the UICUF, but who does not work in the same unit I do, if I was part of the bargaining unit.  Instead of answering right away, he or she checked with his or her colleagues to see if I in my visiting position made me a member of the bargaining unit.  Whoever he or she checked with seems to have believed that I was.

Around the same time--probably after I spoke with my acquaintance although I am no longer certain--I asked one of my supervisor/colleagues if I was in the bargaining unit.  He or she thought I was.

After conferring with my acquaintance and supervisor/colleague, I initiated contact with the steward from our department and he or she, believing in good faith that I was a member of the bargaining unit, gave me a union card, which I signed.

Shortly after signing the card, I started this blog to express my dissent "as a member" of the UICUF.  I also participated, albeit reluctantly, in the two-day strike in February.  I also self-reported that I did not work on those two days because I believe it would be wrong to receive payment for days I have not worked.  To now, I have not yet seen any deduction for those days.

The first evidence I had that something might be off came when I first read the union contract for non-tenure-track faculty.  Article II [on page 3], which discusses recognition, defines the bargaining unit thusly:
All full-time...non-tenure track faculty who possess a terminal degree appropriate to the academic unit in which the faculty member is employed and all full time non-tenure track faculty without the appropriate terminal degree who have been employed for four consecutive semesters, excluding summer terms.
I met the "full-time" criterion, but it's not clear whether I have the "terminal degree appropriate to the academic unit in which" I am employed.  I do have a terminal degree in one field, but that field is not the same field as the unit in which I am employed.  In my unit, there is currently discussion about whether a terminal degree in another field can qualify as a terminal degree for the sake of who can work in my unit.  But my understanding is that so far, no decision in that respect has been reached.  And although my terminal degree is indirectly related to my current field/unit, it is not clear that it meets the contract's standard of "appropriate."  I also started my appointment late in 2013, so I have certainly not been employed "for four consecutive semesters."

That should have been a clue to me that something was amiss.  I can't plead that it's only fine print, either.  I didn't read the entire contract, but I remember reading that particular portion, among others.  So I should have 1) raised my question then and there and 2) disclosed that issue on this blog.  I failed to do so and I apologize for that.

At any rate, I did not heed what should have been an indication that I might not be a member of the bargaining unit/union.

I voted on the contract and as I stated at the time I voted to approve because I believed that a vote not to approve would unconscionably precipitate the very strike about which I had been critical on these blog pages.

In the succeeding months, on these blog pages, I have occasionally noted not having received any wage increase but also that I had seen no dues deduction from my paycheck.

Fast forward to the end of summer.  My colleagues in the union got letters notifying them of contractual raises.  To be clear, I did not ask to read those letters nor did I specifically ask my colleagues about the content of those letters.  Also, at least some people who I know are not covered by the contract received letters, and again, I did not inquire directly to them of the letters' contents.  But the "chatter" at the workplace suggests that those letters were to advise union members of their contractual ages.

That point in itself doesn't bother me.  Again, I received my appointment late in 2013.  And being my first full-time appointment, it's not clear to me that I should qualify for a wage increase or back pay under the contract. 

Therefore, the weight of the evidence right now suggests I'm not part of the bargaining unit and therefore not a bona fide member of the union.  Or I might be.

I'm not sure exactly where to go from here.  As I said above, I participated in the two-day strike, and as I understand, labor law does not protect from firing non-members of a bargaining unit when they strike.  That point aside, I'm wary of publicizing overmuch my dubious status as member of the union.  I could query the people in charge of the union, but I am reluctant to do so because I do not want to be made into a special case over which the union has to fight in some jurisdictional battle with the administration.  I've noted in these pages the special advantages that come from union representation, and those advantages were the main reason why I said I would continue to pay dues even if there were no fair-share provision.  Still, it's like long-term disability insurance.  It's good to have, but you don't ever want to have to use it.

If it is true that I'm not really a member of the bargaining unit, I don't intend any special criticism union or of my acquaintance and colleague who said I was a member.  They honestly believed my membership to be the case.  I do think--again, assuming I'm not a member--that this is representative of a bias in a union.  In most cases, it's to any union's advantage to increase its coverage.

I do think the union should, however, be more sensitive to and vigilant about the marginal cases, like mine, before they declare membership status.  There's a risk--not large, but still a risk--that identifying me as a non-member (if, indeed, I am a non-member) could lead to disciplinary action.  If what I fear is true, that further substantiates my claim that the UICUF will function in a way more beneficial to certain employees than to others.  It, or at least its contract, places some faculty on a more marginal position in relation to others.  That's not necessarily a bad thing in general, nor is it a peculiarly unfair thing, either.  But it needs to be acknowledged.

This situation, which I admit is not yet resolved, poses two challenges for this blog.

First, my months-long claim to speak as a dissenter from within the union could be now proved false.  Even though as early as April I probably should have known, I have made those claims in good faith.

Second, I have blogged pseudonymously, but I have also adopted the attitude that if my identity were found out, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.  I do not believe I have said anything on these pages that is so beyond the pale as to damage my reputation or bring dishonor to my unit/department.  However, now that disciplinary action might be a possibility, I need to be much more careful and perhaps reconsider whether it is wise to continue this blog.

UPDATE:  Unless and until this issue is resolved, or until I decide what to do, I am indefinitely disabling comments and indefinitely withdrawing my invitation to submit guest posts.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Submit a guest post!

I  respectfully request anyone who wishes to submit a guest post for this blog.  Pretty much anything related to the UIC United Faculty Union is fair game.  I'm soliciting posts from people who disagree or agree with me on the many issues discussed at this blog.  I certainly have my own specific take on the union, but my main goal is to foster dialogue, and one way to do that is to give others a voice here.

A few ground rules:

1.  If I publish your post, I won't edit for content, although I may edit for format or to correct typos.

2.  I reserve the right NOT to publish a submitted guest post for any reason, or for no reason.  The most important reason for not publishing something will be if the submission is uncivil, libelous, in violation of copyright, or derogatory toward people based on their race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or other category. 

3. If I publish your post, I endeavor not to remove it unless it can be shown to be libelous or in violation of copyright or at the request of the author.

4.  I will accept anonymous guest posts, or guest posts under the author's true name.  I do not even have to know your true name to accept a guest post. 

UPDATE August 31, 2014:  It turns out I might not be a member of the UIC United Faculty Union.  Unless and until this issue is resolved, or until I decide what to do, I am indefinitely disabling comments and indefinitely withdrawing my invitation to submit guest posts.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

On "loyal opposition"

I have changed the lede to my blog to read "One voice of loyal opposition to the UIC United Faculty Union."  I'd like to explain that a bit.

First of all, I say "one voice" because mine is not the only one nor do I necessarily speak for anyone who dissents from some or all of what the UICUF is doing.  It is possible that some very committed members of the union, who would never think of abandoning it or its principles, might disagree with some of what it is doing.

Second, I'll explain what I mean by "loyal opposition." I mean that as long as the UICUF doesn't do anything I deem unconscionable or that I disagee with strongly, I will remain a member and cheerfully allow my dues to be automatically deducted.  Of course, because the contract includes a "fair share" provision, I don't have much of a choice.  But if fair-share were ever invalidated, my position would remain the same.  I also believe that keeping one's membership gives the union a certain legitimacy it would not otherwise have.  It is one thing to claim x number of dues-paying members.  It's quite another to claim x-n number of dues-paying members and n number of members from whom dues must be taken against their will.  To be clear, I have yet to see a dues deduction (or any of the promised raises).

What qualifies as "unconscionable" or criteria for "strong disagreement"?  I don't know and it can be subjective, but here are the most likely candidates:

  • The union might choose to demonize those who criticize it as "anti-union" or "anti-student" or "scab."  I can understand if certain members of the union engage in such shenanigans, but if the union officially does, or if it refuses to disavow such shenanigans, then I might construe its action/inaction to be official endorsement.  I don't expect the union to take an official position disavowing every instance some hotheads make a precipitous statement.  But if a pattern of demonizing people becomes prevalent, then the union would have a duty to reaffirm its main principles.  (To be clear, I don't think this is a current problem with the union.  Just a potential one.)

