15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut #8
"Against Voluntary Servitude"

Monday, February 22, 2010

posted under , , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The next in our "15 Ways" series on the condition of higher education offers a reflection on the choice between furloughs and voluntary pay reductions.]

Written by Joseph Valente (English)

On January 20, our Interim Chancellor, Robert Easter, sent us all a message: “we are pleased to be able to offer... to our faculty and academic professionals... a voluntary and temporary salary reduction in lieu of a furlough if they so wish.”

That’s right, they were “pleased to offer” us hell or high water as a consumer choice. Those who acted quickly, signing up by February 8, were offered the “choice” to bypass the mess, hassle and indignity of being furloughed by simply submitting to the no-fuss option of voluntary servitude! Who could refuse a deal like that? And aren’t we all grateful for an administration benevolent enough to permit us such license?

Seriously, given the overeducated, hyper-credentialed audience he was addressing, you might think Bob Easter would be especially careful about adding gross insult to our collective intelligence to the unwarranted injury done our pocketbook. But perhaps that collective intelligence itself is overrated. According to Interim Vice-Provost Richard Wheeler's remarks in the Champaign News Gazette (1/21/10), people were approaching him with the entreaty, “We’re willing to give up the pay [as if they had a choice] because that’s necessary, but please don’t make us stop working.”

Now setting aside the nauseatingly craven identification it expresses with a currently abusive institution, this sentiment is just plain wrong on a number of different levels.

And so even though the Illinois readers of this blog will have already made their choice between hell and high water, I will trouble these readers to hear me out on why furloughs—much though I hate them—are a superior option to “voluntary” pay cuts.

1. The first problem with the sentiment described in the News Gazette is that it assumes the necessity of the pay cuts in the present financial crisis. But the amount saved by docking our pay amounts to less than 4 percent of the money the state legislature is illegally withholding from the university budget. Accordingly, the furloughs are unavailing in themselves and the savings they produce could be greatly exceeded by a combination of other measures, including a moratorium on all building projects and a corresponding abrogation of current contracts for developers, a moratorium on social and professional receptions, meals and other entertainments, a slashing of the athletic budget, especially for the many sports that do not pay for themselves, a temporary increase of student fees and tuition, a significant hike in parking fees and a restriction of all administrative supplements to the period of actual administrative service. If the state truly lacks the wherewithal to meet its legal obligations, it might consider lifting sales taxes, income taxes, user fees for highways, state parks, etc. In sum, the furloughs are not necessary, they are elective, a target of state and administrative opportunity made all the juicier by the soft-headed attitude of those employees eager, by Wheeler’s account, to work for nothing.

2. The sentiment assumes that voluntary servitude is a boon to the university (Easter claimed it indicated great devotion). But as Faculty Senate Executive Committee Chair Joyce Tolliver has observed (Champaign News-Gazette, 1/21/10), the damage to our educational mission wrought by all such draconian reductions to the budget are real, inescapable and long-lasting. All a voluntary pay cut accomplishes is to conceal the damage, so far as possible, from the eyes of the legislators who have inflicted the damage by withholding the monies owed the university on an ongoing basis. Such concealment can only make it all the more likely that they will continue to inflict the damage, by the same means, and in ever greater magnitude.

Moreover acceding to the notion of the “voluntary” pay cut also helps to dissimulate the entirely coercive nature of the injury done to the employees themselves. You get “cut” either way. Instead of making visible the malfeasance of the state government and the profound gutlessness of the university administration in confronting it, submission to voluntary servitude makes clear just how little professional self-respect the gratefully self-indentured possess. If one holds oneself and one’s office in so little esteem as to suffer willingly the outright theft of one’s proper remuneration by one’s employer, why in the world should one’s students appraise rightly or take seriously the worth of our joint enterprise? Certain Unit Heads have exhorted the faculty to “maintain the integrity of the classroom” by not cancelling sessions, but should you embrace being treated like an amateur, or worse a chump, as these officers recommend, you will only succeed in showing your classroom that you hold your own professional integrity very cheap indeed.

3. The sentiment assumes the pay cuts and furloughs are temporary, a one-off in the continuing devaluation of higher education in the state of Illinois. In papering over the effects of the legislators’ intellectual vandalism, those submitting to peonage only encourage the administration to institute more furloughs in future, “pleased,” as they will undoubtedly be, “to offer a voluntary and temporary pay cut” as an alternative. Those voluntary martyrs to state mismanagement are, in other words, encouraging Springfield to subject their colleagues, all of us, to further salary reductions, further hardship, next year, at which point the same acquiescence in the “voluntary pay cut” option will help to ease the crafting of a permanent furlough policy (I note that the University of Maryland is facing the possibility of a third year of furloughs). With this in mind, the sentiment recently expressed by Professor Burbules that University employees have the right to decide for themselves on either option (News Gazette 1/21/10), without being harassed, is entirely wrongheaded. While faculty have the legal right to choose either course, obviously, I have the moral right, and I am right, to denounce their choice thusly: in making it easier for the powers that be to continue the practice of pilfering our pay and corroding our work conditions, anyone who elects the voluntary pay cut is acting as the moral equivalent of a scab.

