State faculty union girds for possible strike
The union representing professors at the state’s 14 publicly owned universities is preparing to strike next month, said a spokeswoman for the Association of State College and University Faculties.
“We’re starting to prepare for that possibility,” said Lauren Gutshall. “We don’t want to strike. We have no other option but to prepare.”
A walkout by the system’s 6,000 faculty members would mean an end to classes for the 120,000 students who attend universities that include Indiana University of Pennsylvania, California University of Pennsylvania, Slippery Rock, Clarion and Edinboro in Western Pennsylvania.
Negotiations between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the union stalled after both sides agreed to cancel a negotiating session scheduled for Wednesday in Philadelphia.
“We mutually agreed to the cancellation because they had not responded to a counter-proposal we gave them two weeks ago,” she continued. “We are getting a bit concerned that they’re not moving at all.”
Professors could strike when the spring term starts in January. She said the union offered to enter arbitration to reach an agreement but the system rejected the offer.
Kenn Marshall, a system spokesman, said talks will resume Jan. 4.
Students would have to bear any increase from a new contract, said system officials.
“Our overriding concern, as it has been throughout these negotiations, is the cost to our students and their families,” Vice Chancellor Gary Dent said in a statement. “Our students pay approximately 73 percent of the costs necessary to operate our universities through tuition and fees.
“We have made clear the essential elements we need in this agreement, which include cost savings to offset proposed salary increases; redesign of our health care plan to more closely align it with that offered to more than 80,000 state employees … and a plan to begin to address our annuitant health care costs,” Dent continued.
He said the union has “rejected almost every element.”
Union officials said they agreed to cancel the negotiating session because the state system’s negotiators were not willing to make a counter-proposal to the union. The two sides have been negotiating for two years. The union contract with the state expired 18 months ago.
Mike Slavin, chairman of the theater department at California University of Pennsylvania and president of the California chapter of the union, said the system is forcing professors into a strike in the spring. Although the union voted to strike, members agreed to postpone a walkout while negotiations continue.
“They’re not even willing to talk to us anymore,” Slavin said. “I think they think we won’t do it (strike).”
He said when the union announced to students that it would postpone a walkout, the system stopped negotiating in good faith. Slavin said state president Steve Hicks sent an email Wednesday telling the 14 local chapter presidents that the state has no interest in continuing negotiations.
Slavin, who is a member of the union’s negotiating committee, said PASSHE is trying to split the union by offering coaches one package, full-time faculty another, and part-time faculty a third proposal.
“This is effectively separating the union into pieces. They’re going after some of our weakest people,” Slavin continued. “They’re pushing us to the brink. We’re at the point we’re going to walk out.”
The state system reached an agreement earlier this month with its 400 coaches but Slavin said there has been little progress over salary, health care and pension benefits for full and part-time faculty.
“We thought we were making progress. They refuse to move. They said we have to move off our mark.”
Under the provisions of the former contract, professors received a 3 percent increase in 2009 and 4 percent the following year. They also received increases in each pay step, according to the contract. Some full-time professors, who were at or above the maximum pay scale, received a 2.5 percent additional increase in lieu of longevity.
In the final year of the previous contract, professors received salaries ranging from nearly $73,000 on the first step to nearly $108,000 on the 13th step.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or [email protected].