  • The union or its affiliates might adopt a position on political issues outside its role of representing its members, or it might adopt a position on a political issue I disagree with very strongly.  I won't here and now state what those are, mostly because some of my views are probably not shared by a majority of my union members and I don't wish to make the blog a forum to discuss them unless the union makes them a question of union policy.
  • The conflict of interest that I believe is inherent in the union, which represents tenure-track faculty and non-tenure-track faculty, whose interests are sometimes opposed, might become more real than theoretical.  I look at my tenure-track colleagues as true colleagues, and they haven't given me reason to think they are anything but fair, even more than fair, to people in my position.  But if an issue develops that sets our interests against each other, and the union cannot handle the conflict of interests in an equitable manner, then I may need to reconsider my union membership. 
  •  The union might explicitly endorse its members' providing the case for the union to students, outside of properly educational purposes.  It is one thing, for example, for an instructor in a class on labor relations or government or numerous other topics to discuss the issues surrounding the UICUF.  It is quite another for an instructor to take advantage of a captive audience to present the case for the union.  To be clear, when a contract is up for negotiation, it's fair for instructors to alert students to the possibility of a strike, or to very briefly explain what the union is asking for.  But I will say that some of the messages from union organizers during the last strike and lead-up to the potential 2nd strike seemed to suggest making the case to students during class time.  And anecdotally, I knew some members who encouraged their students to attend the pro-union rallies.  To me those examples are very close to the line and go over it.  If that becomes official union policy, I cannot support it.

Third, if the question of re-certification comes up, I shall have to reconsider my membership.  As I understand it, the "card check" procedure for certifying the union means that simply by signing a card and becoming a member, one has "voted" in favor of certification.  If that is also required for re-certification, then I will have no choice but to reconsider my membership.  In that case, I am in somewhat of a bind.  I may believe that I owe a certain "loyalty" to the organization that is there to support my interests while it officially supports me.  But if I come to the conclusion that I no longer want it to support me, then I must formally disaffiliate myself from the union, instead of merely voting not to re-certify.  I haven't made up my mind whether I will disaffiliate when/if the time comes.  (And I may no longer be faculty member by that time, either, if the university is not able to renew my contract.  So the question then would be moot.)

Fourth and finally, "loyal opposition" means to me not an incessant criticism with the goal to undermine.  It's too easy to find fault.  I mean it as criticism, but with a goal toward helping the union improve its message and its operations.  (I also want to give the union kudos when I see it doing something well.)  I suggest that if the union wishes to represent its members well, it ought to listen to those who may be ambivalent about it.  No one dissenter probably shares all or most of my concerns, but any given concern of mine might be shared, and the union might do well to learn of them.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The case for a conscience exemption: Addendum

If this blog has any regular readers, they will know that I have devoted the last three posts to arguing for a general "conscience exemption" to fair-share dues payment.  If you wish to read those posts, you can find them here, here, and here.

In this "addendum" to those posts, I wish to address a possible objection my readers might have.   I have in this blog gone on record as believing the UICUF and its contract are on balance more harmful than good.  And if the issue of re-certification ever comes up, I'm not now certain I would vote to re-certify.  And yet, one of my arguments for expanding the exemption is that doing so could help the union more than hurt it.  Am I not being a bit of a hypocrite or what on the blogosphere is called a "concern troll"?  (A "concern troll" is someone in blog forums who raises a concern--in this case, perhaps the survival of the union--only for purposes of contravening that concern.)

First, I'll point out that that objection is not logically relevant to my argument.  Expanding the exemption can be beneficial to the union.  Or not.  But any ulterior motivations I have do not affect that question.

Second, I don't see what I am doing as "concern trolling."  As I've also argued in these posts, I believe expanding the exemption to be the right thing to do and if I am to be represented by a union, I'd prefer it be by a union that tries to do the right thing.  Also, I realize those who support the union have fought long and hard for it.  They want it to work.  On this issue by itself and notwithstanding my all-too-human failing of wanting to be proved right in my predictions even if that means something bad will happen, I see us as sharing common ground.  We can co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual respect and not one of acrimony.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have mentioned that most members of the union with whom I have raised my concerns have treated those concerns and the concerns of other faculty members with respect.  At least one supporter has gone out of his way to listen to me and although he or she does not necessarily agree with most of what I say, he or she relayed , my concerns on to others in the union and for all I know, those concerns may have informed some of the union's decisions.  And while I owe my own decision to keep my membership card to my sense that I ought to pay for the upkeep of the organization from which I benefit, I could resign the membership in protest and with a clear conscience because I'd be paying anyway through fair-share requirements.  (As an aside, I'll note that under the conscience exemption plan, one can resign one's membership and yet not elect the exemption.).  And one reason I haven't resigned is in part because the unions' supporters have been so willing to engage.

Finally, does the union want to create active opponents?  I can understand why the union would not want to go out of its way to appease the likely very small number of dissenters and thereby compromise the support it enjoys from the overwhelming majority of its bargaining unit.  But the union might want to consider how many of those who support it support enthusiastically and how many support it only reluctantly.  And it might also want to consider whether, among those who don't support it, it wants to alienate them and encourage them to take stances actively opposed to it.  It's one thing to have dissenters.  It's another to have opponents who might, for example, speak to local media as the voice of internal opposition.  In my opinion, expanding the conscience exemption will prevent alienating dissenters in that way.

If the union expands the exemption, that would be a sign to me of its continued willingness to engage its opposition, an opposition that in my case and so far, is a contingent, "loyal opposition."  I won't guarantee that expanding the exemption will seal my support for the union during the next round of negotiations.  And it may not win new supporters.  But it may make me, and other dissenters, less ill-disposed toward the union.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The case for a conscience exemption, Part Three

In my last two posts, I made the argument (here and here) that the union ought to expand the religious exemption from fair-share payments to a general exemption.  In both posts, I also mentioned that certain "ground rules" should apply.  In other words, there is a way to do it without turning the exemption into an "open-shop" contract.  I dedicate this post to exploring those ground rules.

But first, I need to point out a difficulty I have run into while writing this post.  The rules I thought of got more and more complicated as I considered the various ways in which the union, those seeking exemption, the administration, and perhaps hyper-partisan third parties might intrude onto the exemption system and use it to undermine the union.  I was thinking mostly of worst case scenarios:  what if the exempted person tried to divert funds to an anti-union organization?  what if the exempted person forge a receipt of payment?  what if the union stalls the process by being hypercritical of every charity the exempted person wants to pay?  what if the exempted person creates a shadow organization that remits the diverted dues money back to him or her?

Yesterday, I've started to re-read James C. Scott's book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, and that drove home to me the folly of trying to devise hard and fast rules to govern the process and account for every contingency.  Therefore, we have to remember the following.  People can game even the best devised and fairest set of rules.  No ground rules will cover all contingencies.  As I've suggested in my last post, if enough people in the bargaining unit are going to go to the effort to claim the exemption as to pose a problem for the union, then the union has a bigger problem in terms of maintaining the support of its charges.

So, here are the "ground rules" for the exemption system I'm arguing for.  But a better term than "ground rules" might be "guiding principles," the details to be worked out in practice and assuming good faith.

1.  The exemption should be relatively easy to get.  One ought to be able, for example, to download the appropriate form, or perhaps even register for it online.

2.  The exempted person must be required somehow to pay the equivalent in fair-share dues and not get a direct benefit from the money.  The principle is that everyone pays, and if they object to the union, then they still pay.

3.  The exempted person must be required to show proof of payment, or perhaps the union can arrange a way to deduct the money automatically from the paycheck, and perhaps permit the money to be "banked" in a separate account from which a charity can be paid.

4.  The charity should be mutually agreed upon, but the criteria should be clear so that, for example, if an organization is a bona fide charity, non-sectarian, and perhaps also non-partisan or non-political, then the union should agree to it.

