Pa. faculty/system hit impasse, strike could be imminent

Pa. faculty/system hit impasse, strike could be imminent

Education at Pennsylvania's 14 state universities could come to a standstill tomorrow.

Negotiations between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its faculty union hit an impasse after 9 p.m. Tuesday over salaries and health care concessions, with the system making a last best offer and the faculty refusing it.

It's unclear whether the latest volley of public statements from both sides will be the final word before a strike or if more negotiating will take place this evening.

"We'll stick around in case there is any change of heart on their part," said Kenneth M. Mash, faculty union president and a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University. "But we'll have a strike if that's what it's going to come down to."

It would be the first strike in the system's 34-year history, an attempt to shut down classes for the system's 105,000-students and force an agreement. The walkout is scheduled to begin at 5 a.m.

Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the state system, said the system and the union - the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties - reached tentative agreements on more than a dozen signicant issues, including distance education, recruitment and retention of faculty and professional responsibilities outside the classroom.

But, Marshall said, the faculty refused both the system's salary offer and proposed health care changes. The system offered faculty a healthcare package identical to that of other system employees and raises for permanent and temporary faculty, he said.

"We don't understand how APSCUF can argue that faculty members should be entitled to a better healthcare plan than our other employees," Marshall said.

Mash, however, said the union offered $50 million in concessions.

"There was a limit to where we were willing to go," Mash said.

The latest breakdown culminates nearly two years of bargaining that failed to produce a new agreement for the 5,500 member faculty union and despite urging by Gov. Wolf Tuesday evening for both sides to stay at the table and reach a compromise.

"Avoiding a strike is paramount because a work stoppage will be devastating for the state system," Wolf said. "Most seriously, a strike could drive a loss of students, which would further exacerbate an already precarious financial situation for the state system."

Local campuses affected include West Chester, the largest university in the system, and Cheyney, an historically black university. The other campuses in the system are Bloomsburg, Clarion, California, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Millersville, Mansfield, Slippery Rock and Shippensburg.

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

The latest statements came after five consecutive days of bargaining, most of them under a news blackout that both the system and the union honored until this evening.

The state system has said in the event of a strike, it plans to keep the campuses open, including residence halls and dining halls, and has directed students to go to class in case their professors ignore the picket line and are there to teach. But most classes are likely to be canceled if faculty honor the picket line; the system has said it has no plans to bring in replacement workers.

Officials also said they will strive to keep extracurriculars going, including sports. The system’s coaches are in a separate bargaining unit and have not set a strike date, but athletic trainers and other key personnel are part of the faculty union, so it would remain to be determined whether games could be held.

If a strike occurs, pressure to reach an agreement will likely increase on Wolf, a member of the system's state board of governors, and several state legislators who also serve on the system’s governing board, including Sen. Ryan P. Aument, (R-Lancaster); State Rep. Matthew E. Baker, (R-Tioga/Bradford counties); State Rep. Michael K. Hanna, (D.-Clinton County); and Sen. Judy Schwank, (D-Reading).

Marshall said the system withdrew more than two dozen proposals that the faculty union disputed, but health care and salaries remain the major sticking points.

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

The system has offered faculty raises ranging from 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 Jan. 2017 as part of the new agreement, Marshall said. The faculty union has contended that the raises would be offset by healthcare increases.

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-insurance requirements for some medical services and higher prescription drug co-payments.

Ed Lordan, a spokesman for West Chester's faculty union, said Tuesday evening that should a strike occur, faculty would be picketing at 10 locations on the perimeter of campus, with the largest group in front of Philips Hall at the intersection of High Street and University Avenue.