Contract Talks At Impasse As Strike Looms At 14 Universities

PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — Contract negotiations appeared to be at an impasse Tuesday night between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its faculty union as more than 100,000 students at 14 state universities awaited word on whether the school year might be disrupted by a strike.

The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties set a strike for 5 a.m. Wednesday if no agreement could be reached. The union represents more than 5,000 faculty and coaches across the state, and a walkout would likely halt classes mid-semester.

“We are prepared to strike tomorrow, but we hope that is not what happens,” said Ben Shaevitz, Ph.D., a physics professor at Slippery Rock University.

The union said Tuesday night on its Facebook page that the state had handed it its last best offer and was done negotiating. The union said it was reviewing the state’s offer and remained at the bargaining table, “ready to talk.” It said a final decision about a strike would come at 4:59 a.m. Wednesday.

“The governor urged us to keep on negotiating. He was very clear about that. He personally spoke to both sides and urged us to settle this,” said APSCUF President Kenneth M. Mash. “I find it shocking that Chancellor Frank Brogan would spit in the governor’s eye like that. Through all of this, the governor has been a strong advocate for the students.”

The APSCUF issued this statement on their Facebook page Tuesday night followed by a series of Facebook Live sessions.

The statement from APSCUF Vice President Jamie Martin said: “We’d like to reassure our students that we did everything we possibly could to avoid a strike. We will be here should the State System decide not to abandon its students.”

To watch the other Facebook Live posts, visit the APSCUF’s page at this link.

The former vice president of Student Affairs at Slippery Rock tells KDKA’s Kym Gable that it’s students who have the most to lose.

“It’s never the management, it is never the faculty, it is always the students. Very clearly, I want the two sides who are at the negotiation table to settle,” said former VP Bob Watson. “I want them to settle as quickly as possible because there no benefit for the students.”

The two sides have sparred over a number of contractual changes. Chief among those changes were proposed raises to be offered over three years and health care contributions.

The system said its latest proposal would provide raises to all permanent and temporary faculty and a healthcare package identical to what other State System employees have.

“These are difficult times for our universities. If APSCUF won’t agree to share more of the costs for their own healthcare – like everyone else has – it will threaten our ability to keep tuition affordable for students,” said State System spokesman Kenn Marshall. “We have made significant progress since Friday, and were hopeful we could get to an agreement by now. It is unfortunate – especially for our students – that we have gotten to this point.”

As part of the new offer, the state is proposing permanent faculty receive raises in each of the three remaining contract years. Those raises would range from 7.25 percent to 17.25 percent for individual faculty members.

In an effort to reach an agreement, the state said it withdrew several proposals including one that would have required full-time temporary faculty to teach an additional class each semester.

“They teach four classes. They want… the state system’s proposing that they would teach five but get no salary increase,” said Colleen Cooke, Ph.D., a recreational therapy professor at Slippery Rock.

Members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties union have previously voted to authorize a strike but faculty members have never walked out during the state system’s 34-year history.

The uncertainty left students to question the impact a strike might have on grades, mid-year graduations and financial aid.

“They expect us to go to class, but I’m not sure I’m going to go because I feel like that would be going against our professors,” said Elaina Dibucci, a Slippery Rock student.

“We have to assume we have class,” Jenna Hess, another student said. “We’re told we’re supposed to go through the strike, but I don’t know who’s going to be teaching us.”

The state said it would try to keep classes going, and reminded students that teachers are not required to strike.

But Shawn Davis, an assistant professor of parks and recreation at Slippery Rock University, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday that faculty members are ready.

“I’m really hoping they can come to an agreement, but we are prepared to strike if that’s what it takes,” Davis said at a rally on campus.

The union includes faculty from Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities of Pennsylvania.

The last faculty contract expired June 30, 2015.

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(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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