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September 06, 2006

On Strike for Labor Day (Part 7)

Yesterday was quite the rollercoaster, but ended witht he administration walking out of negotiations at 10 pm and ignoring a proposal we had on the table. Looks like this series will of blog postings will be running longer.

We convened down in the basement to prepare a counter proposal, only to hear that they wanted us to take down the AAUP on Strike signs we put in the window (since it is an administration building, we understood but it wasn't a priority).

The issue was health care, again... perhaps "still."  Their last proposal had given up about $23,000 of the $750,000 they want to take out of faculty salaries IN THE FIRST YEAR OF THE CONTRACT. Our proposal was similarly incremental, and I'll explain a little more on that below.

They said they needed more in the first year. We said it was too much and that any amount needed to be phased in over time and accompanied by wage increases that have a reasonable net effect (salary increase - health care costs = reasonable. We did not want to discuss health care more without seeing the rest of the salary package they had to offer.

EMU-AAUP office - picket and strike central 

Two hours later, they come back. After some discussion, it becomes clear that it took them all that time to add to their proposal a waiver of the administrative fee for a flexible spending account (FSA). As background, an FSA allows you to put pre-tax money into account that can be used for health care and certain other spending. Running health care premiums through the FSA helps reduce their out of pocket cost, and we had discussed this several times previously. In fact our side raised it at the health care sidebar last Friday.

An FSA has an administrative of $4 a month per person. You can also get a debit card linked to your FSA that you can use to pay for doctor and prescription co-pays, and has an administrative fee of $1.50 a month per person. All of this structure is already in place, so what their proposal offered was to absorb the $5.50 a month it would cost to administer the FSA.

What we're realizing is that getting $750,000 savings from faculty has become the Holy Grail of negotiations for their side. They have NO interest in spreading out this amount over longer periods of time. It must be that amount (OK, they're willing to shave $23,000 or $24,000 off it), and it must be year 1. (Keep in mind that under the plans, faculty also have higher out of pocket costs because the drug copys and tier system is different. The three-quarters of a million is thus only what the university gets from us, but does not represent the full cost of their program to our wallets.)

They turned the tables and asked us for a compensation proposal in return. We had some ideas, and returne one in less time than it took them to write the paragraph dealing with the FSA. Ernie Benjamin, for the National AAUP, suggested a formula for responding to their proposals to keep negotiaitions moving. While many faculty say 'don't give an inch,' the reality is that such a position would result in the declaration  of impass, which means they can try to impose their final and best offer. If we're making progress toward a common ground, the notion of impass is harder to sell in a court. A judge would be more likely to order us back to negotiate than impose a contract if there's progress, even if there's hard bargaining and slow progress.

cary nelson, will work for food (book cover)We came out of the basement briefly at 3 to go over the faculty meeting, which started at 2. Cary Nelson, the President of the national AAUP and author of Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis, has been with the team and spoke to faculty, as did Ernie Benjamin. We arrived at the end of the meeting and were greeted by heartwarming applause.

Being in a basement grinding away at this is debilitating, and moments like that really provide a shot in the arm. Thanks to all the faculty who showed up.  Similarly, at a later point in the day, I was outside the building for a minute and say faculty picketers standing in the rain getting cars to honk in support. Wonderful.

At the meeting, we noted that the university has hired an outside public relations firm from Lansing, they are paying an outside health care consultant, and there's an outside lawyer for Dykema Gosset, who has overseen negotiations since June. One faculty member made the point we've all wondering: Why don' tthey take the money they are spending on outside consulatant and use it to pay us better? Wouldn't that be more productive for all? 

The proposal that eventually came back from them was unacceptable, but we did have to note some movement. We wondered if they were trying to wrap things up by morning, even though they had announced a 10pm deadline. We countered, and got the expected lip about asking for unreasonable salary demands, etc, etc & etc. The ball is in their court and it's 3 hours until their deadline.

Ernie had a sense thay they were going to play out the clock - present something at the very last minute and if we didn't accept it or end the strike, they would try to impose it. So, we worked on having a counter-proposal to a proposal we hadn't seen. The idea was to have it ready to present, so they were walking away from our proposal, which showed movement from the previous one.

Around 9pm, we had no word from them and faculty picketrs were starting to gather outside to encourage them to keep talking.  At 9:45 they told us they had an offer. The cover sheet noted it was a best and final offer, which their lead negotiator also emphasized several times. They wanted us to call off the strike as a precondition for further negotiations. We said we're here to negotiate. They pushed on calling off the strike, but we refused until we had a fair contract, but we had a counter-offer for them to consider.

They tried to say we were out of time, but Ernie grabbed his cell phone, which said 9:55 and noted it was linked to a satellite. They were trying to find reasons not to accept it, but we had it on the table to them before 10. They refused to discuss it and walked away at 10.

We spent an hour or so with one of our lawyers, who had been following deveopments closely for months. Their move wasn't a suprise and we're prepared to the extent we can be. But this situation certainly raises the number of possible outcomes, with several days of cooling-off or a court hearing being the most likely.

I got to sleep in, which was welcome. And, I'll be heading into the office soon for meetings. But in many ways, the ball is now in the hand of the faculty overall. If they can maintain the strike and pickets, then the negotiating team can go back to work. So to the EMU faculty members, student supporters and others, it's my turn to cheer and encourage you. You're now on the front lines, not the negotiating team. Go go go.

 strength in solidarity - detroit labor day parade

Start 9:15 am

Finish 11:30 pm 

More info at EMU-AAUP website. Our chief negotiator also maintains a blog with more specific information about the negotiations and issues.

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