Union leaders say they've been left in the dark about budget crisis, cuts
As Central Michigan University administrators grapple with a $20 million budget deficit — a crisis almost certain to involve base-budget cuts and campus-wide layoffs —teacher and staff unions are wondering what will happen to them.
Union leaders of nine employee groups plan to meet with their constituents in a joint Union Council session on March 20. The groups will attempt to make sense of the looming cuts and answer whatever questions members have.
The session is not open to the public.
Aside from a university-provided timeline, union leaders say they have been supplied with little to no information on budget cuts. For faculty members, those cuts will likely take the form of course section reductions, larger class sizes and the elimination of some fixed-term faculty positions, according to professors in the Faculty Association familiar with the budget reduction process.
Heather Polinsky is a broadcast and cinematic arts professor and the president of the tenured Faculty Association union. She said the magnitude of the budget crisis and the lack of information is troubling.
“Of course, the Faculty Association is very concerned about the budget and what will be cut,” Polinsky said Thursday. “The senior administration has not involved the FA in any conversation about cuts. We think this is a mistake.”
Polinsky added that she hopes the university will give them “an opportunity to make recommendations before decisions are finalized.” Those decisions will be made in May, according to a timeline estimated by the university.
While full-time professors are typically protected by tenure — or rather a guaranteed permanent post by promotion — Polinsky said the university can make a choice not to fill vacant tenure track positions. A tenure track becomes “vacant” when a faculty member retires from or leaves the university, creating an unfilled professorship.
When a position is unoccupied, it creates salary and benefits savings for the university. Polinsky said this is the most common way to make cuts to tenured faculty. She said tenure does not equal “absolute” protection.
“Unfortunately, we expect (unfilled vacancies) to continue in the name of budget cuts,” she said. “We have expressed our concerns about how this adversely affects the quality of instruction at CMU. We also believe that our long-term financial health as university will be threatened if we continue to disinvest in faculty.”
At present, Polinsky said she has not received any indication of how many faculty member positions, tenured or fixed-term, could be on the chopping block at the end of spring. Fixed-term faculty members are represented by the Union of Teaching Faculty at CMU.
Tenured faculty are different from fixed-term faculty members, who are employed on a contract basis for a specific number of semesters, said Scot Squires, vice president of the Union of Teaching Faculty.
The UTF's president, Brian Coleman, said he has received some information from the university, but "nothing substantial about how the UTF will be affected by the layoffs." All he has heard, Coleman added, was that cuts "will not be equally applied throughout CMU."
While he has not received any hard numbers regarding potential faculty cuts, he said "it's hard to see how targeting fixed-term faculty members for layoffs is a reasonable way to approach balancing budgets."
"In general, UTF members are among the breadwinners 'bread winners' for CMU, in the sense that our wages are lower and our workloads are higher."
Bump and cut
For Jamie Cotter, president of the UAW Local #6888 worker’s union, the same “level of frustration” exists for office professional staff.
“My members are worried,” Cotter said. “There’s a real level of anxiety here. I know I’m going to be bombarded with questions and I won’t have a lot of answers. That’s the unfortunate part.”
To quell the information gap, Cotter said her group plans to hold meetings, send regular newsletter updates and maintain a philosophy of “open communication” about the budget process. A few meetings held at the outset of the budget deficit announcement have helped provide an outlet for concerns.
“The uncertainty is worse than knowing,” she said. “Even if it’s bad, it’s better to know.”
During these sessions, Cotter said office staff members — including office specialists and secretaries — are primarily concerned about layoffs and what happens to low-seniority workers. Seniority is based on how long an employee has worked for the university.
Out of 309 employees, Cotter said two have tallied more than 40 years at CMU. Five employees have more than 30 years at the university.
If a position is eliminated for someone with high seniority, they can choose to either retire or move into the next available position underneath them.
This process is known as “bumping.” It “bumps” the line of employees down to make room for high-seniority workers. If more than one position is eliminated at the top, those high-seniority workers can stay employed in other positions throughout the university.
If an employee without seniority is bumped, and all available positions are filled, that worker can be laid off, Cotter said. That means newly hired office professionals could be without jobs.
“I hope that (the cuts) come from vacant positions,” Cotter said. “A lot of departments will have those vacant positions in their budget and not fill (them), and if it helps, they’ll not post them or not fill them.”
As of Jan. 1, Cotter added, the office professional staff had at least 12 open positions available. Cotter is unsure if those positions have been filled or if the university has removed the job postings.
Bumping employees or asking for early retirements are the only ways the UAW can produce substantial savings for the university. Each department has already submitted a plan to reduce base budgets, according to the university-provided timeline.
Cotter said her group looks at the big picture when layoffs are announced. Office professional staff and their salaries make up one of the smallest portions of the university budget. Reducing office costs on paper and other items can help save money.
Both the FA and UAW are locked into their contracts until 2019, so even with cuts, their salaries and benefits packages won’t change unless their contracts are reopened. Groups like AFSCME, which represents custodial and maintenance staff, will bargain on a new contract this year.
The budget cuts have some AFSCME members worried about job security, as custodial work —much like CMU’s dining services — can be privatized.
Whatever cuts come down, Polinsky said faculty and staff are both equally concerned when “staffing, in any campus capacity, are reduced.”
“We need good people in all university positions to have a well-functioning university,” Polinsky said.
While both Polinsky and other union heads anxiously await more information from administrators, Cotter said one thing is for certain: the atmosphere at the joint Union Council meeting on Monday is sure to be “passionate.”
“I know (each union member) is feeling strained,” Cotter said. “Unfortunately, as office professionals, we don’t usually get a lot of say on how that goes down.”