Merit Pay as Wage Theft

One of the ways in which I see the coming of merit pay and the process we are engaging in differently than my colleagues is this:

I see merit pay through the lens of wage theft. We are basically being told from the administration and board that, soon, future earnings will be stolen from our non-tenure track colleagues and that this money will soon be up for grabs. To distract us from the scheme, the administration has asked us to come up with our own metrics for how we will redistribute these stolen wages amongst ourselves. This slight of hand works, in part, because we have already fallen into the trap of falling in line to make sure that only tenure track faculty are at the bargaining table. Not surprisingly, in a department of 16 full time employees, the bargaining table includes 9 men and 1 woman, and excludes 4 women and 2 men. 

And not surprisingly, the adminstarion has given us an excuse for why to not include them–they (probably) won’t be eligible for merit pay. Of course, you don’t invite the people you are stealing money from. Of course you don’t make it possible for the people you are stealing from to earn it back. Staff in our department I think make about half the salary as tenure track and about a third the amount of our chair. Instructors are not eligible for promotions. I’d rather not pretend that our merit raises dont come at suppressed earnings for our colleagues. 

I’m of mind to at least consider refusing to play the game as the boards wants us to play it. But it’s tempting for our group to “go along” with these changes as “inevitable”, and to see political dissidence on the matter as “unrealistic”, or as “causing trouble” … it’s also tempting for the group to position views like mine as “causing dischord”. Many don’t like idea of Merit pay and reasonably worry that merit pay will contribute to an unhealthy workplace, and with that worry fresh in mind, it’s tempting to let my controversial position slip into that bucket. “Oh can’t we all just accept this and move along… It would much easier if you could be a team player… your tactics would just make it worse for everyone” and of course, no one is explicitly saying those things, but that’s the power dynamic. It’s just easier to start debating the finer points of merit pay rubrics than it is to face the possibility of our complicity in wage theft. No one wants to hear that. 

Plus, the only reason I can even think of writing this in a public place is because I am tenured. That gives me some power to take politically risky positions, but still my power is pretty limited. 

Edit: here is some my current thinking about how to resist while playing the game.

– write rules for merit based pay, but do so in a way that blunts or prevents them from being implemented unless certain conditions are first met. Those conditions could include clauses like (1) all staff and faculty in department must have had cost of living of raises over the past few years at or above inflation, (2) the median salaries for department employees must be nationally competitive for similar institutions, (3) … clauses could address gender pay gaps, staff pay, adjunct pay, whatever. The idea this that merit pay would be distributed to address such short comings before they could be distributed according to merit.  Everyone in the department should be at the table to help us decide. 

2 thoughts on “Merit Pay as Wage Theft

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  1. Love your critical approach to this whole thing, and especially love your ideas for resistance. I am outside such negotiations and am learning a lot by listening to you.

    1. Wow, yeah, your arguments are pretty compelling. Use your safety as a tenured professor to speak them loudly. What do you have to lose?

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