5.  Point number three notwithstanding, I'm agnostic about whether the money can go to an anti-union organization or to a rival union or to a political organization.  I tend to oppose money going to such organizations.  However, if the UICUF and its affiliated unions, which enjoy a proportion of dues payments, use dues money engage in political lobbying, the maybe we ought to consider it.

6.  The implementation of this policy or the resolution to any disputes or conflicts--say, about what "charity" is appropriate, or about whether an exempted person has shown adequate proof of payment--ought to recognize that the important thing is the exempted person has parted with an amount of money equal to what his or her fair-share dues would have been.

7.  The union must remember that the members of its bargaining unit do not necessarily owe the union its support as a matter of natural obligation.  If someone seeks the exemption, that means the union has not made its case to that person.  Maybe, like me, you believe that one who benefits from the union ought to contribute to its upkeep.  But perhaps you, also like me, believe that the union and its contract will, on balance, do more harm than good.  I reject the notion that the latter position is self-evidently wrong, and I certainly reject the notion that one cannot hold the latter position in good faith.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The case for a conscience exemption, Part Two

In my last post, I made what I called "it's the right thing to do" argument for expanding the religious exemption to fair-share dues in the union contract to an exemption based on conscience.  In this post, I will argue that not only is it the right thing to do, it might be a good tactical maneuver on the part of the union, provided the expansion follow certain "ground rules."  I'll call this argument the "practical" argument.  In my next post, I'll go over the "ground rules."

The practical argument comes partially as a response to what are probably the best objections to expanding the exemption, namely, that doing so would effect a drain on the union's resources and encourage anti-union-shop (aka "right to work") activists in their efforts to outlaw all fair-share provisions.

Expanding the exemption could lead to a drain on the union's resources.  I can see two ways that expanding the exemption might do so.  The first is, if enough people apply for the exemption, the unions' funds would drop precipitously.  The second is, even if relatively few people avail themselves of the exemption, "managing" the exemption-seekers, verifying they contribute what they are supposed to to the charity of their choosing (in lieu of paying the money to the union).  That effort also imposes a "cost" on the union, in terms of more effort expended with no additional (in fact, even less) money coming in as a result of that effort.

Expanding the exemption could also encourage anti-union-shop activists looks at those who in other states have outlawed fair-share and who think to do so in Illinois.  They would look at any expansion of exemption privileges as a chit in the direction toward their preferred policy, of full exemptions for anyone who doesn't want to contribute to the union. 

Both objections have a point.  Although I will argue that on balance, expanding the exemption does more good than harm for the union, the harm it does cannot be completely eradicated.  Some will seek the exemption.  The union will have to expend the effort and cost to manage it.  And anti-union-shop activists will be encouraged by it.  There's no getting around any of those points.

And yet, there are the opportunities for the union, too.  To the first objection--that the scheme will cost money--I offer something of a bet, but one that I nevertheless feel confident I will win.  I think very few people would avail themselves of the conscience exemption.  Keep in mind that as long as those enjoying the exemption have to contribute the money elsewhere, to a charity mutually agreed upon between the union and the exempted person, the exempted person still has to pay.  That person also has to go out of his or her way to get the exemption in the first place.  I believe that if the exemption is expanded, getting it should be fairly easy to do, say by downloading a form from the union's or university payroll's website.  But still, one has to go through the effort to do it, and then go through the effort to contribute to the charity and get a receipt or other proof to show to the union.

But how will the union know the receipt is a "good one" and not just something forged by the exempted person?  My first answer is that if someone is dishonest enough to forge a receipt, they are probably dishonest enough to claim in the first place that they belong to a religion that disapproves of unions and take advantage of that exemption.  Maybe that possibility is a reason to get rid of, instead of expand, the religious exemption, but I obviously disagree.

The union might also negotiate some scheme by which it can verify with the charity or charities that a payment was made.  Or, the union could set up a separate online account that collects money from all exempted persons as an automatic dues withdrawal.  From that online account, the exempted person could allocate money to the selected charity or charities, and if the exempted person does not do so after a certain time (say, 30 days), the money reverts to the union.

That answer is a bit of a stretch, I admit.  I imagine the union contract and applicable privacy laws as well as best practices among charities probably make confirmation of donations difficult or tricky.  (Or maybe not, I'm not very familiar with confidentiality when it comes to charitable donations.)  And setting up a separate account to "bank" payments is probably a good idea, but I have no idea how easy or hard it is to do, and it would probably require the union to spend money upfront developing such a site.

Or the union can trust to its charges' honesty.  Again, someone who would go out of their way to forge a receipt would probably go out of their way to lie about a religious exemption in the first place.  Also, the union claims to represent all members of the bargaining unit and must represent them.  In a labor dispute between a member of the bargaining unit and the university, the union will help the member of the bargaining unit.  It claims to have its charges' interests at heart, and if it wants to do that, it needs to assume a certain respect and trust for the members of its bargaining unit.

What if my prediction is wrong?  What if a significant number of people elect the conscience exemption?  I admit that is a possibility, and I don't have a ready answer aside from my bet that they won't.  If the number of people who elect the exemption is close to a majority of the union, say 40% or 50%, then I submit such an occurrence operates as a salubrious warning sign for the union.  If that many people are willing to go out of their way to pay someone else other than the union, then the union is in trouble and it is better that it know its members' discontent during the term of a contract rather than when or if certification again comes up for consideration.

But if the number is closer to, say, 10% of the bargaining unit, that could still be a chunky financial hit for the union without necessarily indicating a critical lack of support.  "Necessarily" is a key word here:  I suggest that if even 10% are willing to go out of their way to get an exemption and pay the money elsewhere, then that is a warning sign the union could benefit from knowing.  But it's a different thing from 40%-50%.  So yes, the union would run a risk if it concedes a conscience exemption.

And what about the other objection, that expanding the exemption would be boon to anti-union-shop activists?  I suggest the boon, such as it is, would be one of momentum.  Anti-union-shop activists would see the grant of such an exemption as one more sign of the weakness of unions.  I suppose they could encourage union members to exercise their new option, under the guise of a "better to help people through charity than support the union" campaign. 

But while I cannot deny a potential benefit to the anti-union-shop movement, expanding the exemption will otherwise make the union stronger in that same struggle.  The union, after making the exemption available, can now say honestly it exercises less coercion than before, that the members of its bargaining unit have a meaningful choice and can direct their fair-share funds elsewhere.  Such a position won't sway the dedicated anti-union-shop activists, but it would be a good counterpoint to the notion that fair-share operates only as coercion, without any choice.  Coercion is still there, of course.  The member of the bargaining unit still has to pay regardless.  But he or she now has more freedom to direct where the pay goes.

I'll add to that last point that expanding the exemption might be the way to meet possible changes in the law.  As I've noted, the recent Supreme Court case Harris v. Quinn, did not abolish fair-share for public employees, but it could be interpreted as signalling a readiness by some of the justices to do so in a later case, more amenable to addressing that specific question.  If the union can say those it claims to represent have a true choice in how their fair-share portion is meant, perhaps an anti-fair-share ruling wouldn't apply to it.

In short, I believe expanding the exemption could benefit the union.  But the benefits I describe in this post and my prior one depends on certain "ground rules."  Those I will discuss in my next post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The case for a conscience exemption, Part One

In my last post, I raised the not quite hypothetical point of someone who would prefer the religious exemption from the fair-share requirement of the union contract to be expanded to include a conscience exemption.  In other words, instead of having to aver an objection to the union on religious grounds, one could simply object on the grounds of not supporting the union.  I believe that as long as a few ground rules are maintained, the union should consider conceding such an exemption the next time it negotiates a contract, or sooner if at all feasible.

In this blog post, I'll advance what I call "it's the right thing to do" type of reasons.  In a later blog post, I'll try to demonstrate why expanding the conscience exemption is not only the right thing to do, but also a good tactical thing, for the union, to do.

