Why I Voted “No” to a Strike

Classical liberals are used to being the “odd one out” but how many of us have lived through a strike with its demands for “solidarity”? I believe in voluntary association and even joined the Faculty Association (union) some years ago. I also believe that workers may strike but they are not entitled to a closed shop via “fair share” fees. If they strike, they may be replaced. A strike ought to be an act of desperation, carefully thought through.

In the weeks leading up to a strike at my campus (Southern Illinois University), I threw myself out there with arguments opposing the strike. Many people I respect came to a different conclusion. The strike came and most faculty still worked—but not in Sociology, History, English and the usual strike-prone areas. I was the only person to teach my students (although I did not cover my colleagues’ courses). The strike is now over but I pass on my experience in case any one else finds themselves in a similar situation.

[I am only including Part II of my “Why I Voted No” posts because Part I gets into issues specific to the SIU strike and not of primary concern here. Part I can be found at http://freesiu.blogspot.com/2011/09/why-i-am-voting-no-on-strike-part-i.html ]

Why I Will Vote “No” to a Strike (Part II)- September 23

In a previous post, I explained why I think the FA’s two major strike issues–tenure and distance education–are based on unsubstantiated fear and certainly no reason to go on strike. This post discusses other reasons to vote “no” next Wednesday. Feel free to add or subtract from the list (by arguing back!). This is a long post but I have included two short Hollywood movie clips to keep you interested. Suggestions for other Hollywood metaphors appreciated!

What is a strike? The unions threatening to strike state:

While there is no legal definition of a strike in the Labor Act, our operative description is, “a concerted refusal to perform day-to-day work duties to disrupt the normal operation of an employer.”

For faculty, disruption of “normal operations” means we do not teach our students, we do not advise our graduate students, and we do not conduct research with the tools provided by our employer.

Some people argue that unions exist to strike. In fact, many public employee unions are prohibited from striking. This would include police, fire fighters, and all federal employees. Moreover, unions perform functions that have nothing to do with strikes: for example, they provide grievance support, legal insurance, and collective bargaining without a work stoppage.

*Strikers are free riders: Typically, the union argument is that non-union members are free riders who benefit from union-secured gains. During a strike, those who continue to work are carrying the load of those who are not working. They help to keep the “normal operations” going as best they can while their striking colleagues walk away. If the strike results in minimal benefits but includes a “back-to-work” clause to end a weak strike, then those strikers get back pay for not working.

*Strikers lose pay, administrators still get paid: The FA [faculty union] has demonized administrators and wants to “hit back” with a strike to get their attention. NEWS FLASH! The administrators still get paid, the only people who lose are the students (more on that later) and the strikers, unless there is bargaining “success.”

*What does the union consider “success”?  Inserting tenure and no-layoff language that is more to their liking? I’ve already argued that any change in wording is only to address a fear that is unsubstantiated particularly given the wave of retirements this year. If that is “success,” it is status quo success, IMHO (see previous post). The FA has asked for 1.25 months salary for teaching a distance ed course. A month’s salary (the norm for summer) is not enough. This was never an issue with summer teaching but now that we have online courses, it is “unfair” if we earn less than 1.25 months/salary per course. If administration agrees, it would mean teachers have to offer courses with very high enrollment to pay for these gilded teaching slots. But FA doesn’t like thinking in terms of cost recovery either so around and around we go in this Alice in Wonderland world. 

*“Show me the money!”  In the movie Jerry Maguire (1996) a professional athlete is trying to get his agent’s attention as to what really matters to him. The athlete is concerned with the bottom line, but the FA (our Jerry Maguire) says that this strike is “not about the money.” If the FA played Tom Cruise’s part and said “it’s not about the money,” the movie would have ended right here:


The FA insists there is a surplus here at SIUC. When have they ever admitted that a) there was a deficit or b) it might be prudent to have a “rainy day fund”? But this year there will be mass retirements and they could bargain for slightly higher pay in return for giving up some faculty lines. But they won’t do that because they want to maintain “quality education” even though we all hope to muddle through without layoffs. The only way is through attrition until we reach a time when we can afford to “preserve faculty lines.”

*”Preserving faculty lines” = higher risk of layoffs: Face it, if there are fewer of us here to do the “normal operations” of our employer, we have greater job security.

