Tuesday, March 06, 2007


One of the issues under dispute between the CSU and the CFA is so-called "merit pay." It's a nice example of the whole dispute, and of the whole of the difficulties in the CSU-CFA relationship.

It begins with the language we use to describe it. "Merit pay" sounds innocuous at worst. It probably sounds like a way to encourage and reward good work. If you oppose a "merit pay" program, the very words make it sound as if you're against the idea of rewarding good work.

Among the many problems with what CFA prefers to call "discretionary pay" is that "merit" is not satisfactorily defined. What makes a good faculty member? What specific marks or characteristics would describe faculty "merit"? My view is that faculty work can be meritorious in many different ways, and that defining it in any set of terms narrow enough to work contractually would leave out a great deal of the meritorious work faculty do. (Not that the CSU proposal bothers to define "merit." Indeed, one reason CFA is so deeply opposed to it is that CSU won't set out the criteria contractually. It raises probably valid suspicion that what counts as "merit" is what some administrator decides is merit - hence our term, "discretionary pay.")

One of the main objections CFA has with "merit pay" programs proposed by CSU has been that there is no real recourse if a faculty member doesn't receive the additional pay. If you believe you're more meritorious than someone else, but that person gets the pay increase and you don't, perhaps you can appeal to the President of the campus, but that's the person who awarded the raise in the first place. The chances the President will reverse himself or herself and give you the raise approximate zero.

Another problem is that the previous "merit pay" programs have been disasters, both in terms of the impact on faculty salaries and morale, and as programs to administer. The CSU has agreed with CFA that previous discretionary pay programs have been unworkable. Once a faculty member's base salary is changed by adding discretionary pay, that faculty person is no longer on the regular pay scale, and all the calculations painstakingly made to produce predictability in faculty pay across the 23 campus system goes kablooey. There's 23,000 faculty in the CSU, and discretionary pay makes it impossible to keep track of how much they ought to be paid. (And of course, another one of the reasons cited for the unworkability of "merit pay" is that merit isn't defined. As Chico says of Harpo in Duck Soup, "he gets mad because he can't read.")

There's a myth of meritocracy in corporate models of labor and capital, and it makes no sense to believe it. Executives, whether because of their role or because of some genetic proclivity, value compliance and fealty. If given discretion to pay some people more than others, executives who have the opportunity to reward faculty with more pay will use that discretion to reward characteristics they value.

The oddest thing to me about all this is that what's truly meritorious, in the sense of what a person has earned, would seem to be what a person achieves through work. In other words, work is what is meritorious. I think that's a reason labor unions make sense to me: collective bargaining implicitly recognizes that work is what should be paid, and so people doing similar work should get similar pay.


Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

During my brief stint in Corporate America, "merit pay" was what everyone got. Assuming you showed up, did your job, helped others when needed, and didn't call attention to deficits in the performances of others, you would get 3 or 4 pe4rcent more than the average worker. In banking, as I understand it, "merit pay" is what they give you for being smart enough and hard-shelled enough to work for a bank, and it's usually something like 15 to 25% of what you're making annually, or as much money as they can shovel up you ass in a single (20minute) session.

Doc Nagel said...

Wow! If that's not the essence of "merit pay," I don't know what is!