Anger and unease on campuses as state system strike deadline looms

Hours away from the first classroom strike in its history, the State System of Higher Education and the faculty union hunkered down today for last minute-talks as students and employees at the 14 state-owned universities nervously waited.

The bargaining for a fifth consecutive day in a secret location in Harrisburg continued with little more than 12 hours left until Wednesday’s 5 a.m. deadline set by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. Both sides maintained a news media blackout surrounding the talks as of mid-afternoon.

On campuses, anger and unease have been evident in voices of some who know they could be unpaid and on the picket line Wednesday, and others afraid their semester studies will be disrupted.

At Slippery Rock University, nearly 200 faculty and students rallied on the campus quad at noon, then marched to the Old Main administration building to deliver 300 petition signatures to the school’s president, Cheryl Norton, supporting their contract demands.

Chants of “No Contract No Work” echoed off campus buildings as the rally-goers waved signs and said the issue was not simply about dollars but also academic quality.

The State System has said it is offering $158 million in salary increases but has thus far been unable to get APSCUF to agree to $70 million in contract savings, including $22 million in higher health insurance payments.

It says the concessions are essential to help right a system that has seen enrollment losses exceeding 30 percent on some of its campuses and must live on a state appropriation as low as it was 17 years ago.

But union officials say efforts to boost reliance on temporary faculty and cut professional development and other scholarly support are some of the ways State System leaders are poised to harm classroom quality.

The 14 State System campuses enroll 105,000 students. If APSCUF’s 5,000-plus faculty strike, it will be the first such classroom walkout in the State System’s 34-year history.

APSCUF’s last contract expired 16 months ago.

Standing on the campus quad, grasping a protest sign, Shawn Davis, an assistant professor of parks and recreation, said he and his colleagues are prepared either way.

“I’m really hoping they can come to an agreement, but we are prepared to strike if that’s what it takes,” he said.

With the bargaining occurring more than 200 miles away, and with those at the table saying nothing, there was an air of uncertainty, even in one of the lead speakers addressing the Slippery Rock rally.

“Tomorrow is the day, as you know, that we may go on strike,” said Ben Shaevitz, a physics professor and president of APSCUF’s Slippery Rock chapter. “I suppose we’ll learn at 5 a.m. whether that will happen.”

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

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