To start, let's look more closely at the religious exemption.  In both the Non-tenure-track and tenure-track contracts, the relevant portion can be found in Article 8, subsection H, sub-subsection 3.  The language reads in part as follows:
In the event that any employee covered hereby is precluded from making a Fair Share involuntary contribution...on account of bona fide religious tenets or teachings of a church or religious body of which that employee is a member, that employee shall have the right to refuse to allow said involuntary deductions; provided, however, that said right to refuse shall continue only so long as the employee makes contributions at least equal in amount to the Fair Share Fee amount to a non-religious charitable organization mutually agreed upon by the employee so refusing and the Union...The employee shall, on a monthly basis, furnish satisfactory evidence to the Union that such payment has been made.
It is important to note here what this exemption does and does not do.  It does not absolve the employee from paying.  It's not a "free ride," although from the perspective of the union's coffers it probably seems as such.  Also, the member of the bargaining unit who has to apply for the exemption has to go out of his or her way to get it, that is, he or she has to affirmatively state and seek out the exemption.  It's an "opt out" provision, and only a partial one at that, because, again, the bargaining unit member still has to pay.  It also doesn't specify what makes a religious teaching or tenet "bona fide."  There is probably a tradition of contract interpretation and jurisprudence that gives insight on how to determine this point, and that tradition probably gives a lot of deference to a person's subjective sense of what his/her religion requires.  But it leaves unstated how a bona fide belief is to be stated, affirmed, and demonstrated.  Finally, it makes the union responsible for ensuring compliance.

I don't know exactly why the religious language was included.  It is probably standard fare when it comes to most states' automatic dues deductions and fair-share requirements, informed by the American tradition of respecting religious conscience.  But I think the exemption should be expanded beyond the religious.

One reason for expanding it is that the provision implicitly gives a privilege to religious belief that automatically excludes people who do not profess any religion, or who profess a religion that has no official position on unionization.  I suppose in order to accept this as a reason for expanding the exemption, one must accept a certain set of assumptions about whether certain beliefs or non-beliefs ought to be privileged by policy.  I join the side of not privileging religious belief as such, although a conscience exemption could accommodate a religious exemption while the religious exemption cannot accommodate the conscience one.

A second reason is difficulty in determining who has a "bona fide" religious belief about unions.  As I mentioned above, what counts as "bona fide" might be tricky unless it means in practice "whatever the person seeking the exemption claims."  If in practice it means that, then the "bona fide" provision is essentially meaningless as far as any attempt to verify compliance goes, although perhaps an exemption-seeker might not be willing to lie about such a thing.  If in practice it means something more--perhaps a note from one's clergyperson, or a hearing before an arbitrator about one's religious beliefs--then the "bona fide" provision potentially involves the union in a task for which it is ill-suited:  investigating and passing on the legitimacy and sincerity of a person's most deeply held beliefs.

I say the above is a reason for expanding the exemption because unions function primarily to represent workers' on-the-job interests and not the state of their soul.  At least, that is its most widely accepted role, the role about which most people agree unions should exercise.  There, of course, those who believe unions could and should  transform society and perhaps exercise a deeper role in the consciousness of its members.  Less controversial (but still controversial), some believe unions should lobby lawmakers for policies deemed favorable to those whom they represent.   But even those who disagree with that "movement" view and the pro-lobby view--and even those who dislike unions generally--seem to agree that if unions are to exist at all, their principal role is to represent on-the-job interests.

The two reasons above are probably best characterized as, "it's the right thing to do" type of reasons.  I would like those reasons to appeal to what I believe might be a shared understanding on numerous points:  whether the type of privileges accorded to religion ought to end with religion belief or expand to conscience andwhether the union really ought to concern itself with whether a belief is "bona fide," and, indirectly. 

At the very least, even if my readers disagree with me on whether the above reasons are persuaded, and even if the readers don't share my assumptions, I wish them to acknowledge a difficulty with fair-share provisions.  Those provisions compel people to pay a part of their salary they would not otherwise want to pay.  In some cases, it's a question of laziness and/or temptation.  People who otherwise support the union or (in my case) do not wish to free ride, might inadvertently let their membership lapse or appreciate a slightly buffier paycheck.  In other cases, it's a question of someone with a principled opposition.  In those cases, they union has failed to convince that person to support it.

I suggest that even if we concede it is right to demand involuntary contributions, it's not 100% right.  There's a little bit of the appeal to force there.  And if one--following as I honestly believe good reasons--believes fair-share is necessary, there ought to be a little bit of recognition that something is being taken from the unwilling.

In a later blog post, I'll explain why expanding the exemption is not only the right thing to do but also why it may be tactically a good thing for the union to do, provided it's done along certain ground rules that are similar to what is already in place for administering the religious exemption.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Balance out the slogans with an argument

One type of discussion I have witnessed occasionally about the union goes something like this.  Person A complains about the union, wishing to opt out of paying fair share dues, or wishing the religious exemption could be broadened to a conscience exemption.  (Keep in mind that even with the exemption, a person still has to pay, but the payment goes to a charity mutually agreed upon by the union and the person.)  Person B responds by saying something like, "Are you also going opt out of the pay increase you've gotten because of the union."

It should be no surprise that I'm going to criticize Person B's retort.  But I want to point out first that Person B has a point.  Although it is an open question whether UIC faculty would have received a wage increase similar to the one they actually received with the contract--such appears to be the argument of the authors at No Faculty Union--the current pay raise (still pending, at least in my case) is instituted via the current contract, and it's not impossible that the administration would have simply declined to grant a raise if left to its own devices.  Also and as I have argued before, there is a benefit to having union representation that goes beyond pay increases.  It's the benefit of being represented by an organized and officially recognized body, which can be useful from time to time when an employee finds oneself at the mercy of an unfair practice.  There are also disadvantages to that representation, too, and what strikes some people as unfair often strikes me as an attempt to choose the least bad of several bad options.  But let's not pretend that there's no benefit to having a union, or that the benefit of a union lies only with pay increases.

The reason I criticize Person B's retort in this case is that it's not really an argument.  If Person A feels such a strong objection to the union that he/she would prefer to opt out and pay the equivalent dues to a charity, then the union hasn't made its case for that person.

And it's not a given that Person A benefits from the union as much as Person B suggests.  If Person A is on a margin that the union contract makes it more expensive to hire him or her, then a pay raise, even a modest one, makes it more difficult to keep Person A on.  Also to be considered is the proposition that the increased job security that this union contract, like most union contracts, tries to provide can have a perverse effect on some employees.  My understanding of the contract is that when it comes to contingent faculty, the provisions that ensure the most security kick in for those who have been at UIC for a while, say, more than years, if I understand the contract correctly.  What about those newer faculty who might not enjoy the security guarantees?  How does seniority work when it's one person's position compared against another's who has been there longer?  My point is not to criticize job-security or seniority provisions per se, but to point out that such provisions narrow the number of people whom the university can let go if money gets tight.  And if someone falls along that margin, he or she has a reason to fear dismissal, and all along, has to pay dues to the union.  That point ought to be recognized.

Or what if the union dues help fund political advocacy with which Person B disagrees?  I may write in a later post on the pension issue, and I don't want to make this blog primarily about pension reform, but I can imagine some employees are concerned that reform is needed and prefer what they expect to be 90% of a "loaf" of retirement benefits rather than half a loaf, or no loaf at all.  I'm not saying, right here, that that 90% vs. 50% vs. none at all formulation is correct.  But if the belief is held sincerely, and if it is at least a position that can be argued in good faith, the person who holds that belief might legitimately resent being compelled to help subsidize an organization that lobbies for a different outcome.

What I just wrote assumes much, I admit.  First, I don't know how the funds break down nor do I know how, if at all, our union intends to use the funds for political advocacy.  Second, my paycheck has not yet included any dues deductions.  So that point is still hypothetical to begin with.

There are some other problems about the "well, why don't you give up your benefits, too" retort.  First, it's unfair.  The union has won.  That retort serves more to silence opposition, to kick opponents while they're down, so to speak.  Second, being unfair, it is also unwise.  And for the same reasons.  The union will have to begin renegotiating another contract within the year.  How many people does it want to alienate with a question-begging slogan?  How many people will come out for the next "job action"?   Perhaps the one who objects at this late date will never be reconciled to the union.  But it might be a question of having a non-supporter in the ranks, or of having an avowed opponent, or even "enemy" of the union.

