Controversy over contracts

Michael Blackson

It has been two long years since the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) last saw a contract in place.
During those years, the two sides have been in negotiations over a new contract that has seen little progress and no sign of coming to a resolution. Now, APSCUF has offered binding interest arbitration to PASSHE in an attempt to agree upon a new contract for the 6,000 faculty APSCUF represents.
“The terms of our (faculty) employment are still those that were in the old contract,” said Dr. Chuck Ward, president of Millersville APSCUF and associate professor of philosophy.
The old contract expired on June 30, 2011, but both sides have had their negotiation team at the table several months prior to the expiration date. Since the massive membership is still under the old contract, their salaries have not seen an increase for over one year, along with other benefits becoming inadequate.
“The negotiation teams meet once each month,” said Dr. Ward. “That pace stayed the same starting from when the contract expired until this summer. In the middle of this summer, they picked up the pace, and began meeting more frequently.”
During that time, the main argument was focused on improving faculty’s salary.
Dr. Ward explained, “Recently, there has been some progress made so that the State System is now in the position where they say they are willing to offer the salary structure given to the other state employee unions.”
However, the good news also brought a catch. The State System would not agree to this unless APSCUF made certain concessions concerning healthcare benefits and workload for part-time faculty.
“So they want concessions back from us to essentially pay for that,” stated Dr. Ward.
A major issue discussed in negotiations is the State System proposing an increase in workload for temporary faculty.
“Since most of the temporary faculty members at Millersville are part-time faculty, it essentially means a cut in their pay,” Dr. Ward shared. “They get paid per course. They are going to get 25 percent less per course.”
They have also proposed a significant slash in healthcare benefits for active and retired faculty. The State System is looking at shifting healthcare costs toward faculty, so more of the money comes out of the faculty member’s pocket.
The same benefit also applies to retired faculty, though it’s a major focus to “drastically change to a voucher system,” said Dr. Ward. “Instead of providing them with a healthcare plan, you give them a voucher for a certain amount of money to buy their own insurance.” The current amount given to retired faculty is not enough to provide sufficient benefits.
Therefore, binding interest arbitration has been placed before PASSHE to help resolve a new contract.
Essentially, if one side does not think the negotiation process is going to reach a resolution, they can call for binding arbitration that involves an outside, objective third party to decide upon a fair resolution.
APSCUF has set a deadline of October 15 for PASSHE to respond. Unfortunately, the State System has a history of not responding to arbitration.
“This has happened in the past and they’ve never said yes,” said Dr. Ward.
Binding interest arbitration involves both parties presenting their current proposals to three arbitrators, who review the proposals and make a decision that constitutes a fair resolution. This happens to be the final step if PASSHE responds and agrees.
“What you’re agreeing to is whatever this panel comes up with, you’re bound to accept it,” said Dr. Ward. “That’s why it’s called binding arbitration.”
But APSCUF is willing to agree upon whatever is decided upon at this point.
“We’re willing to accept whatever they say, even if it hurts us in some way,” said Dr. Daniel Keefer, associate professor of Wellness and Sports Science. “We’re waiting for the state to respond to this.”
However, as history has told, if PASSHE does not respond, then both sides will return to the bargaining table in hopes to work something out. APSCUF is scheduled to have a meeting five days after the deadline – October 20th – with representatives from PASSHE universities. Not only would they discuss the next step, a strike authorization would be considered as well.
“A strike has never happened in the State System,” Dr. Ward said. “And nobody wants it to happen.”
If PASSHE does not respond by the deadline, a strike could be imminent. APSCUF representatives will decide on the possibility of a strike. If the majority votes yes, the authorization moves on to the entire membership of APSCUF to decide.
“That still doesn’t mean a strike!” Dr. Ward explained.
Dr. Keefer continued, “That just gives our leadership at the state level the permission to call a strike at any point past that vote.”
Needless to say, a strike is disruptive, especially for students. A short term strike could be easily recovered from without any possible long-term delays for graduates and timing for graduation.
“We’re pursuing a lot of measures to put some pressure on the State System to really reach a resolution,” said Dr. Ward. APSCUF wants to avoid a strike altogether and the binding arbitration is the first step. “At some point, we just have to finish the job.”
APSCUF is now losing its patience with PASSHE. They excused their lack of prioritizing a new contract for faculty while two budget crises occurred. The State System was uncertain how much money they would receive, and in part, unable to properly negotiate a contract.
“We could see why their side would want to wait to see how the budget would settle out,” Dr. Ward stated.
But after the crises ended, nothing changed on the negotiation table.
Dr. Ward said, “When the latest budget crisis ended in the middle of the summer, the state settled their budget, they decided how much the universities were going to get in the state appropriations.”
Yet the State System does not seem to place a high priority on getting the job done.
“While a little bit of progress has occurred, it still seems like they’re dragging their feet,” Dr. Ward said. “Now is the time.”