CMU Strike: Standing Firm Is Not Bad Faith

In the Detroit News account of the faculty strike at Central Michigan University, one comment stood out. It comes from CMU Faculty Association President Laura Frey:

This take-it-or-leave-it attitude is what we’ve faced all along…We’ve filed unfair labor practice charges against the university, citing their refusal to bargain in good faith. This is why the faculty is not where they really want to be – with their students.

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Frey sounded a similar note in the Morning Sun:

This is a full work stoppage…The administration continued to draw the line in the sand with no movement at all on the major issues since the fact finding and most of those issues in fact finding were the same positions they had since they started and there was no movement…They indicated they weren’t going to move and they kept their word.

So the great outrage that motivates the illegal strike against Central Michigan is this: the university has taken a firm line and is holding fast to it.

In an economy where unemployment is in double digits and private-sector wages are stagnating, it doesn’t seem especially unreasonable that the university would want to hold wages for professors steady. What is illuminating is that Ms. Frey is shocked and appalled by the notion that the university would have a solid idea of what it could afford to pay, and would not back down from it. 

It would appear that Ms. Frey thinks she is entitled to concessions from management. Granted, a firm “take-it-or-leave-it” offer can be tough to swallow sometimes, but firmness is not bad faith. The university administration has a budget and has apparently concluded that it can afford to maintain its current salary structure for the next year and offer 1 percent raises (and bonuses of around $800) for the two years after that. (These figures are taken from the petition for fact finding that the university filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.) Given the current economy, the university's “hold the line” stance doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

In the real world, sometimes you get to haggle and sometimes you don’t. The presence of a union doesn’t make economic reality go away, and collective bargaining is not a magic wand that makes big raises affordable year after year after year.

Among other things, the Public Employment Relations Act elevates collective bargaining to a legal right, and the usual practice of collective bargaining is for compromises to be reached over several meetings between unions and employers. Workers have been taught to expect that employers will make concessions during negotiations. Expectations are not rights, but when expectations are not met people sometimes respond in negative ways, like illegal strikes. Among the many questions that the Legislature and governor need to ask is whether or not PERA has elevated government employees’ expectations to unreasonable levels.