Third, the retort is an ad hominem attack, and not a very good one, even for an ad hominem.  Like all ad hominems, this one invites another.  For example, when Congress and the G. W. Bush administration granted taxpayers a one-off "rebate" on their taxes in, I believe, 2001 and 2007, I--and many others--thought that this was an unwise move.  Did they give the $300 to $600 rebate back?  I didn't.  Does that make the policy any less or more merited?  No.  I imagine that most members of the union would not have a hard time identifying policies that benefit them, at least in the short run, but for which they don't renounce the benefit. 

And like all ad hominems, it runs against the problem of the "consistent objector."  I don't know if such exists in the bargaining unit, but it's not impossible that someone objects so strongly to the union that he or she abrogates his/her pay raise, or perhaps donates it to charity.  Again, I don't know if anyone goes that far, but it's a possibility.  And yet again, one can counter that, per what I said above, there's an intangible benefit to being represented by a union that cannot be abrogated or renounced.  I concede that point, but then ask how can one expect another to renounce something non-renounceable?

I suggest that the argument for unionization needs to be made continually.  As I have said before, I intend to remain a union member and pay dues and I would even if there were some sort of opt out provision.  I believe that if I benefit from having a union, I ought to pay. But in that case, it's my choice, and not everyone agrees.  The union and its supporters should avail themselves of the opportunity to consider others' objections, not necessarily in the hope of winning them over, but in the hope of ensuring the objectors that whatever their views, they are welcome as part of the bargaining unit and part of the community of scholars and service-faculty that the union claims to represent.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Harris v. Quinn, the "Fair Share" case

The Supreme Court has finally handed down its decision in Harris v. Quinn, what I in the last post, and elsewhere (page 7 of my letter from February [PDF]), have said might end fair share provisions for public employees' unions.  The decision didn't go that far and now that I've had a chance to skim it, I realize the facts of the case weren't exactly propitious to outlawing fair share.  Even accounting for court opinions' tendency to mold the facts of the case into a narrative that seems ineluctably to lead to their results, it now seems clear that the main issue was whether the employees in question--personal care providers whose wages were set by statute but who otherwise were employed mostly by their patients/clients--were actually state employees to begin with.  In other words, the decision had as much, or more, to do with whether the state could properly call any union these employees entered into a true "public union" or whether the state could call these employees truly state employees.

This case has gotten much less commentary than the other case decided yesterday, the famous Hobby Lobby suit, which ruled that "closely held" corporations can object to certain regulations on the ground that the regulations violate the owners' religious beliefs.  But its implications could be far reaching.  As at least one commentator has said, the decision could serve as an invitation to a full-fledged challenge to fair share for public employees in general. I imagine the outcome of that case, if it ever comes to be heard, will depend on which justice retires in the next few years and who gets to appoint their successors.

All of which is to say that the UICUF has dodged a bullet, but it's not in the clear.  I still urge its leaders to avoid the appeal to force in their advocacy for the organization.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thoughts on the Supreme Court "fair share" case

I have little to say so far about the implementation of the union contract at UIC.  Mostly that's because there's a lot I don't know.  Partly, it's also because of what I do know, I don't know much is meant to be generally public knowledge and how much is not meant to be.  Of course, we're a public university, so I imagine everything will be public eventually.  But I think it's the better part of wisdom not to speak of that which I'm so ignorant anyway.

But one thing I'm less ignorant about is the pending U.S. Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn.  There's a lot I don't know about the case.  I haven't read any of the briefs or followed it very closely in the news.  But yesterday I did listen to the one-hour oral argument, which can be found here.  (For a rundown of the major steps in the litigation, click here.)

I'll confess that listening to the oral argument was, well, fun and exciting.  I imagine such arguments are made available as a matter of course in most or at least many cases, but this was the first time I've actually listened to one.

But the stakes are important.  Apparently, it involves a challenge to fair share provisions for public employees.  If I understand the challenge correctly, fair share is questioned because it compels people (in this case, members of bargaining units for public employees unions) to petition the government even if they disagree with the "petition," i.e., disagree with the union.  The defense to the challenge is, as best I can tell, based on the following points:
  1. Fair share for state-level public employees has been an established part of labor relations for at least some states for about 30 years.  This practice has been validated by federal case law.
  2. The state, as employer, has certain prerogatives to deal with its employees as employees in a way that it wouldn't otherwise have in dealing with its citizens.
  3. Fair share provisions, for the states that have them, represent the state acting as employer.
From listening to the oral arguments--and I realize the "real" arguments are actually made in briefs and in prior decisions of lower courts--it seems there are three possible ways the Supreme Court will decide:

  1. Uphold fair share for public employees and reject the challenge altogether.
  2. Invalidate fair share for all public employees.
  3. Follow some intermediate path.  Perhaps by invalidating fair share for this particular case but not in general or by saying that fair share isn't really at issue here and that some other policy is really the controlling concern.  In this case, "some other policy" might be Medicaid.  The fair share challenge here involves home workers for very ill, indigent persons who rely on Medicaid.  There was some discussion, especially by the Chief Justice, about whether Medicaid stipulates a certain standard of payment that would make unionization of employees paid by Medicaid subject to a special set of rules that don't necessarily apply to other public employees.
I'm no legal scholar, so perhaps I'm missing something.  My prediction is that the decision will be against fair share provisions, but somewhat along the lines of #3 above.

If my prediction is right, here is my (again, amateurish) assessment of how the decision will affect the UIC United Faculty Union.  It will open up the possibility for a challenge to the fair share provision in our contract.  That challenge, or a challenge concerning a very similar type of contract elsewhere in the country, will probably hinge on the extent to which the union engages in public advocacy beyond the purview of wages, hours, and working conditions.  In that sense, the union's institutional membership with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors will be scrutinized.  My understanding is that those organizations sponsor political and legal activity that could be construed as falling outside the wages, hours, and working conditions purview.  That scrutiny might not hold up in court, and UIC's fair share provision would be invalidated or it will have to be restructured and the dues will have to be segregated, with an opt-out option for those who do not wish their payments to go to the affiliates. 

That's a lot of prediction from a non-lawyer, non-legal scholar.  But I'll be interested to see what happens.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Resist the appeal to force

I am and will probably remain a member of the UIC United Faculty union, unless it starts taking positions I cannot in good conscience endorse.  I would say this even if there weren't a fair-share provision.  There are ways in which being represented by a union is useful, and I believe if I'm going to get the benefits of union membership, I should pay for it.  Also, as I've said before, I don't oppose fair-share provisions in principle.  But I'd like my union colleagues to reconsider how they use the fair-share provision in our contract when encouraging members of the bargaining unit to join or remain members of the union.

Back in January or so, when I first mentioned to one colleague my reservations about the union, his or her first response was not to ask about my reservations.  It was to say something like the following (I paraphrase, but it's as close a rendering I can recall):  "Well, Illinois is a fair-share state, and once we get a contract you'll end up paying anyway.  So you might as well join in order to have a say in what goes on."

That's a reasonable response.  And frankly, even though I have found open dissent a difficult thing, I've seen others do it at union meetings and they were listened to, even applauded (I presume for their courage and not in agreement).  They were not jeered.  And as I have said, I have at least one contact with whom I have discussed my reservations and who wanted to take my views on what was going on.  The person in question who mentioned the "Illinois is a fair-share state" argument has not put a lot of, or any,  pressure on me to join or cooperate with the strikes.

But the response is also a veiled appeal to force.  The laws are such that pretty much any contract that was going to be ratified (assuming one was indeed going to be ratified) would have a fair-share provision.  The worker in such a case has no real choice about whether to pay, although if he or she objects enough, there are provisions for the money to paid to a charity.*  The right response to someone with reservations is not to say, essentially, "we're stronger, therefore you'll have to go along anyway."

