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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU Layoff Notices Mostly Sent to Unionized Civil Service Employees


Just a few weeks remain in the fiscal year and Western Illinois University is preparing to wrap up the books without much financial support from the state.

The university received only about 30% of its regular state appropriations. When that round of funding was announced in April, there was hope more money would soon follow.  But, Illinois lawmakers wrapped up the spring legislative session without passing a state spending plan for this year or next.

Western is trying to cope with that drastic decrease in state aid. The university aimed to trim about $4-million from its budget this fiscal year. Budget Director Matt Bierman said the university has only been able to save about half that amount. Most of it came by cutting personnel, which is Western’s largest expense.

The administration has had to renegotiate some union contracts, impose furlough days, and initiated layoffs. Of the more than 140 people laid off in April, about a quarter of them were faculty and the rest were civil service.  

Of those civil service layoffs, the bulk were negotiated employees, meaning those workers who are represented by a union.

The President of the University Professionals of Illinois chapter at Western, Bill Thompson, represents both faculty in UPI and civil service workers in Pro/Tech.  

He said the union filed Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about the layoffs, and found that about 90% of the people notified in April were negotiated employees. Although, it’s worth noting, the union versus non-union make up of those actually laid off could change due to the bumping procedure.

Western’s Budget Director Matt Bierman said that "no group was targeted” and that this round of layoffs happened to primarily affect civil service works, many of those are negotiated employees.

According to the WIU Factbook, there were 781 civil service employees at Western as of fall 2015.

  • 459 negotiated (59%)
  • 322 non-negotiated (41%)

But, Thompson said the negotiated employee’s majority isn’t large enough to justify the disparity. He found that a person in a negotiated civil service position had about a 1 in 4 chance of being laid off in April, while a person in a non-negotiated position had about a 1 in 40 chance.
“We are not going to accuse the administration of union busting,” Thompson said. “But let’s say a reasonable person might look at those numbers and that could be a conclusion they would draw absent any other explanation because we don’t have an explanation from them.”

Bierman did provide Tri States Public Radio with a reason. He said that the university needed fast cash which is also why mostly civil service was affected by the layoffs.

Bierman said civil service only require 30 days’ notice to be laid off, but comparatively, the notice period for administrators ranges from 1 to 6 months.

“So if I have to provide six months’ notice, I don’t get immediate cash savings for six months,” Bierman said. “We needed cash savings to be realized pretty quickly so it wasn’t going to have the same impact to lay off a bunch of administrators.”

In the pursuit of fast cash, the university imposed furloughs on about 500 non-negotiated employees including civil service and administrators. That resulted in a employees having to take unpaid days off before the end of the fiscal year for a pay reduction between 3% and 8%.

“There’s certainly been shared sacrifice among these employee groups so to suggest that the administration targeted a particular group is just not true. Because, you go ask any administrator or accountant or somebody on campus who is on 10 days furlough for three months and they will tell you they certainly sacrificed in this,” Bierman said.

Bierman said the administration had hoped that all nine of the union groups on campus would agree to furloughs. He said once the UPI representing faculty members, the largest group of employees at Western, decided to not participate in furloughs, it became clear that the university would not meet its goal of saving $4-million dollars this year.

Of the nine union groups on campus only one agreed to furloughs, and that was the union representing police officers. “That’s their right. That’s why it’s a negotiation and we weren’t able to give them anything in return so that’s why they didn’t sign on to furloughs so I get that,” Bierman said.

Thompson said he doesn’t agree with that rationale. “So, when I hear that that there was nothing they could give us… that just strikes me as a failure of imagination. That’s one way to put it,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he helped lead negotiations with the WIU administration on behalf of Pro/Tech members. The two parties were unable to reach an agreement.

“When we were bargaining with them before those layoffs they gave us a really crummy, that’s my word for it, package. Their offer was take it or leave it,” Thompson said.

He said alternatively the administration could have offered non-cash benefits like increasing the number of sick days available or improving parental leave.

Thompson also said the administration’s furlough proposal would have made Pro/tech employees to take unpaid days off even if they earned less than $40,000.

That’s different than the furlough program imposed on non-negotiated employees who were not required to participate if they earned less than $40,000.

Following the layoffs, Thompson said the unions entered into impact bargaining with the university to determine how the labor of the people who got laid off will be done.

Non-negotiated employees cannot do the job of union members. So he said the work either goes undone or can assign to another union worker as long as they do not become overworked.

Thompson said the university did not provide any details regarding how the work will be handled. The union has filed an unfair labor practice.

Western’s Matt Bierman told Tri States Public Radio that his hope is that in most cases the work just goes undone until laid off employees can be rehired.

For example, he said there are now only 63 custodians at the Macomb campus, which is not enough over the long term. But, in the meantime he said everyone will have to sacrifice some and he’s asking members of the WIU community to be flexible and pitch in where they can.

“We need to be unified; if there was ever a time for us to be unified and not pointing fingers at one group or another about why a decision was made. These decisions are hard and unfortunately there are some of us in the position where we have to make those decisions plain and simple and for the unions to suggest that we did this intentionally or that we are targeting to eliminate their work. It’s just simply not true,” Bierman said.

He said everyone’s job description has some flexibility for them to pick up one aspect of this or that. But, he did stress that the administration is not replacing union employees with non-union employees.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.