PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) — Professors at 14 state universities went on strike Wednesday, disrupting classes mid-semester for more than 100,000 students after contract negotiations hit an impasse.
Members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties went on strike at 5 a.m. because no agreement was reached with the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The union represents more than 5,000 faculty and coaches across the state.
This is the first strike in the system’s 34-year history. State-related schools – Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University – are not affected.
The state said students should report to their scheduled classes unless the university indicates otherwise.
“We are headed to the picket lines, but even on the picket lines, our phones will be on, should the State System decide it doesn’t want to abandon its students,” union president Kenneth Mash said.
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.
Coaches, however, haven’t set a strike date. They can choose to strike with faculty, strike independently or not at all.
The APSCUF issued a 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 Pennsylvania state system is one of the nation’s largest public university systems. State funding for the system, at $444 million this year, is about the same as it was 17 years ago, even as full-time enrollment has risen more than 10 percent.
Around the state, faculty members walked picket lines, chanting and carrying red signs declaring “On Strike.”
Dr. Colleen Cooke, a recreational therapy professor at Slippery Rock, told the “KDKA Morning News” they will stay on strike until a deal is reached.
“We’ll stay off till we have a fair, reasonable contract. We’re in it for the long haul,” Cooke said.
According to Cooke, whether or not the fall semester is canceled and tuition needs to be reimbursed is up to the State System of Higher Education
“We have been trying to bargain for a fair contract with them for over a year. There were four months in which they wouldn’t even come to the table,” says Dr. Cooke
“When I went to bed last night, I was hopeful that the last thing would be salary and benefits. We got everything else, the quality stuff we took care of that, now let’s just hammer this out in a day or two and be done with it,” Cooke said.
At West Chester University, outside Philadelphia, dozens of professors, students and supporters marched outside the school.
Picketers, many of whom were up most of the night watching strike developments, carried signs and chanted, “Two, four, six, eight – why don’t you negotiate?”
Victoria Tischio, a full-time tenured English professor and the university’s picket chairwoman, said some 500 of the university’s about 950 professors had signed up for the walkout. About 77 percent of the university’s professors are full-time union members, she said.
“I got my education from state schools and what motivates me to be here is that my students are every bit as worth that same quality education,” Tischio said. “(State system negotiators) say this is a money issue, but we’re really out here for work rules and for students.”
The school’s approximately 17,000 students received an email from administrators reminding them the university will not close.
Spokeswoman Nancy Gainer said students are expected to attend classes because not all professors will strike. Some professors who walked out also provided assignments in advance, she said.
Emily Keller, a sophomore accounting student from Royersford, said she hopes the strike won’t last too long.
“It’s nice to have a few free days off going into homecoming, and I’m sure everybody feels that way, but I personally pay for college so I’m a little concerned,” Keller said.
Students were also feeling the effects of the strike closer to Pittsburgh at Slippery Rock University.
“The feeling is anger. The feeling is frustration. We obviously want to be in class,” said Travis Myers-Arrigoni, a Slippery Rock grad student.
“It’s not about the money for them. It’s about the quality of education and the quality of treatment that they get from the state,” Hopi Myers-Arrigoni, another Slippery Rock grad student, said.
At California University of Pennsylvania, some students joined the striking faculty members on the picket lines.
“I support my faculty 100 percent,” said one student.
“Angry for both sides,” said another student frustrated over the strike. “Angry as a student because I can’t finish my studies, but also angry that the state system isn’t allowing for a fair contract for the faculty.”
Many are concerned about the tuition they’ve paid. Cal U spokesperson Chris Kindl issued this statement on that issue:
“That will depend on the direction of the strike. If the strike is short, we’ll be able to catch the students up. If it turns into a protracted strike, that’s when we would need to begin dealing with the state register and Department of Education as to how we would handle tuition.”
State System spokesman Kenn Marshall said they are disappointed the union decided to strike because they felt they made significant progress overnight toward a settlement.
“We will do everything we can to get this settled, but it takes two. We need cooperation,” he said.
No meetings are scheduled, he said.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said that he was “extremely disappointed” that the two sides failed to reach an agreement and urged both sides to return to the bargaining table.
The statement goes on to read:
“The resulting strike is detrimental to the system and will have far-reaching effects for years to come.
“In just under two years I have increased funding to the state system by more than $30 million, a 7.5 percent increase over 2014-15, in order to begin restoring the harmful cuts made under the previous administration.
“The shortsightedness on both sides is counter to my efforts on behalf of the system and hurts the dedicated professors and university staff, and students and their families who are paying tuition to these universities.
“Everyone’s top priority should be the students and their families who are counting on an agreement to ensure Pennsylvania continues to deliver on its promise to provide a world-class college education. I urge both sides to return to the table immediately and continue negotiations until an agreement is reached.”
The state school system said overnight its latest proposal would provide raises to all permanent and temporary faculty members and a health care package identical to what other system employees have.
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. However, some professors at West Chester University said Wednesday that is still a sticking point for them because they fear it could be revived.
The last faculty contract expired June 30, 2015.
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