When trust is absent, suspicion rules

I’m a union guy — a card-carrying member of the AAUP. But I’ve never been comfortable with it. Though I come from union roots in the Pennsylvania coal fields, I spent my first career as an advocate for management. So color me conflicted.

I’ve never been on strike, or even close. But it’s a contract year at Kent State, and everyone expects some hard-nosed negotiating, since times are tough and state funding lean. But just as the union was selecting its bargaining team, management offered an olive branch that took us all by surprise.

Last week, the administration asked the AAUP to extend the existing contract for one more year. The offer isn’t a bad one on the surface: a 3% across-the-board raise and no increase in healthcare costs. That in itself is worth considering, but then the bossman sweetened it by adding “domestic partner benefits,” something the union has supported for 20 years or more and something the administration has refused to discuss year after year after year.

Why does this meaningful gesture from management smell so funny to me? The answer is simple.

When two parties lose trust in one another, even reasonable proposals are met with suspicion.

Trust between KSU administration and faculty has been seriously eroding over the past two years. If you follow this blog, you’ll recall a post about the president’s high-priced European tour last summer, and another about the high-priced benefits for a top executive. Our local media have noticed management’s spending habits, too, and said so in a year-end editorial that embarrassed us all.

(Update 4/10/08: Daily Kent Stater columnist Beth Rankin, who so impressed us with her courage a few weeks ago, has her own take on on the issue in today’s DKS. Beth is one fearless journalist — and we need more like her to keep our institutions accountable!)

So here we are, another public relations lesson unfolding before our eyes. And the core issue — surprise, surprise — is trust.

This contract won’t mean a thing when they look back at the 100-year history of this institution — unless, of course, it’s the first contract to be settled after a strike. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

For now, I’d just like to know what the bossman really wants from us. Pardon my skepticism, but he’s earned it. And like the headline says: When trust dissolves, suspicion rules.

4 Responses to When trust is absent, suspicion rules

  1. Rob Jewell says:

    It’s interesting how often when looking at situations involving organizations that we get back to the key ideas of trust, credibility and fairness. You mentioned the KSU president’s European tour and the benefits provided to a senior executive. Both eroded trust and credibility — and just didn’t seem to be quite fair at the time or now. But what would have happened if someone at the executive level in the administration had talked to everyone openly and honestly at the time? Or taken some action to maintain trust and credibility?

    And I’ll admit that I don’t know anything about negotiations between the administration and faculty. Maybe I should, but I don’t. But I did spend many years directly involved in contract negotiations between BFGoodrich and the United Rubber Workers union. Over the years it became clear to me and I expect everyone else that there was just no trust between the two parties. And over time that made it virtually impossible to find resolutions to issues that were in everyone’s best interest. Goodrich wasn’t alone here among the major tire and rubber manufacturers either. I know that the world economy changed during the 1970s and 1980s. But I often wonder what would have happened to the tire and rubber industry in this country if there had been less skepticism and more trust.

  2. […] management needs PR people at the table — especially here! Last week I told you how the absence of trust has me leery of the folks who run my university. So I’ve decided to write about this case a […]

  3. Dan Gandee says:

    As many of said before, labor unions such as the AAUP do a lot for their card-carrying members, and at times have needed the support of its network to conquer or change college education bargaining disputes. But this time, why are we so worried about trust and adding a domestic partner benefits when times are hard and the cost to the consumer is at the highest? Think about this. Yes, we do all want raises for the amount of hard work and contribution we accomplish for our place of employment, union or not, but why are we arguing about trust? We should be coming together: teachers, professors, students, and university management to find out a better system for funding college education and addressing another real issue that needs changed! TENURE. Believe it or not, the only time you hear the word tenure is when it involves a bad professor who thinks he or she is god’s gift to earth. So instead of arguing about raises and gay partner benefits, we should be uniting to address the real issues of public higher education and why America has turned into such a fierce place to argue over monetary agreements. Management will do what’s best for Kent. The UUAP will do what’s best for its professors. Trust shouldn’t be the issue.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    “Management will do what’s best for Kent.”

    Wish I had your faith, Dan. So far, I see management doing what’s best for management. Big salary increases and unprecedented perks wrapped in an arrogant tone. What they’re learning in the process is that my colleagues have a bit of an attitude themselves — as the defeat of the contract extension 63-37% shows. And yes, I voted for the extension, largely because it is the first bit of “good faith” I’ve seen from this administration. I was hoping it was a sign of change.

    But you know, it’s true what they say: You reap what you sow. We teach that in PR 101, too, but sans any Biblical reference. And no one is arguing about “trust,” Dan, since it simply doesn’t exist in the current environment here.

    As for domestic partner benefits, we shouldn’t have to argue OR negotiate over something as basic as civil rights. But it’s part of the price you pay for living in a state whose leadership is more than a little homophobic. That being said, I don’t see the administration at Kent State participating in gay-bashing. They may be arrogant, but they aren’t bigots. I don’t know that they’re above using DPB as a bargaining ploy. It will be an interesting test of their moral consistency, because when the gay community comes bearing gifts, they are quite welcome here at Kent State.

    I suspect Dr. Lefton and his knights are as embarrassed as the AAUP that our institution has disenfranchised a particular group over their sexual orientation. And I suspect that’s why they were so quick to offer DPB as part of the contract extension proposal. To withhold this benefit any longer is unconscionable.

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