That, I admit, is a harsh way of putting it.  And I disagree with those of a libertarian bent who identify such laws as coercion and hint that any and all coercion is to be condemned or at least sharply limited.  That fair-share is technically coercion, I agree.  But not all coercion is created equal, and I'm comfortable in principle with this particular form of coercion.  None of that, however, means we ought to throw discussion about merits to the wayside.

There are three reasons for this.  First, joining the union is a vote of confidence in the union.  That is true because public employee unionization in Illinois is done through a "card check" mechanism.  Simply relying on fair-share risks being a disingenuous (if unwittingly so...if it's possible to be "unwittingly disingenuous") claim.  And even if the "card check" procedure were not the current procedure, retaining membership expresses a measure of support for the union that merely paying fair-share dues does not.  And sometimes, refusal to join--or the decision to withdraw membership--can be strongest way to exercise a "voice" vis-a-vis the union.

Second, the current contract will not last forever.  When negotiation's start again in about a year, the union will again face the question of whether it is a good thing.  And if it so happens, and I fairly sure it will given the perennial experience of many of the other unions on campus, that the negotiations drag on, we might again see strikes or threats of strikes.  Maybe now is not the time to question the union, but soon the question will be refreshed.

Third, the question might come to the fore even sooner.  There is a case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris v. Quinn, that might invalidate fair-share provisions for public employees.  I don't know if that's the only way to frame what's at stake in that case, and even an adverse (for fair-share proponents) ruling might not necessarily invalidate all fair-share for all public employees.  But it could happen and as early as this June.

Again and in keeping what I said at the beginning of this post, I will probably remain a member of the union at least as long as I'm a part of the bargaining unit and as long as it is my official and contracted representative, even though I'm still not yet convinced that it is the right thing for UIC.  But the union should not rely overmuch on the fair-share provision.  Even if Harris v. Quinn turns out favorably for the union, the pro-union argument is not reducible to it.

*I should mention here something about which I had been earlier mistaken.  Somewhere on this blog--I forget where--I claimed that fair-share dues are less than the dues full-union members pay.  That was my understanding when I was a member of UIC's Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), but even if it was true then, it does not appear to be the case here.  The contract merely states that fair-share payments cannot exceed the amount of union dues, which I suppose means that they will be equal to such dues.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

First thoughts on the contract and the vote

The UIC United Faculty Union voted to ratify the contract, claiming around 97% support of those who voted, but with no mention of how many union members voted or how many members of the bargaining unit are union members.  The contracts can be found here:  Tenure-Track [TT], Non-Tenure-Track [NTT], and an addendum to the NTT contract.  The contract, as I understand, still has to be approved by the Board of Trustees.  I suspect that that approval is largely a formality, but we'll see.

I did not read the TT contract and I have not read the entire NTT contract, although I have read portions of it and attended one of the union's two informational meetings.  I had to leave that meeting early, after the presentation of what was in the contract but before the question-and-answer portion of the meeting was finished.  Because the union requested no public comment on the contract until after the ratification vote, I have not commented until now.

I voted for the contract.  I went into the vote and informational meeting almost completely decided to vote for it.  After having criticized the union and the university for bringing the situation to the brink of an indefinite strike, a vote against the contract might very well have been a vote for a strike. 

One thing I'll say is that the presentation did not mention whether those of us who self-reported our absence for the two-day strike will have our pay docked.  (However, this may have been addressed in the question-and-answer session, which I had to leave early.)  To be clear, I do not think I should be paid for those days.  I did not work those days, and although I am nominally an exempt employee, my standard workweek is usually around 40 hours and that particular week I worked only about 24 hours.  But I would like to know whether or when to expect the deduction from my regular pay. 

As to "shared governance," it's unclear to me how the agreement will affect that aspect of university life.  One reason it's unclear is that I just know too little of how "shared governance" already works at UIC.

As to "faculty governance," which might be a similar creature to "shared governance," this agreement's effect will probably be department-specific.  I imagine in some departments we might very well see a more adversarial situation to validate the fears of the authors at the No Faculty Union blog.  In some departments, we'll probably see something different and more constructive.  I understand also that the contract includes some acknowledgement of faculty and departmental prerogatives when it comes to course curricula, but I have little to say about that. 

I imagine most members of the bargaining unit tend to benefit in some substantive way.  The minimum for "full time" NTT's is increased from $30,000 to $37,500, for example.  And while that falls short of the $45,000 the union originally sought, it strikes me as quite a raise for those so affected.

I would still like to know what "full-time" means in that regard--were those in the "full-time" category who were paid $30,000 working "only" two semesters at 2 courses a semester?  Or were they year-round employees teaching more courses?  The contract states that the bargaining unit includes "[a]ll full-time (i.e. employees who have 0.51 or greater appointment as a faculty member)...."  That statement suggests a pretty broad definition of "full time" that might make the comparisons during the organizing effort to the starting salaries of "full time" faculty elsewhere in Chicago a bit like apples and oranges.  Or maybe not.  Maybe the other universities count "full time" in the same way.

There is some language about re-appointment and multi-year contracts that seems to be beneficial for a large number of NTT's.  It appears uncertain how or whether or to what extent that language will be implemented and enforced by the union.  But the end result will probably mean that a very large number of NTT instructors will have additional security on the job, especially if this contract is not a one-off, but the first of several contracts to be negotiated over a series of years.

It is unclear how this language affects those with "visiting" appointments.  The contract [p. 10] says all visiting appointments are to be for one year and appointments for greater than one year (which I assume includes also visiting "re-appointments") "should be utilized to meet unpredicted or unexpected staffing needs."

When that provision was announced at the informational meeting, several members cheered and clapped.  If you had asked them why, I assume each would have said that this provision prevents the university from simply reappointing someone to "visiting" positions and thereby forgoing its responsibility to make a long-term commitment to its employees.  But I suggest that they're also cheering a policy, the practical result of which might be the discharge of at least a few people currently in "visiting" positions.

Or maybe not.  There's some language in the following paragraphs [p. 11] that suggest some people "may have an expectation" of re-appointment, and although that language does not seem to refer to "visiting appointments," it might be so interpreted in the contract's implementation.  (Whatever the applicability, I'll add that the modal auxiliary "may" suggests something like the status quo ante because it implies discretion.  It is not "shall" or a simple, non-modalized declarative sentence.)

I should self-disclose now that I'm in a visiting position, and I stand therefore to be affected by this new phrasing.  I'm not particularly upset by it.  If it's unfair, it's not peculiarly unfair, but unfair only in the way that the vicissitudes of life and employment and allocation of resources are unfair.  And it's not entirely clear that it will affect me negatively.  It might affect me positively.

I promise not to turn this blog into a forum on my personal job prospects.  But I bring up the issue for two reasons.

First, I think my readers need to know what I perceive my interest in the outcome to be.  I believe I have been very clear about this perceived interest throughout this blog's short history.  But I think if people know where I'm coming from, they can better judge the biases in my own position.  Knowing those biases is particularly important because I blog pseudonymously and because of the type of evidence I use on this blog.  Most of my evidence tends to be of the anecdotal variety, or it tends to focus on my "sense" of what others believe or my own interpretation on what is said or written.  My readers therefore deserve to know.

Second and less selfishly, I want to remind those who support the union that there exists--at least potentially--a margin along which the mostly good thing that is the union contract might hurt some people.

It's like the arguments used against increases in the minimum wage.  A business owner who employees 100 persons at minimum wage might, after the wage is increased, find that he or she can afford to keep on only a certain number.  If that number is 50, then the increase is probably a bad thing.  If that number is 99, then the increase is probably a good thing overall.  But it's still bad for the one person now unemployed.  Even then, it's possible that the higher incomes of the other 99 people and people elsewhere might inject more money in the economy, and thereby trickle down (or to put it less polemically, trickle out) to the unfortunate person who loses his or her job.  At any rate, the republic will still stand and business will, it is to be hoped, recover eventually.

