Fighting Back: Negotiating under the Radar

Preserving contract language is far more important than fighting for insignificant pay increases.
By Gary E. Starr, Roderick Henry, and Jeff Kolnick

This January, the Inter Faculty Organization, the union representing nearly 3,300 faculty members at the seven Minnesota state universities, took the unusual step of making an offer that broke dramatically with past practice and with typical union negotiating. We offered to accept a pay freeze while holding current contract language unchanged, and we tentatively agreed to this contract months before any other state contracts were settled and even before formal negotiations began. In response to those who wonder why we would take such an action, we answer, why not? Because of the current economic situation, our union faced the realities of necessary union concessions, the layoff of tenured faculty, and the cutting of vital academic programs. In this context, we conceptualized ways to weather the economic storm while preserving the protections of our current contract and the academic integrity of our institutions. We quickly concluded that engaging in the normal protracted adversarial bargaining process would be the equivalent of many of the battles of World War I, in which armies, knowing full well the outcome, lined up and slogged through predetermined killing zones, suffering many casualties with little or no gain.

In September 2008, during our union’s initial strategy sessions, the economic situation at the state and national levels was deteriorating. In the ensuing months, we continued to gauge the environment and to plan an opening proposal, with the anticipation of a late February meeting with state negotiators. As the economic situation worsened, it became clear to our team that traditional methods would be ineffective. In the current environment, we knew that demanding a diminished workload while asking to be paid more—our customary opening proposal— was not a politically tenable stance. We also knew that the state’s usual opening position to freeze or reduce salaries, increase workloads, and remove important standing contract provisions (for example, by reducing or eliminating sabbaticals or by eliminating tenure) might seem reasonable to a public that is unsympathetic to faculty. Thus, losses in the areas of contract provisions and compensation seemed inevitable in the course of a “normal” bargaining scenario.

In early January 2009, our Inter Faculty Organization negotiating team met and reflected upon the eroding and volatile economic situation and discussed best-case scenarios, considering seriously what we could hope to achieve as a settlement. Most negotiators believed that, given our mature contract, a deteriorating economic situation, widespread reports of layoffs and program cuts across higher education, and a previous settlement with average biennial salary increases of nearly 12 percent, the best-case scenario would be retaining the language provisions and pay levels of our current contract. Maintaining the status quo had the additional advantage of keeping active specific monetary stipulations in our contract that include pay increases for promotion and longevity. These standing contractual pay increases allow for targeted raises averaging 4.8 percent for 20 to 30 percent of the membership during the two years of the contract. The entire negotiating team quickly agreed to offer the administration a continuation of the current contract language for another two years and then debated the best way to achieve this goal.

New Approach

We decided to avoid traditional channels in favor of dealing directly, quietly, and quickly with our chancellor and the vice chancellor of human relations. This behind-the-scenes approach allowed us to work more collaboratively and to reach an agreement we felt would provide stability for both the faculty union members and the administration during a period of general economic instability. We knew that our governor had called for a pay and hiring freeze for all state employees and thought our administration would see the value of our proposal to freeze pay and maintain contract language. Indeed, the administration agreed to our offer before the deadline provided by the union negotiating team.

The faculty union negotiating team never met with the negotiating team for the state during this entire process. Less than three weeks elapsed between the day we made the offer and the day it was accepted. Additionally, the union and the state reached an agreement with little or no publicity. We believe that the decision to move discreetly and quickly contributed to the success of our offer. Any public mention of the offer would have undermined the approach by opening up the process to pressures from outside or to the posturing and histrionics often seen during negotiations.

Our goal-driven approach greatly altered the negotiating environment. We did not much concern ourselves with following the usual methods, and we actually worked productively, and collaboratively, with our administration and the state legislature in our attempt to save jobs and programs while upholding appropriate work standards. We believe our actions will help maintain affordable, highquality higher education in the state of Minnesota and will leave us well positioned for growth and success in the upcoming years. While other systems are cutting back, and while other unions’ members are losing pay, sabbaticals, and retirement benefits, we made no concessions.

Reaction and Insights

Our union membership voted overwhelmingly to ratify this contract (93 percent in favor), and our negotiating team has received praise from both Republican and Democratic elected officials and from our membership and local administrative units for taking an active leadership role in the face of economically trying times. Indeed, on one campus, immediately after the settlement was announced, the administration removed an agenda item from the official monthly meeting between the administration and the local union representatives that is often understood as a precursor to layoffs of tenured faculty. This action supported the initial press release of our chancellor, who stated that, as a result of this settlement, fewer layoffs and program cuts than planned would be needed and budgeting pressures would be reduced at the affected universities.

The settlement reveals the significance of maintaining a strong faculty union presence in higher education, and it demonstrates that a union shop need not come at the expense of academic programs. In this case, both sides were able to work well to serve the greater good of all involved, and our interestbased approach may be one that could benefit other unions and enhance the public perception of faculty.

It is crucial for unions to understand the inherent value of contract language and the protections that standing provisions provide to the membership. During the current economic situation, far too many unions appear to be losing ground on these issues for nothing more than nominal increases in pay. We believe that clear, established language offering key protections to faculty members is far more valuable than insignificant pay increases alone, and we would warn that once contract-language provisions are removed, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to reinstate them in the contract.

Gary E. Starr is associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Psychology at Metropolitan State University; Roderick Henry is professor of business administration at Bemidji State University and president of the Inter Faculty Organization; and Jeff Kolnick is associate professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University.



The Minnesota faculty acted wisely to preserve a CONTRACT with many benefits to the faculty, and agreed to a pay freeze during the current economic crisis. These were prudent decisions and reflect the desire of faculties and administrations to work together in a collegial fashion to address critical issues.

However, I don't understand the fears of the negotiators that tenured faculty would be dismissed and tenure might be eliminated if this plan was not approved. If it was these fears that were the sole motivation for the faculties decision, then they are indicating that tenure is worthless and without any meaning in Minnesota. Tenure should never be at the mercy of a "crisis situation" since any administrator attempting to eliminate or change the conditions of tenure would need only to create a suitable "crisis situation".

It should be made clear that faculties are not interested in a "fight to the finish" approach to address short term and long term economic problems. The very nature of the academic world and the collegiality of the faculty, which is in such sharp contrast to the working of the business world, makes the enlightened self-interest approach possible.

Though I applaud the willingness of the Minnesota faculty members to cooperate with their administrations during these difficult economic times, I would not have expected them to do less.