Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed: "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." We are living at a time when that bend can be very difficult to see. But for faculty and civil service workers at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, the arc inched a bit closer to justice last month, when an Administrative Law Judge for the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board ruled that in 2011, the university violated state labor laws by declaring an impasse at the bargaining table and imposing terms that included four unpaid furlough days. The judge in the case, Colleen Harvey, called for a "make whole" remedy for all affected employees: the return of their lost wages with interest.
In order to understand the significance of this ruling, one needs to go back to a painful chapter in the history of the university: the months leading up to the strike of November 2011. During that period, the Administration and the four IEA local unions (representing graduate assistants, civil service professionals, and non-tenured, tenured, and tenure-track faculty) offered conflicting accounts of what was happening at the bargaining table. On the one side were the four union bargaining teams, who insisted that the administration was unwilling to negotiate in any meaningful way. They feared that the administration was attempting to thwart the bargaining process with the ultimate goal of weakening the unions (possibly fatally) and imposing terms. On the other side was the administration, which insisted that it was doing its absolute best, but that the unions simply did not grasp the financial pressures bearing down on the university and the extent to which these pressures constrained them at the bargaining table. Out of this insistence emerged a damning portrait of SIU Carbndale employees as naïve at best and selfish at worst. Faced with these two conflicting accounts, many members of our community were left with the question: who was telling the truth?
Last month's ruling answers that question decisively. It utterly vindicates the unions, showing that their bargaining teams remained flexible in their willingness to compromise and in their efforts to move negotiations forward. Simultaneously, the ruling reveals that the unions' deepest fears in 2011 were entirely well founded. Drawing on the minutes from the administration's own internal meetings, Judge Harvey showed that the administration's strategy - one explicitly articulated throughout its own paper trail -- was to reject proposals over and over again and obstruct the negotiation process with the aim of arriving at impasse as quickly as possible. The unfortunate result, as we all know, was the first strike in the history of SIU Carbondale.
Why revisit this moment now? After all, many of the key administrative players are gone, and there is a new leadership in place that has expressed a refreshing appreciation for values that the campus unions have long been fighting for: greater transparency and shared governance. It is tempting to consign the events of 2011 to a quickly receding past and to gloss over prior conflicts. But this history matters because it has a bearing on our present: contract negotiations between the university and the four IEA locals are starting up again, and the financial pressures on the university have not gone away. What will the future hold for us? And how we can we facilitate an inclusive, respectful dialogue about our collective future that will encourage all stakeholders - faculty, staff, students, and administrators - to play a role?
By championing basic principles of good faith bargaining, the ruling itself points the way forward: a bargaining process in which all players come to the table with an open mind and a genuine desire to arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement. This process will make the university stronger, much as it has in the past. The unequivocal nature of the ruling also leaves no doubt about what the incoming administration must do when it comes to Judge Harvey's "make whole" remedy. While not responsible for the illegal imposition of the furloughs, it has now been charged with cleaning up the mess. By accepting the ruling and moving swiftly to restore our lost wages, the new administration can help to heal and repair campus relations that in recent years have been sorely tested. In the process, it can play its own small but decisive role in moving the arc a bit closer to justice. It is time for a new chapter. -------------------------------- Natasha Zaretsky is an Associate Professor of History at SIU in Carbondale. -------------------------------- Natasha Zaretsky ********************************************