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.

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