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When faculty members walked off their jobs at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale about two weeks ago, one of the key sticking points was an impasse on how to treat furloughs.

One option the SIUC Faculty Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, offered to the administration was that the university could impose furloughs without the need for justifying them if the university paid back the withheld amount the next year. Their other option was a furlough that the university would have to justify but not repay, including justification by an outside arbitrator if necessary. The union said such a step was necessary for transparency and accountability.

The strike was called off Wednesday after both sides announced that significant progress had been made after marathon discussion sessions all week. While the union hasn't won its original demand, it has been assured of no furloughs in fiscal year 2012. In prior years, furloughs haven't been central to many contract negotiations, but faculty members at the university had to take four furlough days this year.

“Our main goal is to set up a process so we can see what kind of justified financial situation demands furloughs or layoffs,” said Dave Johnson, a union spokesman. “For us, it is really a matter of our collective bargaining rights. Last time, we had no reduction of our workload" when the furlough was imposed. As was the case for many faculty members elsewhere who had furloughs, classes couldn't be called off -- so the furloughs were effectively a 2 percent salary cut.

As recessionary times continue, such discussions and wrangling over furloughs might become the norm, some experts say. Even the term “furlough” might be up for discussion. “Furloughs and discussions about them were not so common before,” said Richard Boris, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York. “And as things get more acute, they are making a reappearance."

Before the current recession, agreements about furloughs would sometimes be dealt with through "side letters," that would be negotiated when such a step was proposed. That's in part because no one really wants furloughs, Boris said. “It is an admission of defeat, that is what it is. A furlough means that both management and labor are not able to rely on an institutional source of income,” he added.

Universities that have pushed furlough plans have generally said that they are less harmful than layoffs -- to employees and students both.

Craig Smith, deputy director of higher education at the American Federation of Teachers, said furlough language has been important to some local chapters for a long time. These work losses are important, he said, not only for the loss of money but for the educational impact on students. “And that is why we need to have a rational and transparent way to approach these furloughs,” Smith said.

What is that way? The answer isn't clear.

Michael McDermott, the Illinois Education Association UniServ director, said college administrators need to understand that the mechanisms of existing furloughs mean that faculty members are essentially being asked to work for free. And that is why faculty members are asking for clearer definitions of furlough rules. “It is not that they are free of any responsibility,” McDermott said. “If they could show what the financial exigency is, that would help,” he said.

Shaun Johnson, an assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University, who has gone through two furloughs at his university, said part of the problem is that it isn’t exactly clear “when we should be taking off."

“Should we not check our e-mail? Should we not grade?” Johnson asked. “There are restrictions on what could be furloughed – for example, we could not cancel classes. It would make more sense if something were taken off our plate.”

In reality, he said, a furlough is a pay cut even though administrators might not call it that.

At the California State University this year, furloughs have not figured in contract talks between administration and the California Faculty Association.

The reason, according to Andy Merrifield, chair of the bargaining unit at CFA, is that the union found no convincing evidence that a furlough two years ago achieved what it was supposed to do. In the 2009-2010 academic year, CSU campuses were subject to nearly three weeks of furloughs and that decision was negotiated through a “side agreement."

Merrifield said the faculty association, which represents 23,000 faculty members on 23 campuses, is hesitant to discuss furloughs. “We would demand a great deal of information even before we entertained the idea,” Merrifield said.

Erik Fallis, a spokesman for Cal State, said the 2009 furloughs filled an immediate need because of budget cuts by the state.

“Since then, we have looked at longer-term solutions,” Fallis said, including higher tuition rates for students. Students, of course, don't negotiate contracts with their administrations.


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