4. The sentiment assumes the virtue of being a “good citizen” is somehow divorced from the nature of the state being served. If you regularly profess the necessity of opposing unjust power and practice, why would you erase the lesson by complying with and endorsing, in full view of your students, this patent injustice. If you teach students to speak truth to power, why would you obviate that lesson by cooperating in the lies of the furlough system? Avoid the performative contradiction of rationalizing by your “voluntary” appearance in the classroom the sort of mendacity you speak of resisting in the classroom.

For all the reasons I have given, the way to take your furlough in the best interest of the university, the students who would emulate you, political principle, your families, and your own professional dignity is to foreground the damage and disruption furloughs can cause in the hope of preventing their future occurrence.

So don’t just take your furlough days. Take them on the days you teach. Mark your syllabi “Class Furloughed,” not just to give fair notice for the cancellation, but to underline the reason. Let your students, their parents, and the taxpayers at large know this: the Chancellor may be “pleased” to sell us a bill of goods—a variety of means for surrendering our salaries and our professional dignity, but we are not “buying it,” and they should not be either.

And if you've already opted for the pay reduction, it's not too late for you to "volunteer" to teach your students the meaning of substantive choice--by letting them know why you are "volunteering" to cancel your classes four times this semester.


Make A Comment


Unit for Criticism said...

Joe, you are as ever a razor-sharp critic and if you lived in the 18th century you would need some sort of nom de plume like Le Stiletto. As you know I feel a little differently than you since I can imagine many of our colleagues judging in good faith that since furloughs and "voluntary" pay reductions are both forms of involuntary servitude--to take your phrase--that the latter option at least has the advantage of 1) naming a pay reduction as pay reduction and 2) enabling one to work as one must without worry of needing to fill out some form down the line that erases the labor one did on one's furlough day. One thing I consistently feel is that there is absolutely no downside to one's joining the Campus Faculty Association (as I hope you will do). As a faculty, we need to be able to speak up as a body so that shared governance of the university is more than just rhetoric. For what it's worth, I agree with you that the furlough/pay cuts were an elective decision. Indeed, they were an option chosen by our administration (and not imposed by the governor and state legislature as was the case in California, Maryland and elsewhere). There may perhaps be good reasons why the relatively small sum ($17 million) raised through the furlough program was a justifiable short-term policy; if so, I'm content to do my share since the bigger budget cuts (including likely impact on instructional and graduate student budgets) are what concerns me most as a member of this faculty. What's clear though--and where I join you--is that without a fully visible and transparent budget we can't share in recognizing the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of that choice or any other. With shared governance we would actually help to make decisions; as it stands we are asked to accept the impact of decisions that have been made without our being consulted and given access to the full financial picture. I hope that this becomes a constructive moment for this university at a critical time and I believe that it can. The more faculty are deprived of meaningful roles in the process of governance, the more they are likely to feel like fleeced sheep. (LG)

Rob Rushing said...

I toyed with the "voluntary pay reduction," since I'd prefer to call a pay reduction a "pay reduction" and not a "furlough" (which until recently usually meant either a paid vacation in the military or a temporary release from prison). Alas, I was too lazy to fill out the paperwork and it appeared there might be some downsides to it. Also, it lied by calling the reduction "voluntary," which was, of course, the heart of the problem. My dad was an airline pilot in both the boom and the bust days of that industry—they took pay cuts to keep the company afloat, but they were voluntary. Management had to up front with the financial situation and had to ask the employee's permission. Why such a difference? They were unionized and had collective bargaining.

However, I fail to see how "accepting" a furlough and "accepting" a "voluntary" pay cut are morally much different, let alone equivalent to acting as a scab: both "offers" from the administration are predicated on bad faith and obfuscating language, and both are entirely out of our control. Many—I suspect most—faculty are taking their furloughs in ways that do not aim to cause problems for the university, but most have thought the issue through. Some, no doubt, think they are being "good citizens," but others have different motivations. I agree with Joe that the most politically effective thing to do as an act of resistance would be to take four furlough days on the most destructive, disruptive and high profile teaching days possible. Unfortunately, I am teaching my favorite class this semester, and I'll be damned if I'm going to lose four days of personal enjoyment to make a point that—let's be honest—will be ignored by all and sundry, including my undergraduates (although if you really want to make some heat, explain that they will still be responsible for the missed material on the final exam). I strongly suspect that a majority of the faculty in a union, however, would be much more effective at preventing further furloughs.

Ezra said...

I salute Prof. Valente's resistance to the bogus "choice" the administration has forced upon the faculty. I especially admire his canceling class with a “class furloughed” on his syllabus as one more way to register his unwillingness to play ball. Students do pay attention to things like that--at least, politically aware students do--and they remember.

I say the latter in reply to Prof. Rushing's concern that people would ignore such a gesture of principled refusal. Undoubtedly, many undergraduates would ignore it (or, more likely, shout "Whoo-hoo!" and stampede to Kam's). But others--the ones who joined their TAs on the picket lines during the GEO strike, in the drizzliest of Novembers--those students would not ignore it. Graduate employees would not ignore it. And most importantly, other faculty would not ignore it. I imagine that many faculty would instead admire such a gesture, and consider the costs of offering such resistance themselves.

