Decade in review: APSCUF strike — Recovering from the 2016 event

Category:  News
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019 at 9:34 AM
Decade in review: APSCUF strike — Recovering from the 2016 event by Macala Leigey
Photo: Kimberly Firestine

It’s 5 a.m on Oct. 20, 2016.

Just before the crack of dawn.

The cool autumn air welcomes university staff members across the state, as they unlock buildings and prep for the arrival of faculty and students.

However, this day is different.

This day, universities statewide are awakened by stern chants and vibrant picketing signs, as they blare, “You can’t put students first, if you put faculty last.”

Faculty members, part of the Association of Pennsylvania State College Union Faculties (APSCUF), took to the outskirts of their respective campuses, marching with a notion for change.

This day was the first ever faculty union strike against the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). 

The strike lasted a total of three days across the state. However, after three years, two tentative contract agreements, and a new state system chancellor, the impacts of the statewide event can still be seen. 

According to Dr. Jim Wertz, APSCUF’s spokesperson for Edinboro University during the strike, the protest was “one of the largest public education strikes in the country — in the history of the nation.” Wertz occupies a unique position now, crossing over to the administrative side of the university and serving as the associate dean for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

He continued on to explain the historical impact of the strike. Stating that for a number of years, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, as well as Chancellor of PASSHE at the time, Frank Brogan, did not necessarily negotiate in “good faith with the faculty union,” he also believes they didn’t “necessarily have the best interest of students in the commonwealth in mind.”

“I think there was a lot of discord in higher ed in Pennsylvania at that time; I think there is, to an extent, still some discord. Obviously, nobody wants to get into a strike, but I think it provided us with a new foundation and a new way to talk to one another,” said Wertz.

APSCUF’s President Dr. Ken Mash also spoke to this matter, saying, “I think it was clear to the system and clear to us that things had not gone well. I think we were looking for a new approach, and I think the system was as well.”

He continued, “The state system, itself, has approached us with a much different attitude than it has in the past.”

The strike concluded on the premise of a three-year tentative agreement, in which faculty union members agreed to a concession in salary and a health care proposal offered by PASSHE. 

As stated by Mash in a 2016 interview, “‘When it became clear the only way to end the strike was to choose between most of the quality issues, and the salary and health care concessions, we chose what would be best for our students.’”

The tentative contract reached to end the strike expired this past June, sending APSCUF and PASSHE back to the negotiating table. In regard to the strike, negotiations between the state system and the faculty union were handled differently this time.

PASSHE’s Director of Public Relations Dave Pidgeon explained that both the state system and APSCUF engaged in “Interest Based Bargaining” (IBB).

IBB “emphasizes problem-solving through collaboration, instead of swapping proposals multiple times until you come to an agreement,” said Pidgeon.

He continued to say that the approach “set the stage for a productive relationship between the state system and APSCUF, and ultimately, that kind of teamwork and respect creates a healthy and robust environment for student success.”

Mash also commented on a different approach to negotiating.

“I think the board chair, after the strike, came to realize that we have to have a better relationship. Then Dan Greenstein came aboard, and it was just a very different attitude — an attitude of respect for the faculty,” he explained.

Greenstein was appointed chancellor of the state system in September 2018. 

Mash also shared that unlike in the previous contracts, the chancellor and the board chair participated directly in the negotiations. 

“We had fruitful discussions because of that,” he said.

In regard to the new contract, Mash disclosed that there were changes made.

“I think there’s a lot that has changed in the contract. The substance of things in the contract [are] not necessarily related to salary and benefits. So, there were a lot of discussions that we had with the system.”

However, Mash warns that there is still some tension shared among the faculty union and state system.

“I think there’s still generally a perception of mistrust on the part of faculty across the system.”

He went on to say, “With a lot of the decision making that occurred in the past, I think that this new contract is the beginning of a change in the culture, but there’s still work to do.”

The new four-year agreement was recently ratified by APSCUF, with 94 percent of the faculty across the state voting in favor of ratifying the contract, according to Edinboro’s APSCUF Chapter President Dr. Marc Sylvester.

The complete comprehensive contract now moves to the Board of Governors to be considered. It is slated to be ratified by the board this week.

“This contract has a lot of good elements in terms of governance and evaluation of faculty. There’s a lot of new ideas and there’s a lot of changes here,” said Sylvester.

On a local level, Edinboro University has felt minimal effects from the strike, but among faculty and students it’s created stronger bonds.

“I think among all the things that have occurred in Edinboro, or at Edinboro, over the past 10 years, certainly that strike is a defining moment,” said Wertz.

He spoke to how the strike encouraged a healthy moral among students and faculty members.  “I think all the faculty that were on the strike line were just overwhelmed by the sense of support they had from the students. 

“Over the course of those three days, the number of students who brought food out, coffee out, or just came out to have a conversation and to make sure everybody’s spirits remained high, was just a really great affirmation of the work that the faculty do on a daily basis in the classroom.”

Sylvester also reminisced on the support students expressed during the striking period. 

“I think the strike is something that those of us who were here during it will always remember. Students showed incredible support of their professors during that time.”

He continued: “Understanding the level of commitment students have to their professors, it was astounding for a lot of us. It did feel like students really respected and were caring for their professors, and it was touching to many of us.”

Although the strike was the last course of action APSCUF wanted to take, Mash expressed that the overall experience holds an important lesson for students.

“Every once in a while, you have to make a stand.”

It’s 11 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2019.

Just before noon on the Monday before finals week.

State system universities across Pennsylvania are well into the academic day. Students filter in and out of classrooms, cram for exams, and make their way from building to building without interruption.

Professors prepare lessons, take to lecture halls, and evaluate final projects of the semester.

“It’s important for everybody to keep that event in the rearview mirror, to know it existed, but also to keep in mind that we are all committed to moving forward,” said Wertz.

“And so, we go on. We move on.”

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