*“I’m not going to actually strike, but I want to strengthen the union position by voting ‘yes'”:  I’ve heard this many times on campus. Keep in mind: if you vote “yes” you probably told people you were voting “yes” and they would expect you to act accordingly if there is a strike. If you cross the picket line, you probably have earned the term “scab” (an ugly term from the union-label factory). You will be seen that way. On the other hand, if you are on record voting “no,” then hold your head high and go to work. You have voted your conscience and acted on it.

*Back to work pay: The union assures us that strikes “usually” last only two weeks. Maybe yes, maybe no. Frankly, as I posted elsewhere on this blog, there have not been many strikes in higher ed since the Meltdown of 2008. Will you get paid for the time you were off? Maybe yes, maybe no. People are already calculating how long they could go on strike. You may borrow money from the IEA but it must be paid back. I have my doubts as to how generous the IEA would be since they only get 1/3 of faculty members to contribute here at SIUC. The IEA prefers to have dues from 100% of members; that is why the FA/IEA is demanding “fair share” fees for those who refuse to join the union.

*Fair share isn’t fair–know your rights:  I’m confident the FA will not get fair share from the administration. As a FA member, I do not want to coerce fellow faculty into paying against their will. Moreover, I want the right to “vote with my feet” by leaving the union if I think it is irresponsible. If “fair share” comes about, look up your rights to rebates of the fees at this web site.

*Striking will hurt some departments more than others: Want to really damage your college or department’s position on campus? Shut down operations and leave your students wondering what to do. Trust me: a strike will show fault lines of union support/nonsupport. I suspect my college (liberal arts) will be hit hard by a strike. Not good. It would take years, if ever, to recover.

*A strike hurts students: The FA barely mentions students. The strike is aimed at the administration but will hit current students and may dissuade future students from coming here. The FA retort is that “this is in the best long-term interests of students.” How high-minded of the FA to break a few eggs (current students) to make an omelet of better education in the future!

*The federal government may freeze financial aid: This is not hypothetical. Last month, a NEA faculty union went on strike at Youngstown State University (16,000 students). The U.S. Department of Education took swift action and ordered the administration to freeze federal financial aid to students. That forced the union to call off the strike. If students lose financial aid, and the union continues to strike, we will lose semester when the administration is forced to cease operations. That is not disruption, it is destruction.

Even if financial aid remains for this semester at SIUC, how will students manage a delayed semester when they have to work back home? Yeah, this is going to be REAL popular with students and parents.

*Show me a winner! There were some successful strikes that I listed previously but they were all pre-2008. Since 2008, I have identified three faculty strikes: Central Michigan (sent to binding arbitration per Michigan Law), Long Island University (strike ended with 6% of raises over five years, a net loss after inflation), and Youngstown State, which does not look hopeful. Again, if there are more, show me the winners. Who wins in a strike? Read this cautionary tale of a strike that “nearly killed the university”–written by a former militant unionist who crossed the picket in a 1990 strike and then successfully decertified the union.

*Let us be a little grateful: for what we have as faculty. Secure jobs (despite FA rhetoric) and really good health insurance. We pay only 10% of the $1905 spent on Health Alliance for a household of three or more (including dental). As a person with intractable medical issues (and braces for one child this fall!), I am not reassured by the blithe FA line “don’t worry, you can sign up for COBRA insurance later if something happens.”

*Remember Thelma & Louise? I’ll end with the final 1.5 minutes of that classic movie. It’s a great ending in a movie theater but not in real life. Don’t let your vote be for pushing the medal to “accelerate” off the cliff. . . .



Why I Voted “No” to a Strike – November 3

As a member of the Faculty Association (FA), I explained in late September why I voted “no” to a strike. I have never accepted the notion of “my union, right or wrong” any more than I would accept the false patriotism of “my country, right or wrong.”
So, here I am teaching today as I always do. My hallway is empty but others show no sign of any change. Indeed, the number of faculty on strike varies enormously by department: virtually nothing has changed in some departments. In other departments, the majority of faculty are on strike.
I hope the FA comes to a settlement with the administration sooner rather than later. My guess is sooner but we shall see.
Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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