By Neil Cosgrove
November 1, 2016
The faculty of the 14 Pennsylvania state-owned universities went on strike from October 19th to the 21st, 2016, somewhat less than three days. Around mid-afternoon on the 21st, a tentative contract agreement was reached with the State System of Higher Education (SSHE), ending the strike. As part of the agreement, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) “agreed to a salary package that was significantly lower than that of the other unions” that had recently bargained with the State System.
As labor battles are traditionally viewed, making concessions on salary and benefits would have to be considered a defeat. But the faculty union regards the result of the strike as a clear-cut victory, a victory that preserved what many regard as one of the best university faculty contracts in the country. For the 16 months since the system’s previous contract with the faculty had expired (June 30, 2015), the Pennsylvania State System had tried to destroy that contract, but was forced by the strike to withdraw most of the 249 changes the Chancellor and Board of Governors had sought.
The most significant of those withdrawn changes, the ones that ultimately forced the faculty to strike, were obvious attempts to break the union by driving a wedge between tenured and tenure-track faculty and the growing number of temporary and adjunct faculty. What makes APSCUF a strong union is that adjuncts work under the same conditions, including teaching loads, benefit packages, and salary scale as so-called “regular” faculty. Adjunct faculty at State System schools like IUP, California and Slippery Rock generally regard themselves as an integral part of the universities in which they work, not as an exploited proletariat paid a ridiculously low per-course stipend, without access to offices or benefits, and forced to teach each term at multiple institutions in order to make a low-income living.
Moreover, APSCUF’s 2011-15 contract limited the number of temporary faculty a university could employ to 25% or less “of the full-time equivalent of all faculty members employed at that university.” Compare that to estimates of adjuncts constituting close to half of the faculty at colleges and universities across the country. In 2015, median per-course pay for adjuncts was $2700. At Pennsylvania State System universities, full-time temporary faculty at the bottom of the salary scale received a 2014-15 salary of $46,610. If such a faculty member taught only a quarter, half, or three-quarters of the normal teaching load of four class sections per term, they would receive the appropriate fraction of the stated salary. Moreover, the contract required that temporary faculty members who had “worked at a university for five full, consecutive academic years in the same department” would be given tenure-track status if approved by the department.
For months, state system leaders tried to push the faculty union into accepting a change by which adjunct faculty members would be considered full-time only if they taught five sections a term, rather than four. Knowing how such a load would significantly limit someone’s ability to perform scholarship in her or his discipline, or perform service, or even conference with and mentor students, the union refused to go along with that proposal. Finally, fed up with the System’s attempt to lower what faculty saw as the quality of the education their students would receive, the union set a strike date of October 19th.
Intensive but ultimately fruitless bargaining ensued. On the evening of the 18th, the State System said they would no longer negotiate, but instead made what was termed a “last best offer.” That offer indicated a change of tactics. The increased teaching load proposal for temporaries was withdrawn and instead, the System proposed a different salary scale for such faculty, one in which temporaries would receive one-fifth of the raises tenured and tenure-track faculty would receive over the course of the new contract. In other words, the System’s leaders were still trying to break the union by creating a two-tier system of compensation.
APSCUF went on strike instead, and the response of both the system’s faculty and students was not what one guesses the State System’s leaders were hoping for. Less than 10% of System faculty, and on some campuses far less, crossed the picket lines in order to teach their classes. The preponderance of students appeared to enthusiastically support the faculty union, and made campus administrators experience some very uncomfortable moments. The governor and state legislative leaders pressured the State System to resume negotiating with APSCUF, and a tentative contract agreement was quickly reached, an agreement in which, as already mentioned, the provisions attempting to create two different kinds of faculty members had been withdrawn.
“Our primary goals were to preserve quality education for our students,” said APSCUF president Dr. Kenneth Mash, “protect our adjuncts, and make sure the varieties of faculty work are respected. We achieved every single one of those goals.”
What transforms the Pennsylvania faculty strike into a potential triumph for labor generally is the way the strike indicates a path forward that could halt unions’ decline in membership and generate future growth. APSCUF realized that it shouldn’t be perceived as conducting business as usual—that is, as bargaining for the benefit only of the portion of its membership with tenured and tenure-track positions. Instead, it chose to bargain, first of all, for the benefit of all the faculty members it represented, including those who would, if the union failed, join the burgeoning ranks of the academic equivalent of migrant, casual labor.
More importantly, APSCUF chose to bargain for academic quality, and for the State System’s students, who commonly hail from the state’s less favored school districts and from families with modest yearly incomes; students, therefore, who attend four-year and graduate-level institutions with the lowest tuition charges in Pennsylvania out of necessity as well as choice. In short, APSCUF put itself on the picket lines out of concern for the overall quality of public higher education in Pennsylvania and for the upward mobility of their students, not to win somewhat higher salaries for the more privileged of its members. Why should those students, and non-unionized workers generally, think favorably of unions in future if they have not witnessed unions standing up for them, and for broad social justice, in the past?
The APSCUF strike also has implications for ongoing efforts to organize faculty in the Pittsburgh region. Currently, adjuncts at Point Park, Robert Morris, and Duquesne universities are organized separately from the tenured and tenure-track faculty at those institutions. Consequently, neither group of faculty can demonstrate the kind of bargaining power the State System professors have recently exhibited. As long as adjuncts are seen by administrators as low-rent alternatives for carrying out the most basic function of their institutions—that is, the education of students through those students’ interactions with instructors—then the more those same administrators will be tempted not to hire more expensive tenure-track faculty, faculty with the time and job security needed to keep current in their fields, to bring their scholarship into their classes, and to fruitfully guide students through a quality education.
Right now the United Steel Workers’ (USW) are working to organize the University of Pittsburgh’s faculty, graduate workers, and campus workers. Let us hope that the lessons taught by the APSCUF strike are not lost on the organizers of the Pitt campaign as well. Unions are strongest when they truly are what their names suggest—inclusive organizations dedicated to improving the working conditions, pay and benefits of as many people as possible.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective and a TMC board member.