An Open Letter to Members from the WMU-AAUP President and Vice President

As Western Michigan University professors put the final touches on their Fall classes and prepare to teach students in classroom conditions that are uncertain and ill-defined, WMU’s leaders continue to play solo against the will of faculty and students, deviating from pandemic safety procedures adopted by over 800 universities and colleges nationwide, and failing to follow recommendations made by the U.S. Chief Medical Advisor. WMU’s poorly planned and half-hearted health protocols unnecessarily put students, staff, faculty and the entire Kalamazoo community at much greater risk of serious illness and death.

In the midst of such unprecedented fear, danger, and chaos, WMU continues to make salary proposals at the negotiation table that can only be described as insulting. These financial offers are not just low, but seem designed to send a message to WMU faculty about how little the University values our work and the entire academic mission. Such disrespect would be bad enough in normal times, but, after a year of sacrifices by faculty and staff — financial and otherwise — and an astonishing, relatively unrestricted $550 million dollar donation, such a lowball salary offer seems primarily to be an expression of disdain and managerial might.

In some ways, the story of 2021 negotiations is a familiar one: The WMU-AAUP selected a diligent, highly capable team that has presented proposals on behalf of the faculty that have been realistic and empirically-based. Specifically, each of our proposals, including those related to compensation, have been heavily researched, and presented against an exhaustive backdrop of relevant facts and metrics. In short, our approach has been data-driven, aimed at providing a path forward that would be reasonable, in objective terms, for both parties. This year, however, WMU changed tactics, hiring Dykema, a powerful national law firm with a reputation for union-busting, to sit across from us at the table.

Shamefully for WMU, this same law firm, to which Western has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, has close ties to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing pressure group (co-founded by attorney Richard D. McLellan, from Dykema) which was involved in setting the stage for extremism in Michigan during the anti COVID-19 lockdown protests in April 2020. According to reports, the Mackinac Center tacitly condoned and overtly encouraged extremist far right sentiments which culminated in the attempt to kidnap Governor Whitmer. The Mackinac Center is also associated with the Flint Water Crisis, opposition to environmental protection, climate change denial, the privatization of prisons, and campaigns to obliterate unions. In addition, WMU Trustee Shelley Edgerton is listed as Dykema “Senior Counsel” on the WMU Board of Trustees website.

Motivated by ideology, Western Michigan University seems to have chosen this moment in history to use public funds and students’ tuition dollars to bring its own employees to their knees. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that our AFSCME colleagues and part-time instructors (PIO) too have been enduring negotiation tactics by WMU that seem aimed to demoralize, rather than to arrive at a fair deal. In addition, WMU seems committed to an expensive and ill-conceived top-down rebranding project, against the advice of WMU’s own faculty experts, and even as enrollments continue to fall. Instead of taking responsibility for its own marketing failures, WMU leadership is attempting, once again, to make faculty and staff pay the price.

Though the WMU-AAUP has had a number of important successes during this grueling summer of negotiations — all diligently reported to our members — the real story now is WMU’s continued commitment to salary proposals about which it should be embarrassed. The fact is that, at the moment, WMU administration seems less interested in arriving at an agreement that is fair, respectful and good for teaching and learning than in being able to declare victory over its employees. To be sure, this impression is strengthened by the fact that WMU continues to compensate its elite administrators (and private attorneys) like corporate CEOs. It does so even as it insists it cannot afford to fairly pay its other employees, including, apparently, those whom it expects to actually teach in, or clean, classrooms full of students who may or may not be vaccinated.

When this year’s contract negotiations come to an end, as always, both parties will leave with only some of what they wanted. It is simply the way of negotiations that compromises must be made that leave no one entirely happy with every specific outcome. However, with the administration apparently committed less to making fair compromises than to “winning,” the damage done both to livelihoods and morale will be devastating and long lasting. To be clear, we are running out of ways to try to explain to WMU administrators that, so long as they treat WMU faculty and other workers as opponents to be subjugated rather than as respected colleagues, our university cannot thrive. A campus community managed by elite administrators determined to nickel-and-dime the rest of us is both unethical and unsustainable. Western works because we do.

In solidarity,
Cathryn Bailey and Natalio Ohanna
President and Vice President of the WMU-AAUP

Members are invited to attend this Wednesday’s Solidarity Happy Hour (5-7 at Montague House) where we’ll answer questions and discuss options for moving forward. In addition, this Friday at 10 a.m. there will be an all-member Chapter Zoom meeting where we’ll formally consider member motions for decisive action in response to the serious concerns described above.

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