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The Point: Fitness for Duty, Season 1

11/16/2020

Greetings, Colleagues.

I am not going to claim that expanded bargaining is as compelling as whatever season of whatever television series you watched this quarantine, but you really have been missing something if you have not tuned in yet!  This past week’s episode brought some real drama, to be sure.  But as with any such series, it will take a little bit of setting up to explain why the “reveal” in this episode was so compelling. 

Yes, there will be spoilers. 

By my rough estimate, a full third of the actual time together “at the table” during this past session was taken up with discussion of a proposal floated by administration that has to do with what they are calling “fitness for duty.”  This item was offered as the “stick” part of a deal that presented a sort of strange “carrot” as well:  the carrot (which was asked for by approximately zero faculty members) would allow administrators to waive the “semesters of return” obligation for faculty members who make a compelling case for retirement immediately after sabbatical.  (The more suspicious among us might wonder if administration might indeed welcome more requests for retirement from relatively high-paid post-sabbatical, tenured faculty members, but we can leave that for another day.)

This episode of Fitness for Duty took quite the turn when it came to administration revealing the stick that the Core Bargaining Team would have to accept if the FSU wanted us to get a bite of that relatively small and unappetizing carrot. 

Here’s the text of the administration’s dystopian proffer, suggested under the rubric of “fitness for duty”: “Upon return to work following sick leave in excess of five consecutive working days, the Administration may require a physical medical examination to determine the bargaining unit member’s fitness to perform his/her duties. If evidence is presented to the Administration that suggests that an active bargaining unit member may be unfit to perform his/her duties due to a medical condition, the University Administration may also require a medical examination to determine his/her fitness to perform his/her duties.” The chilling vagueness of “evidence is presented” is matched only by the malign specificity of the proposed rectification plan.

It is hard to imagine the fantasy landscape the administration is operating on that made this cruel—and potentially illegal—proposal seem like a good idea. In this pandemic moment, when we are just beginning to understand the potential long-term effects of COVID, why would administration push a policy which we might call the “FDA” (Faculty Defenestration Act)? The administration is unable to present a clear case for why such an agreement is necessary. This is, clearly, a solution in search of a problem.

Both the current interim provost and another member of the administration bargaining team (who happens to be one of two finalists remaining for the permanent provost position) suggested, paternalistically, that this new approach would be welcomed as more “humane” than the current clear, transparent, and coherent protocols already in place for addressing concerns about faculty meeting established minimum responsibilities. Both the interim provost and the Dean of the College of Education and Human Development articulated scenarios in which a faculty member would submit to this disciplinary pathologizing of their five-day absence, gratefully shuffling off the stage in a hospital johnny rather than demanding an actual hearing. It was a strange moment indeed, as upper administrators attempted to engage in the technology of power that social theorists have taught us to understand as biopolitics—the dangerous crossroads where human life and hierarchical systems of power meet.  The eugenic vibe was strong.

It seems unlikely that administration will be able to force the issue, especially because my sense (admittedly non-specialist!) is that the policy could soon come into tension with the 1967 Age Discrimination Employment Act and possibly the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as well. But it seems worth noting that in the middle of a global pandemic, the administration at UMass Boston is spending a considerable amount of time at collective bargaining trying to push a new contract provision aimed at expediting the process of getting rid of faculty members suffering physical or cognitive decline. With no due process.  Collective bargaining is aimed at bringing two sides to some kind of consensus even when starting from very different places: it would sure help if we didn’t live in two different worlds

The unpleasantness of that portion of bargaining last Wednesday makes me all the more excited about the FSU Forum coming up this Wednesday.  You may already have heard about this and will hear more soon but I want to remind you that our forum on Building Solidarity Across Faculty Ranks (November 18th from 3:30 to 5,  (contact FSU or Steve Striffler for Zoom information) will no doubt serve as a great reminder—and energizer!—of the mutuality that characterizes our shared mission. 

This is your union: please tell us at fsu@umb.edu how we can continue to build solidarity across our membership and resist attempts by the administration to marginalize vulnerable members of our union.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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