University president says if faculty members don't like the deal, 'they can always quit'
Wayne State University officials say the state's right-to-work law helped the university get a better deal from its faculty union. However, university officials don't specify what they actually got in return.
Last month, WSU reached an agreement with the union on an unprecedented eight-year contract. The deal was struck as the clock was ticking toward the state's right-to-work law going into effect. At stake for the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers was the ability to keep collecting dues and fees from all members through 2021. The state's right-to-work law goes into effect March 28 and gives union members the right to opt out of paying dues or fees as a condition of employment.
In testimony Tuesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, WSU President Allan Gilmour acknowledged the role that right-to-work played in the negotiations.
"We have right-to-work to thank for this," Gilmour said. "It added a sense of urgency that wasn't always present over the past nine months to get an agreement. Yes, it was over eight years. This has been a point of contention, but in my business career longer contracts provide stability for planning, budgets and personnel."
At stake now for WSU are additional state dollars from a $100 million performance fund. Lawmakers will be awarding money from the fund based on how well each university is keeping its costs under control.
Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, chair of the subcommittee, has tied labor contracts that circumvent the state's right-to-work law to these cost controls. He has said his position is that universities should be considered ineligible for the performance funds if they renegotiate existing contracts with the result being that unions extend the period of time they can forcibly collect dues and fees.
Wayne State, however, was in a different situation. It had been negotiating a contract since July, long before right-to-work was passed. So Rep. Pscholka has taken a slightly different approach. He said the university should only be eligible for the funds if it can show that the contract saved taxpayers at least 10 percent in costs.
So far, however, Wayne State hasn't done that.
At Tuesday's hearing when Rep. Pscholka asked Gilmour how much money taxpayers saved as a result of the contract, there was no clear response. Gilmour mentioned several individual items, such as increased co-pays and some merit pay. However, he gave no overall savings amount.
At one point Gilmour asked rhetorically: "What is more harmful to students, an eight-year contract or a $7 million cut?"
Gilmour's general characterization of the contract was: "In short, we got a lot."
He also said in an interview after the hearing (see video below), that if faculty members don't like the deal, "they can always quit."
Rep. Pscholka said he wasn't impressed.
"It was so vague," Rep. Pscholka said. "He mentioned some cost savings on co-pays and something about $10 million. I couldn't even tell if he was talking about over the entire life of the contract or what. Look, we're talking about a contract that includes a 20 percent wage hike. I don't know how they're going to get savings out of that."
The Wayne State faculty union made no secret of the fact that it was rushing to get a contract agreement before right-to-work went into effect.
Rep. Pscholka also asked Gilmour about the eight-year length of the contract.
"I know of no one, other that Prince Fielder and Henrik Zetterberg, who gets an eight-year contract," he said. "Is this the longest (WSU contract) ever?"
Gilmour said he thought it was, but added the contract that just expired ended up lasting 10 years.
The first person to testify at Tuesday's hearing was Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, chair of the House Oversight, Ethics and Reform Committee. Rep. McMillin has been trying to get Wayne State officials to testify before his committee.
With university officials providing testimony at the Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. McMillin thought Tuesday would be a good opportunity for them to provide testify before his committee as well. Instead, once again the university chose not to do so, saying that it would wait until after the contract receives its final ratification on March 20.
"Initially they said they wanted to wait until after the professors ratified it (on March 6)," Rep. McMillin said. "So we waited. Now they say they want to wait again. It's an old legislative tactic, when you don't want to do something you just delay.
"They're saying wait until later, but they have their hands out right now for state appropriations," Rep. McMillin continued. "If this is such a good contract, the best way they could prove it would be to testify. I think they're just being evasive."