Faculty strike at LHU, across the state
By WENDY STIVER
LOCK HAVEN — Faculty at Lock Haven University went on strike Wednesday morning. This is reportedly the first time a faculty strike has ever taken place on campus.
Supportive students rallied around their instructors, and some even staged a sit-in.
The local faculty, numbering about 250, were called to strike by their union, APSCUF (Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties), as were the other 5,250 professors at the 13 other state system schools.
The strike was called after negotiations apparently failed the night before.
Professors held signs, chanted slogans, and marched back and forth along three picket lines on the main campus — at Bentley Hall cafeteria building, at the traffic light, and between the railroad tracks and the traffic light. Strikers with signs appeared at East Campus as well, and faculty at LHU’s Clearfield campus also planned a picket line.
The strike may extend the fall semester.
Students joined their professors on the picket lines with signs, buttons and chants. Several showed up with doughnuts in the morning and lunch around noon for the picketers.
“Where’d ya get a sign? I want a sign!” one young woman said as another walked by on North Fairview Street with an APSCUF poster.
Many drivers tooted their horns as they passed the picket lines, some in support, and some perhaps in recognition of history in the making.
More than 25 students sat with signs in the new lobby of Ulmer Hall, which houses the office of University President Dr. Michael Fiorentino and other administrative offices. The sit-in was called by Students in Solidarity with APSCUF, a group formed just a few weeks ago.
Jason Williamson of State College, who helped found the group, said university administrators seemed to be conducting business as usual during the strike. The administration does not support the students if it does not stand with the faculty, he said.
LHU spokesman Rodney Jenkins, vice president for university relations, said Wednesday, “We have to yield to the state system for comment.”
He also said all buildings are open, and athletic events and other events are taking place as scheduled.
Coaches at LHU and across the state system have not set a strike date, and may strike now, later, or not at all, according to a faculty union press release.
Individual faculty members also may choose to teach or continue other university-related duties during the strike.
All 4,500 LHU students were told to report to their classes Wednesday unless they knew their professor would be on strike. Two of the students who went to classes and did not find a teacher said someone popped in and took note of their presence in the classroom, yet no one actually took attendance.
“Professors are the most important part of our education,” Shelby Heldwig said at the sit-in.
Landon Allen, a pre-dentistry student, said he joined in because he is concerned the final contract offer left on the table the previous night by PASSHE (the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) would ultimately under-value his education.
Students in Solidarity with APSCUF put up posters around campus before the strike but were told to remove them, according to Justin Silverstrim of South Williamsport, also a founder of the new student group. This violates a statement in the student handbook, he said.
“We want Lock Haven to offer a high quality education, for generations,” he said.
Williamson said he would like to be a professor someday, teaching industrial organizational psychology.
He voiced the opinion that the state system’s last contract offer “abuses the rights of the adjunct and temporary faculty” by not allowing them to do more than teach. The scholarly part of being a professor includes research and conferences, he said, and the offer last night did not allow for either activity for these faculty members.
Silverstrim quoted an APSCUF press release of Sept. 29 that said the state system would like to turn the temporary faculty into “teaching machines” by cutting their salaries or increasing their workload.
The university’s well-being affects the town’s economy, Williamson said, so the strike affects many groups, not just the professors.
Students raised one fist in the symbol of solidarity every time someone entered the building.
Silverstrim met Dr. Tyana Lange, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, as she came through the door. They greeted each other, and Lange referred the request for a comment to PASSHE.
“We’re a peaceful group advocating for peaceful protest,” Silverstrim said. “We just want to stand up for what we believe, to stand up for our professors.”
Professors have been working without a contract since June 30, 2015.
On Friday, Oct. 14, negotiators for both sides sat down for a long weekend of talks. Those talks ended sometime Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
PASSHE reportedly delivered its final offer at 11:35 p.m. APSCUF negotiators did not accept it.
Both the union and the state system say the other side walked away from the table.
An alert went out at 5 a.m. Wednesday to APSCUF members at all the state universities that negotiations had failed. The picket lines started at LHU at 7 a.m., said Dr. Lisette Schillig, a tenured faculty member in the English Department.
Participating faculty are not paid during a strike, they do not teach, advise or perform other university-related duties, and those who join the picket line forfeit health insurance coverage, according to an APSCUF press release.
At LHU, faculty plan to picket from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, Monday through Saturday, until a tentative contract is achieved, Schillig said.
She called higher education “a cause worth fighting for.”
