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CARBONDALE — SIU Carbondale will pay at least $1.7 million to nearly 1,500 employees who were forced to take unpaid furlough days in 2011.

The move comes on the heels of a legal decision issued Dec. 18 by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which upheld a previous decision that the university bargained in bad faith with three employee unions in regards to the furlough and must repay the lost wages.

On Wednesday, SIU administrators met with the Board of Trustees’ executive committee, and board chairman Randal Thomas said the committee counseled President Randy Dunn not to appeal the labor board’s decision. The university had until Thursday to file an appeal.

“A lengthy appeal could lead to significant additional costs,” Dunn said in a news release Thursday afternoon. “There are obviously multiple sides and perspectives to any issue, but it makes sense for us to close the page on this difficult period and look forward to the future in partnership with all our faculty and staff.”

Dunn said “it’s too early to say” when employees can expect to receive their reimbursement. They still have to track down all the former employees impacted by the ruling.

The money will come from contingency funds and savings from employee attrition, Dunn said.

Three employee unions — the SIUC Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association, the Association of Civil Service Employees and the SIUC Faculty Association — filed the original complaint against the university. All are associated with the Illinois Education Association.

Jim Wall, president of the non-tenure track union, said he’s excited to close this chapter in the union’s history.

“It’s like a ton of bricks has been lifted,” he said. “Everybody seems to be putting that era behind and moving on. It’s good.” 

Contentious talks

In 2011, facing a sluggish economy, SIU administrators mandated that employees take furlough days in order to offset deep budget cuts.

The move came during a round of contract negotiations that left some faculty and staff without a contract for more than a year.

At stake in the talks were the furloughs, tenure and the terms of a conflict-of-interest policy.

The 2011 contract negotiations resulted in a flurry of demonstrations and a strike on SIU’s campus.

For six days in November 2011, dozens of members of the Faculty Association went on strike after about 18 months of failed collective bargaining with university officials.

At the time, SIU administrators said they had made numerous concessions and bargained in good faith in order to reach an accord, but the labor board’s December ruling found SIUC “went through the motions of bargaining without an open mind or a sincere desire to reach an agreement,” in violation of Illinois law.

“Instead, it wanted to get to a point where it could declare ‘impasse’ as quickly as possible, so that it could impose the terms that it wanted,” the decision read.

During a meeting with reporters Thursday, Dunn, who became president in February 2014, stopped short of saying whether or not he agreed that former administrators bargained in bad faith, but he said “additional years of experience” informed the decision not to appeal.

“The people involved with that made the decision that they thought was right for the circumstances that they were in,” he said. “We’re now a number of years down the road. The players have changed, circumstances have changed.” 

A $3 million payout?

At its upcoming meeting in March, the Board of Trustees will discuss whether or not to reimburse nonunionized employees for those furlough days as well.

The court decision only mandates reimbursing members of the three unions that filed suit.

Board chairman Thomas said members of the executive committee counseled Wednesday that SIU should make all employees whole.

If the full board heeds that recommendation, that could mean an additional $1 million to $1.3 million in reimbursements for roughly 2,000 SIUC employees, Dunn said.

Combined with the $1.7 million owed to unionized staffers, that could mean a $3 million pay-out.

Dunn said that could make things challenging for the new round of employee-contract talks that began in the fall.

“In giving up some significant amount of that (contingency) pool, we’re going to have to be even more creative in looking at ways to deal with potential salary demands,” he said. But that doesn’t mean we can just throw up the gauntlet and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do.’”

Faculty Association President Rachel Stocking said, so far, talks have been going well.

“It’s cordial and so far constructive,” she said. “Last time around, with bargaining, it took a very long time, but that was partially because of the attitude of the administration. There was this real hostility.”

Stocking, a history professor at SIU, said she hopes the two parties reach an accord more quickly this time.

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Sarah Graham is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering higher education and Union County.

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