Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Strike: Faculty at 14 State-owned Universities on Picket Line
State System officials say campuses will be open, tell students to attend class
October 19, 2016 5:26 AM

Faculty at California University of Pennsylvania stand along Third Street near the entrance of the university early this morning in Washington County.
Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

By Bill Schackner
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Faculty at the 14 state-owned universities went on strike today and began taking up picket lines on campuses statewide and at the Dixon Center in Harrisburg after bargaining to prevent the first classroom walkout in the system's 34 years collapsed.

The strike against the State System of Higher Education by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties affects 105,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty.

Both sides had negotiated for five days but the talks broke apart over issues including health care costs shortly before 9 p.m. The system made a last, best offer, which the union rejected, and management said it was done bargaining for the night.

Kenneth Mash, APSCUF president, said the union waited for management to return and tried to reach out once again to no avail.

“At 11:35 p.m., we made a last attempt to negotiate through back channels,” he said. "We waited until 5 a.m. 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.

"They'll know where to find me ... I'll be outside the chancellor's office at the Dixon Center on the picket line."

"It's a sad day for the Commonwealth," he said.

State System officials have said campuses will be open and they have told students to attend class as officials wait to see how many of the union's faculty heed the strike call.

"Regardless if the union chooses to strike, students should report to their scheduled classes unless the university indicates otherwise," the system said on its Twitter feed.

System officials, including Chancellor Frank Brogan, were not immediately available for further comment on the union's decision to take up picket lines.

The strike drew sharp reaction from Gov. Tom Wolf, who called the breakdown in talks "shortsightedness on both sides.”

“I am extremely disappointed in the failure of (the State System) and APSCUF to reach an agreement," the governor said. "The resulting strike is detrimental to the system and will have far-reaching effects for years to come.

The faculty's contract with the State System expired in July 2015. In the 16 months since, both sides accused the other of failing to seriously negotiate, and even after midnight today, the sides sparred on Twitter, saying each side was waiting for the other.

"Until the State System negotiates a contract APSCUF believes is fair to students and to faculty, faculty members will be on strike," Mr. Mash added.

Campus APSCUF chapters began mobilizing to establish pickets at campuses entrances, including at California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.

Word of the union's statewide action set of a flurry of activity on the individual campuses before dawn:

At California University of Pennsylvania, dozens of faculty were gearing up to staff one of four access points to campus

At one of them, Sixth Street near the dorms and the Natali Student Union, APSCUF member Swarn Gill spoke by phone as he and five others marched just before sunrise.

He held up a sign, he said, that on one side read "Solidarity" and on the other: "Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions."

"There are several students at one of our other access points," said Mr. Gil, an associate prefessor of earth sciences. "Those students brought water and snacks for the faculty, which was nice."

He called the experience "a little unusual" but he also said he held out hope for a resolution said it apppears labor and management had made some progress during talks in Harrisburg Tuesday night.

At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, biggest of the state-owned campuses in Western Pennsylvania. faculty member David Chambers used his Subaru Legacy shortly before 7 a.m. to help distribute faculty to some 28 picket points being set up around the sprawling campus this morning.

"At the moment, I'm too busy to be worried," said Mr. Chambers, an associate professor of political science, as he pulled his car into a parking lot.

He said some 735 APSCUF members at IUP are expected to take a position on the picket lines this morning around campus.

"From the start, I thought the chances were 70-30 that we would go on strike," he said. "I think this chancellor wanted to see it happen, so here we are.

"I'm disappointed, but not surprised," he added.

At Edinboro University, faculty member Jim Wertz was among those stationed at Meadville Street near the school's main entrance. He said about 200 faculty backed by 100 or so students turned out after word of the strike spread.

"The students actually beat us here this morning," he said.

"It's been so tense on campus for so many weeks now with faculty uncertainty about the strike, uncertainty about the contract negotiations," said Mr. Wertz, associate professor of journalism and public relations and director of Edinboro's honors program. "At least now, we know where we're at."

At Clarion University, emails from the APSCUF chapter there went out to faculty using their off-campus email addresses, alerting them to the job action. Members are now mobilizing a strike plan prepared several weeks ago in case talks failed.

"We plan on going to the picket lines at 7:30 a.m. That was part of the plan," said Bell O'Neil, spokeswoman for the Clarion APSCUF chapter and an associate professor of communication. "We will be picketing through 7:30 tonight."

Pickets will be established at four main points at Clarion: in front of Greenville Avenue near the Tippin Gymnasium; at the Wood Street campus gates; in front of Still Hall, the business classroom building and on Wilson Avenue near the Gemmell student union, she said.

The labor dispute -- and now the strike -- is playing out across a system of campuses already struggling with enrollment losses exceeding 30 percent since 2010 on some campuses and appropriations from the Commonwealth that have historically lagged that of nearly all other states and is as low as it was in 1999

Since its peak six years ago of nearly 120,000 students, the system has lost more than 12 percent of its enrollment, an amount as large as its second largest university.

On Saturday, the second of five consecutive bargaining days, labor and management imposed a news blackout in hopes of facilitating progress.

The governor had monitored the negotiations and issued calls for the sides to continue to bargain until they settled, warning that a classroom strike would have "devastating" consequences on institutions that are Pennsylvania's lowest-cost option for a university degree.

State System officials late Tuesday night said progress actually had been made,and that tentative agreements had been reached on a dozen issues from distance education to recruitment and retention of faculty.

The State System said it withdrew proposals to require temporary faculty teach an extra course each semester to be classified as full-time. It said it also abanded a proposal to cut part-time temporary faculty and yet another raising the maximum number of temporary instructions the universities could employ.

This morning, Mr. Wolf issued a statement critical of both sides.

"I am extremely disappointed in the failure of (the State System) and APSCUF to reach an agreement," he said. "The resulting strike is detrimental to the system and will have far-reaching effects for years to come.

"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," said Mr. Wolf. "I urge both sides to return to the table immediately and continue negotiations until an agreement is reached."

He said the state in a little under two years had boosted funding to the State System by $30 million, a 7.5 percent increase over 2014-15, "in order to begin restoring the harmful cuts made under the previous administration."

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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