Because it does cost. Rushing makes a fair point that canceling a class one loves to teach makes the furlough an even more bitter pill to swallow. "Not only do I have to take a pay cut," thinks an instructor, "but I don't even get to do my lecture on X! They always love my lecture on X!" I sympathize with Rushing and anyone else in this position, because last fall, I, like every other member of the GEO, had to commit to canceling my classes. And not for just one day, but indefinitely.

I hated the thought of abandoning my students, and I dreaded how long the strike could drag on. But when managers decide they want to cut your pay and gut your benefits, they'll use your own sense of professional commitment against you, and they'll do it without flinching. Withholding labor is the _ultima ratio_ of workers against this kind of marauding. I applaud Valente's commitment to becoming, effectively, a one-person strike.

I love teaching my own classes, even though UIUC labels me a "teaching assistant." That label is part of my apprenticeship in a trade I hope to ply for the rest of my life. But in one important respect, the masters in this trade have it worse than their apprentices: the masters don't have a union.

How about it, masters?

Unit for Criticism said...

Wow, Ezra I really appreciate your post and hope that others come forward to answer it. For myself I think the important thing that you, Rob, Joe, and I share is a sense of how important it is to make the impact of budget cutting devices (including furloughs) visible. This semester I don't have the option of canceling a class but I can't help but think back to last fall when, during the GEO strike, the same students whom I joined on the picket line asked me _not_ to cancel my grad seminar(though we met in my living room to avoid crossing a picket line). Likewise I was advised _not_ to cancel a Unit event at the Levis Center on the grounds that the Unit's commitment to critical theory and its contexts aligned with the broader goals of the strike. We agreed instead that brief remarks by a GEO member would be a better way of making the strike fully visible to those gathered for the event in question. This by way of saying that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I completely respect those professors who decide to cancel their classes with a loud furlough message like that Joe persuasively urges. But I also respect everyone--class-canceling or not--including students and fellow union members on campus, who takes part in the common furlough/action days. Effective though individual acts like class cancellation might be there is no substitute, to my mind, for taking part in these highly visible enactments of solidarity (LG).

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Joe Valente for such clarity. I would underline that cancelling class does not necessarily have to be (and, indeed, shouldn't be) thought of as an "individual act." One of the best ways to make the value of our labor visible is to observe our furlough days *collectively* on: March 4, April 6, April 21. If those dates fall on a classroom teaching day for you, by all means cancel your class! Announce it ahead of time, mark it in your syllabus, explain why you're doing it, and invite your students to join in the events planned by CFA, GEO, UGA, the Campus Labor Coalition, and other groups on campus on those days.

If the collective furlough day doesn't fall on a classroom teaching day for you, make your labor visible in other ways: post an "On Furlough Today" sign on your office door, cancel office hours, put an automatic "on furlough" message on your e-mail. If we don't make the value of our labor visible (by withdrawing it when we are not paid), why should anyone else recognize and value it?

Many of my undergraduate and graduate students are just as angry as faculty and staff are -- and, in fact, many are taking the lead on this campus in ways that we all have much to learn from. I've found that students are much less likely to romanticize what happens in the classroom than faculty are, and, as a result, they can usually see the political and ethical reasons for collective action. I cancelled my classes in solidarity during the GEO strike and it woke my undergraduates up that they had a stake in the outcome. Taking collective furloughs can have the same effect. What other leverage do we have?

Lauren said...

Anonymous, your comments are very cool! I hope I know you and feel that I do: in spirit if not in flesh. I think we probably already understand one another but I want to be certain. To be clear, I'm not arguing against canceling classes or suggesting that canceling classes can't or shouldn't be part of a collective furlough/action day. And I entirely agree that taking collective furloughs is crucial. I only want to make clear that class-canceling needn't be the bar for collective action (just as class-canceling in the absence of joining the CFA and participating in the collective furlough day individualizes what should be a collective act--in my view). Fortunately our leverage includes the simple act of joining an existing faculty union. If more than half of us do that we will have collective bargaining. You're right that faculty romanticize the classroom more than students do. But it's also quite possible that some activists romanticize the efficacy of canceling classes. In the current situation our goals as a faculty seem to me to be 1) to render visible the impact of budget cutting (including furloughs) and 2) to grow a faculty union and 3) to do both of the latter in solidarity with students and other non-faculty campus workers. I think that the CFA's 2/15 teach-in was a great first step towards achieving that end. Some may have canceled classes in order to attend and take part and if so I salute them. But I also salute the people who took part who didn't cancel a class, or who attended while having signed up for a voluntary pay reduction. After all, we are building a union movement; not conducting a strike. Naturally if the Illinois faculty ever went on strike--and my hope is that the growing of a fully-fledged faculty union would obviate the need for strike as it has done recently at University of Florida--the matter of canceling classes will be much more central. None of this is to diminish the force of Joe's post which is a very welcome contribution to the Unit's "15 Ways" series (LG).