Finally and to cap off this long blog post, I should say congratulations to those who supported the union and organized for a contract.  Most of them, I am sure, sincerely believe that the union and a contract were and are the right thing.  They put a lot of unremunerated and probably mostly thankless time and effort to bring about this result.  They focused (mostly) on real problems, and with some exceptions, they kept the most extreme rhetoric in check.  The members with whom I actually shared my concerns listened without judgment.  One person in particular knows my identity and as far as I know has honored my wish not to be identified.  He or she also followed through for updates on how I was feeling about the whole process.

And at the end of the day, the efforts of the union supporters might very well prove beneficial to the university.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

An admonition on admonitions: my "might makes right" drive by

In a recent post, I warned

But sometimes it's a thin line between "we are right and we are strong" and "we are right because we are strong."  The possibility that the view might shade into the other can never be avoided.  But it should be kept in mind.
Let's leave aside my sloppy writing (I should have written "The possibility that the one view might..."), and look at at the message.  Someone can be forgiven for assuming that I was accusing the union of a "might makes right" mentality.

But I really didn't intend to go that far.  I intended merely to warn that such a mentality lurks behind the scenes in any power struggle.  When a power struggle happens, the sides align themselves, and each side marshals its resources for the struggle.  No matter how right or just one side is, it cannot win an out-and-out struggle without in the end being somehow more powerful or lucky, and luck can reflect a kind of "power" if one is in the position to maximize it from having a superior organization and public message.

For unions,as unions, the principal power is the members' ability to withhold their labor and the incidental power is the ability to dissuade or otherwise prevent others from filling their place.  For jobs that require fewer formally acquired skills, people can theoretically be replaced easily and the union's job is limited mostly to dissuading replacements or relying on the state to adopt and enforce a set of "unfair labor practices" that includes hiring permanent replacements.  For jobs that require more formally required skills, the employer has little else to turn to.  For higher ed, it's both.  There are binders-full of newly minted PHD's or qualified MA's to teach many of the courses on offer, especially humanities and social science courses.  But they cannot feasibly be brought in at the end of a semester to finish off someone else's class.

So in this case, the UICUF had a pressure point at which it could exercise a considerable degree of power.  And although we don't know the terms the bargainers agreed to, it's possible that the threat worked to secure a favorable agreement.  Or it's also possible that the union, recognizing the cost a strike would impose on the students, its members, and others, folded and accepted some merely cosmetic changes to the university's "best and final" offer.  Again, it depends on the terms of the contract, and those haven't been made public yet.  But I'm going to assume the union got a good share of what it wanted.

Granted that assumption, my takeaway is that the union "won" the struggle, to the extent that anyone can be said to "win" when things get so contentious.  And winning in this case calls to mind the slogan-arguments used before and during the negotiations.  These are both general and all purpose arguments, like "In Union There Is Strength" and "The People United Can Never Be Divided," and more specific ones to UIC, like "UIC Works Because We Do."  To be clear, I'm not sure I've heard the first two actually uttered during the last few months, and the last slogan-argument seems to me to have originated from the Graduate Employees Organization or the on-campus SEIU locals, or both.  But similar slogan-arguments the union actually used evoke similar ideas.  They stressed the argument that the university is headed in the direction of a for-profit-style "corporation" ("We Want an Education, Not a Corporation!") or is devoting too much resources to administration ("Chop from the Top!").  Those appeal to a mentality that the people, as the people, have an interest in going another direction and that the people, as the people, have the power to effect that change in direction.

My admonition in the original post I quoted from above can be interpreted as what is known in the blogo-sphere as a drive-by argument.  In the guise of warning the union that "we are right and we are strong" can shade into "we are right because we are strong," one might say I'm accusing it of adopting a "might makes right mentality" and that my accusation is a "drive-by" because by saying it in passing I skirt past the need to justify it with any argument.  And again, I'm not going so far.  But the union should keep in mind that what it does in the name of the right and the good might on some level be done in the name of retaining faculty prerogatives and ensconcing certain practices that might need to be changed to accommodate new demands on higher education.  In such a case--and it is still hypothetical--the faculty's power might be an argument against the union or against a future contract and not in its favor.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The right tone

The union strikes the right tone when it thanks the students:
Why? Because yesterday afternoon the faculty and the administration reached a tentative agreement that we all believe will avert a strike and because it wouldn’t have been possible without your understanding and support. We know it ‘s been a stressful semester (for us too!) and we’re tremendously grateful to you for standing with us. Now all of us – students, faculty, administrators – can work together to build an even better and stronger UIC.
The key word here is "understanding."  It seems to recognize that this fracas has all been a hardship for the students.  Although few students probably read the union's website, this statement is a nice gesture.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The union and reconciliation

It appears that the union and the administration have reached a tentative agreement.  It now needs to be ratified by both sides.  I do not know the terms and until I do and until they're made generally public, I'm not going to comment on them.  But I will probably vote for the contract unless there's some "let's ostracize the UICUF Dissenter" clause.  It is important to accept peace and try to work with the union instead of merely to dissent from it, as I have done.*

Whatever the right and wrong of the union and the contract--and I believe there is some right along with the wrong--it seems to me that a clear majority of the faculty support the union and a decisive majority of those support the track the union has chosen to follow.  And that track, far from being the most militant possible, has been mild and generally accepting of others' dissenting views.  I have had to temper my criticisms of the union with an acknowledgment that it was usually willing endorse civility over confrontation.  There were exceptions, but they were few and probably to be expected.

I still have my fears about what a contract might do.  Some departments on campus are getting ready for possible budget cuts in case the legislature doesn't renew the income tax increase from a few years ago.  (It is a strange thing to have one's job depend at least partially on the taxation of others who might not wish to pay.)  Will the contract mean that some NTT [non-tenure-track faculty] can't get their position renewed, not from "retaliation," but because the hiring units might fear a loss of income or, if multi-year contracts are in the new agreement, the financial commitment from renewal?  To be clear, those risks or something like them are always present in any job.  Scarcity is always with us.  And I really can't begrudge the much larger number of faculty whose jobs are, frankly, more obviously important to UIC's educational mission than mine and who stand to keep their jobs regardless.  I'm not indulging in false modesty, but just stating what I believe to be a fact.

And I believe that even a strong supporter of the union should take time to consider the storm that might have happened.  Unions are predicated on the notion that workplace relations are in part a power struggle.  And a strike would have been a power struggle.  I would urge those supporters to be glad that they did not have to play their part in exacting the cost of a strike.  If there had been a strike (and I of course am assuming now that there won't be....I hope I'm right), it would not have been wholly the doing of the union, which in many was responding as one might expect to the administration's proposals.  But it would have been an action undertaken by the union.

During the lead up to this week, there has been some talk by union supporters that "UIC depends on us" and "we have the power."  That's probably true.  But sometimes it's a thin line between "we are right and we are strong" and "we are right because we are strong."  The possibility that the view might shade into the other can never be avoided.  But it should be kept in mind.

But I don't come away with clean hands, either.  I have tried to avoid unnecessary hyperbole and to see things from the union's point of view.  But sometimes I have been very quick to seize on the least charitable interpretation of what the union has said.  Even my decision to blog publicly rather than keep my reservations private or within the union could have functioned to undermine it.

I will say, however, that other than making my reservations public, I have done much of what the union has asked of me.  I have signed a card, I walked out on the two-day strike, I joined the picket lines and attended the noisy rallies (and in my middle-age I am really bothered by loud noises).  I even reported my absence on those days, so my pay stands (probably justly) to be docked unless the new contract provides for payment for those days.

I hope that the contract is the end of this long struggle and that the union and Board of Trustees find it good enough to agree to and avoid a strike.  I do intend to keep my membership active, even if the fair share payment is lower than the union dues.  And as much as I like to be proven right about things, I hope subsequent developments prove me wrong and the union is a force for good at UIC.

*And since this blog has about 355 page views and about 320 of those come from my ISP address, I have to assume very few people in the union are aware of it, unless of course, someone in the neighborhood is stealing my wi-fi just so they can log on to read this blog.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Whose margin?

