Faculty at Pa. state universities go on strike

Faculty leaders Edward Lordan (left) and Mark Rimple, who said if there is a strike he doubts many will cross a picket line. Students, especially seniors, are worried about a long strike.

Negotiations between Pennsylvania's 14 state-supported universities and their faculty broke down Tuesday night, setting up a strike that brought education for 105,000 students to a standstill at 5 a.m. Wednesday.

The talks hit an impasse over salaries and health-care concessions, with the university system making its last, best offer and the faculty refusing it.

Barring any overnight concessions, faculty will go on strike, said Kenneth M. Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF).

He said Wednesday morning that the strike was starting.

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

A change of heart, however, seemed unlikely.

There won't be any changes, said Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees the universities.

"Negotiations are over for tonight," Marshall said.

The system has been preparing for a strike for weeks.

It has said that in the event of a strike, it planned to keep 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.

The strike would be the first in the system's 34-year history.

Local campuses affected include West Chester, the largest university in the system, and Cheyney, a historically black university. The other campuses 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 and Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

Marshall said the system and faculty reached tentative agreements on more than a dozen significant issues, including distance education, recruitment and retention of faculty, and professional responsibilities outside the classroom.

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

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

Under the system's proposal, faculty raises would range 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 January 2017 as part of the new agreement, Marshall said.

The union, however, has maintained that the raises would be offset by health-care 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, coinsurance requirements for some medical services, and higher prescription drug co-payments.

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

Mash 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 came despite Gov. Wolf's urging both sides Tuesday night 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 in a statement. "Most seriously, a strike could drive a loss of students, which would further exacerbate an already precarious financial situation for the state system."

The latest statements came after five consecutive days of bargaining at a secret location in Harrisburg, most of them under a news blackout that both the system and the union honored until Tuesday evening.

Officials also said they would 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 board of governors, and several state legislators who also serve on the system's governing board. Among those legislators are State Sen. Ryan P. Aument (R., Lancaster); State Rep. Matthew E. Baker (R., Tioga); State Rep. Michael K. Hanna (D., Clinton); and Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks).

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

Ed Lordan, a spokesman for West Chester's faculty union, said Tuesday evening that faculty plan to picket at 10 locations on the perimeter of campus, with the largest group in front of Philips Hall at High Street and University Avenue.

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