Dr. Steve Hicks, former statewide APSCUF president and a member of LHU’s English Department, walked a picket line Wednesday with a toy parrot on his shoulder.
“The plan is we do this again and again and again. Everyone’s prepared to go on as long as we go until we get the contract we want,” he said. “We all understood it wouldn’t be a one-day thing.”
According to Dr. Stanley Berard, APSCUF president at the local university, “The state system’s ‘last best offer’ insists on lower salaries for adjunct faculty, treats new faculty less favorably in retirement health benefits, and disregards the concessions we offered on active health benefits. Their proposals on retrenchment of faculty and professional development attack our ability to preserve and improve academic programs.”
The state system said its Tuesday-night proposal included raises for all faculty, both permanent and temporary, as well as a health care package identical to some other state system employees. The proposed requirement that full-time temporary faculty teach an additional class each semester was withdrawn.
The contract proposal, however, included zero dollars for professional development for faculty, said Dr. Mark Cloud, past president of the local APSCUF.
“Faculty are teacher-scholars,” he said, and the proposal did not support that. The small grants of $300 to $1,000 dollars that could fund research or supplies for a new project are not there, he said.
“The strike is about quality education, respect for temporary faculty, and making sure our students now and in the future have the kind of higher education opportunities they deserve,” he said.
In addition, health benefits have not been agreed on, Cloud said.
According to Cloud, state system Chancellor Frank Brogan referred to “pattern bargaining” during a recent Facebook Live event that students watched. In pattern bargaining, one union’s contract lines up with another.
The state system deals with AFSCME employees as well as faculty members, but during its negotiations with the faculty union, it offered professors lower raises (by percentage and steps) than it did for AFSCME, Cloud said. This changed last weekend, he said, when the state system did bring pieces of the AFSCME contract to the table.
The faculty bargaining team agreed to a lower raise the first year of the contract, he said, which would have meant a savings of $32 million.
The health care benefits offered were not the same, he said. Instead of offering the same health care benefits it offered the other union, the state system offered the benefits it “imposed on the managers,” Cloud said.
The faculty negotiators did agree to a contribution of three percent more toward the cost of health care, so that the individual union member would pay either 18 percent or 28 percent of the cost, he said. They also agreed to a $500 deductible, he said. The sticking point here is the insurance would cover only 90 percent of medical costs, and the member would have to pay a high deductible each year before achieving 100 percent coverage.
A professor who is managing diabetes, or who has just had a baby, or who has a family member with a chronic condition is at a disadvantage, Cloud said.
“A union is about fairness,” he said.
“We’re close to a contract,” Cloud said. “We stand ready to talk.”
Schillig said her main concern Wednesday was getting students and faculty back into the classrooms.
“Even on the picket lines, our phones will be on,” said Dr. Kenneth M. Mash, statewide APSCUF president.
PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said the state system proposed to give every faculty member a raise and is disappointed in the decision to strike.
“We were hopeful the union would accept the proposal so that our students could resume their normal routines, and go back to worrying about their next test rather than whether their professor would be in class,” he said in a statement. “Instead, APSCUF rejected our proposal, informing our bargaining team just moments before initiating a strike that will impact our students and universities in unknown ways, and for who knows how long.”
He continued, “We have presented a fair offer to our extremely talented faculty, one that balances our strong desire to provide them with salary increases with the need to reduce our universities’ operating costs at a time when many of them are facing the most serious fiscal challenges in their history. Even more important, we must always consider our students, and the fact that it is their tuition and fee dollars that cover more than 75 percent of our operating costs.
“We can only hope the union will see that we are making a reasonable proposal, especially at a time when dollars are scarce at our universities and across the Commonwealth.”
The 14 state system universities serve 105,000 students and include Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester.
The strike does not affect Penn State, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh or Lincoln University.
State Rep. Michael Hanna, D-Lock Haven, said Wednesday he was also disappointed in the strike, both as a legislator and a member of the PASSHE Board of Governors.
“I have done everything possible to stop this strike from occurring. Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but we must do what is right for the students of this commonwealth,” he said.
“All sides need to continue negotiating to find a middle ground and a common-sense solution as quickly as possible. The differences that stand in the way of an agreement are not insurmountable, but this strike is doing our students a huge disservice.”
The state system was created 34 years ago, and Hanna said it has never seen a faculty strike.
He said he advocated throughout the process for every option to avoid a strike, including binding arbitration.
Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement he was “extremely disappointed” that no agreement was reached. He urged both sides to get back to the bargaining table.
Some information for this story came from the Associated Press.