The point is sometimes made that the union's demands represent only a very small fraction of the "profits" the university has earned over the last few years.  The point is that the university could very easily grant the pay raises the union wants and commit enough resources to start offering multi-year contracts.

In discussing the audit report for fiscal year 2013, the union notes that over 1 billion "in "unrestricted funds, which the auditors define as 'net position not subject to externally imposed stipulations but may be designated for specific purposes by action of management or the Board.'"  One billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and if it truly is "unrestricted" in the sense the auditors' definition makes it out to be, and if there are no other potential claims on the Board of Trustees that are not included in that definition, then it's probably the case the university could commit to raises and multi-year contracts.

And as far as raises are concerned, the fact that the U of I system has in the last year granted raises to other campuses suggests it can afford to at UIC.  My understanding is that the administration has cited ongoing contract negotiations as the reason for not offering raises here.  As an aside, that seems like a poor tactic on the administration's part.  Its decision was perhaps based on the possibility that a contract would ratchet up the pay scale even more.  And perhaps that was a possibility.  It's not a far stretch from "the administration has granted no raise in 5 years" to "the administration has granted a raise in only one of the last five years, and that raise was only an x %."  But tactically speaking, the administration would have a stronger position if it could argue that it had given raises.

But I suggest that any raise is likely to cut across some margin.  If "the university" has over a billion dollars, it does not follow that each department or unit has access or will have access to a generous share of those funds.  Maybe access could and would be granted easily at any given Board of Trustees meeting.  But would it?  Is that how the contract works?  Does each department or campus unit have to petition for its share of the surplus in order to comply with the contract, and if the Board refuses, will that mean that department or unit will have to make cuts in order to remain in compliance with the large pay scale or with the greater financial commitment that multi-year contracts imply?

One might say my questions show I'm ignorant of the basics of the wording of proposed contracts and of university finance.  I plead guilty.  But am I wrong?  If someone works in a department or unit that stands to lose funds or not win an increase in proportion to the university's "profits," then the effect in some ways might be as if there were no surplus to begin with.

None of this is a sufficient argument against the union's demands.  And the demands themselves have a certain plausibility:  other Chicago-area "full-time" faculty seem to earn higher minimum salaries, although we should keep in mind that "full-time" is rarely defined in these discussions (is it on 9 months of work?  does it refer to 100% appointments or to the 51% + appointments that bring people into the bargaining unit?).  But I am suggesting that the issues at play might be much more complicated than the mere fact of the university's surplus.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Assessing a strike's cost to students

In the discussions over the contract negotiations and the possible strike, one hears a lot of "what about the students?"  And it's easy for "the students" to become something like a slogan, or a shibboleth.  Nobody is ever not going to be for "the students," and everyone claims to be acting in the students' best interests.  And what's more, I think most people are sincere.  They want to do right by the students, at least in the abstract sense that one of the university's core missions--and a major reason most people have gotten involved in university work--is teaching.

At the same time and if negotiations fail, we're going to see a lot of people expressing concern for "the students" and criticizing the other side for not being concerned about "the students." Take, for example,  President's Easter's recent letter to department heads.  In that letter, Mr. Easter declined to submit to binding arbitration because, he said, he is responsible to the Board of Trustees and binding arbitration would compel the Board to accept any decision rendered.  We can therefore expect to hear criticisms lodged against Mr. Easter, implying that he feels no responsibility to the students but "only" to the Board of Trustees.

If those criticisms are lodged, I think that will be overreach.  Mr. Easter's gravest mistake in this case seems to have been not adding the obligatory "and the students" in noting his responsibility to the Board.  And it's not altogether impossible that a pro-union faculty member with an article or book queued up for publication might say, in an off-moment, that he or she has a responsibility "to my editor."  But all is fair in love and war and although this is not a "war," it is a struggle for controlling the public message, and we have to accept that sort of thing.

And of course, the struggle will go tit for tat, so I can't blame the union for criticizing the message.  If a strike does take place, the "upper administration" will bemoan its effect on the students.  And although not a member of administration ("upper" or otherwise), I, too, have also used "effect on the students" as something like a casual phrase on this blog. 

All well and good.  But what is the students' interest and how might those interests suffer in the event of a strike?  A related question that must be asked is, how might they benefit from the type of outcome the union wants?  I do believe, as I've said before, that the union seems sincere in its concern for how the students will be affected by a strike. But even the union's supporters acknowledge that a strike will impose costs and strains on the students.  It is also apparent that some faculty would like to learn more from the students about how these negotiations are affecting them.

As we speak about the costs imposed on the students and try to learn from the students, it behooves us to keep in mind some important points about this process and what it means when we say "the costs for students."  I have a few suggestions here of what needs to be kept in mind.  I don't consider this list exhaustive, but rather a starting point point for discussion:
The principal function of a strike is to be an inconvenience for the students.

As a tactical matter, almost the whole point of a strike is to cancel classes.  True, some other general-purpose units and units that serve the general public will also probably close, too.  And some nuts-and-bolts committee work may not get done.  But the immediate goal is to shut down classes.  Keep in mind that the two-day strike in February took place on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, probably because having it those days maximized the number of classes cancelled and the strike's visibility.  If it had taken place on a Thursday and Friday, fewer classes would have been affected.  In some programs and for some courses, Thursdays and Fridays are the days that TA's, who are not in the bargaining unit and therefore cannot legally strike for faculty, work while many of the faculty do other things.  It's not that those faculty are not working.  They might be doing committee work or grading or advising or writing or researching or peer-reviewing ot preparing other classes or doing service--these are all time consuming activities and part of their job descriptions.  But they aren't necessarily teaching those days.

And we should remember those non-teaching duties of faculty members.  Will those be subject to the strike?  Committee work and possibly some service work might.  But--and I stand to be corrected--TT faculty will not necessarily forgo their writing or their research projects during the strike time.  Neither will they likely ask any editors to postpone publication of articles they might have in line (and I'd be surprised if the editors would agree).  Nor will they cease contributing peer reviews or writing book reviews.  I don't think I'd expect them to, either, and I imagine doing so would be difficult.  And for NTT faculty, it would be a non-issue.  If NTT's are publishing or doing research, they are not necessarily being compensated or otherwise being rewarded for it (I think....there's a lot I don't know about some NTT positions).
We need to remember that current students might not enjoy the full fruits of the purported long-term benefits of a union contract.

It is at least arguably the case that a union contract could be part of a process that in the long run benefits the students at UIC.  I have my doubts, but they are doubts, not firm and confident predictions.  But I suspect that most of these benefits are of the sort that come about after several years of being set on the right track.  I can see an argument that a contract, at least for NTT instructors, enables those instructors to have more time and resources to commit to helping the students.  A contract, especially if it secures multi-year contracts for NTT's, will give them a greater security and enable them to play a bigger role in making tings better for UIC's undergrads.

But that process will likely take several years to see the full benefit.  Nothing wrong with that per se.  Good things take time to build.  But the undergrads currently at UIC won't necessarily be the ones to benefit.  And yet the strike if it happens will come during their stay here and interrupt their classes.
If the strike lasts long enough, scholarships and jobs might suffer.

No one wants a long strike.  But if it lasts more than a couple weeks, students will not only likely lose the benefit of the last two weeks of classes they've paid for.  They might have deadlines for scholarships or job applications that require, say, a transcript for the spring semester or official record of graduation.  Or recommendations might be due.  I understand that in at least one department, professors are trying to ease the process and do any letters before a strike.  But I don't know how general that approach is on the campus or how well the message gets to undergraduates.

I honestly don't know if this point represents a real problem or only a possibility that a rules-bound person like me tends to think of.  Perhaps employers or scholarship-granting organizations would understand or don't place the type of importance on such things that I think they might.  And I also suspect that if it is a problem, it might be limited "only" to a few situations.  But those situations will be very important for any student so affected.

These are only things that I have thought of from the safety of my desktop computer at home.  I have not spoken with any undergraduates yet how they see this might affect them.  I also know that union supporters are taking such considerations quite seriously.  If any of them are reading this blog post, they might  wish to take note of the types of things I've said here if they haven't already.