The Wright State Strike

Two thoughts on the Wright State strike:

First, the tell that Wright State is more interested in union busting than bargaining is that they are demanding to be able to unilaterally change the union’s health care plan. This is an atomic bomb of a demand.

Bargaining over wages and other terms and conditions of employment become substantially less relevant when the university can choose to change your healthcare plan at will. Even if the union were to negotiate a future wage raise, the university could change the faculty’s health care benefits to offset that increase. They could also threaten to change it in exchange for the union not pursuing other bargaining positions. This makes benefits a free variable — something you can’t plan around and makes all other concessions less meaningful. Alternatively, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was one of their motivations, is that the university could make health care benefits less generous and more expensive for part of the bargaining unit as a way of splitting the union. Most younger workers’ health care costs are associated with starting a family while older workers are associated with health risks that scale with age. They generally don’t overlap, so you can make cuts to one of them while offering a boost to the other. That’s a method to try to divide the union in an attempt to create a decertification election.

Bargaining is about creating a predictable system where both parties can be heard and agree on the rules of the workplace. Giving one side the unilateral authority to write some of the most important rules — health care policy — upsets this balance. It says, “you can be a union as long as you don’t have the ability to act like one.” It’s not a real offer. If you are trying to figure out who started this mess, this isn’t a bad place to start.

Second, WSU just posted a call for full-time replacement faculty. The derivative costs of this will be astronomical.

Anyone who has taken a class on collective bargaining has probably heard the phrase, “management gets the union it deserves.” The longer, and more academic method of saying this, is captured by Freeman and Medoff (1984) in their book What Do Unions Do?:

…the extent to which a union is a liability or an asset depends crucially on how management responds to it. Nonunion employers will learn that while the benefits of being union-free generally exceed the costs of union avoidance, the former are often overstated and the latter are often understated.

Even if the strike were to end tomorrow, the call for replacement faculty is a bell that can’t be un-rung. The message to the faculty is clear: you’re a cost, and we will replace you if that cost gets too high. Enough of that “university is a community” nonsense, this is a financial institution that offers classes. It wouldn’t shock me if most faculty with labor market mobility started polishing up their CVs, hitting the conference circuit, and shopping their wares elsewhere. In short, WSU has become the farm team for other universities.

In the long-run, you have to wonder how they will ever sell this to future job market candidates. The academic world is a small community and such an adversarial relationship with the administration will not go unnoticed. Even junior faculty who need a job might start eyeing the exits as soon as they’re hired, and high turnover has real costs when it comes to the identity of a university, function of a department, and ability to maintain a quality academic environment.

This isn’t about health care or promotion or wages, it’s about power; it’s about if the faculty get a voice in their workplace. Those who claim it’s about an 80/20 vs. a 90/10 plan can’t see the forest from the trees.