Day 1 of Pa. faculty strike in the books; no talks scheduled

Faculty at Pennsylvania's 14 state-supported universities walked off the job Wednesday for the first time in the system's 34-year history, shutting down education for 105,000 students and leaving in sight no prospect on when the strike might end.

Talks between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the union broke off Tuesday night over salaries and health care costs, and as of late Wednesday afternoon, no bargaining sessions were scheduled.

"We want to talk," said Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. "That we would have students out of their classes and we would not be meeting to stop it, it makes no sense."

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the system, said it wants to return to bargaining "as soon as possible," but said he was unsure when that would happen.

That made it a virtual certainty that Day One of the strike would be followed by Day Two.

No law governs how long faculty can strike, and the system has not said how much time universities could afford to lose before the semester would have to be canceled.

Hundreds of faculty members took to picket lines at campuses across the commonwealth before dawn Wednesday, toting signs and demanding a fair contract.

Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University, estimated that nearly all faculty honored the picket lines and did not report for classes. Marshall acknowledged that "a pretty high percentage" of faculty was on strike.

At West Chester University, the largest in the system with about 17,000 students, many students walked out along with their professors, circling campus in groups with megaphones, calling for the system to give their teachers a fair deal.

"I strongly support the faculty," said senior Sabina Sister, 21, of Israel, who had "in solidarity" written on her cheek. "I strongly believe that they deserve a fair contract."

Faculty, who manned 10 picket sites on the campus, said that the reality of a strike was hard to face, but that they thought they had no choice.

"Most of us are horrified that it's come to this and extremely disappointed that the people who are involved in the decision-making process in the negotiations don't have more respect for what we do as professionals," said Vincent Craig, an associate professor of piano, who walked a picket line outside Philips Hall, where a band showed up to set the strike to music.

Campuses affected besides West Chester and East Stroudsburg are Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock.

More than 25,000 students — nearly a quarter of the system's enrollment — are from Philadelphia and Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

Marshall said faculty were failing to realize the reality of rising health care costs. The system offered raises along with a demand for health care concessions.

Under the system's proposal, faculty raises would range from about 7.25 percent to 17.25 percent over a four-year contract that would cover 2015-16 retroactively and run through June 2019. Faculty also would receive an additional cash payment of $1,000 in January 2017 as part of the new agreement, Marshall said.

The health care proposal would increase faculty's share of the insurance premium by about $7 to $14 every two weeks, going from 15 percent of the premium to 18 percent, Marshall said. Faculty also would face new deductibles, co-payment requirements for some medical services, and higher prescription co-payments.

Mash said the health care increases would offset the raises.

The starting salary for a full-time instructor is $46,609, with the top of scale $112,238 for an experienced full professor.

Gov. Wolf, a member of the system's board of governors, said he was "extremely disappointed" in the strike and warned of detrimental effects on the system for years to come. The system has lost 12 percent of its enrollment since 2010 and faces a $10 million deficit.

"The strike which has been called will harm students whom both sides claim to care about," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana). "Students and families have made incredible investments, yet have classes without professors."

Some organizations blamed the unrest on an inadequate state funding system, which has reduced the system's allotment to 1999 levels even with the more than $30 million increase in funding provided by Wolf over the last two years.

"The long-term prospects for higher education in our state won't be secure unless political leaders reverse the decline in funding for higher education and our future," said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group.

The system vowed to keep the campuses open, including residence halls and dining facilities, but said it would not hire replacement teachers. Sports and extracurricular activities will continue to the extent possible, officials said.

The system has advised students to attend classes in case their professors shows up.

West Chester's homecoming celebration and football game will go on as planned, said Nancy Gainer, a university spokeswoman. The university is playing Cheyney, a historically black university.

Gainer said the university had contracted with trainers to staff the game; those positions normally are filled by members of the faculty union. Coaches are part of a separate bargaining unit and have not set a strike date.

The university also will offer activities for students on campus during the strike, such as free movies at the student center, Gainer said. She said that in some cases, students have work to do.

"A number of faculty in anticipation of the strike gave students homework, so they could study while this is going on," she said. "Libraries are open. Computer labs are open."

At West Chester, most students interviewed said they were behind their professors and did not plan to go to class in a show of a support.

"I think it's very unfair that they are treating the faculty like this, and that's why I'm not going to class," said Ryan Susko, 19, a sophomore from Allentown. "I'm completely supporting the faculty."

Tori Evert, 17, a freshman from Bethlehem, Pa., also said she would stay away.

"I feel like if I were to cross the picket line, I would be betraying the teachers," Evert said.

Several students propped an "On Strike" sign on West Chester's Ram statue.

A group of music education majors who walked with signs in protest said they felt a special kinship with their professors.

"A lot of us are educators ourselves or are going to be educators," said senior Caitlin Hoffert, 21, of Hellertown, Pa. "I think teachers are one of the most unappreciated but so necessary tenants of our society, and it's bothersome that they don't get what they deserve — or what we deserve."

ssnyder@phillynews.com

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

www.philly.com/campusinq

Staff writer Emily Babay contributed to this article.

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