By Neil Cosgrove
When the faculty of 14 Pennsylvania state-owned universities ended their strike on its third day, their union, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), had “agreed to a salary package that was significantly lower than that of the other unions” that had recently bargained with the State System of Higher Education (SSHE).
Traditionally viewed, this labor battle would be considered a defeat for APSCUF. But the faculty union thought it won a clear-cut victory, preserving what many regard as one of the best university faculty contracts in the country. For 16 months following expiration of the previous faculty contract (June 30, 2015), SSHE sought to destroy that contract; the strike forced the Chancellor and Board of Governors to withdraw most of their proposed 249 changes.
The most significant of those changes, the ones that ultimately triggered APSCUF’s first-ever strike, were obvious attempts to break the union by driving a wedge between tenured and tenure-track faculty and the growing number of adjunct faculty. What distinguishes APSCUF’s contract is that adjuncts work under the same conditions, including teaching loads, benefit packages, and salary scale, as so-called “regular” faculty. Adjuncts at universities such as IUP, California and Slippery Rock commonly regard themselves as integral parts of the universities where they work, not as an exploited proletariat paid ridiculously low per-course stipends, 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 at a university to 25% or less “of the full-time equivalent of all faculty members employed at that university.” In contrast, adjuncts constitute close to half of the faculty at American colleges and universities. 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 an adjunct taught only a quarter, half, or three-quarters of the normal load of four class sections per term, they received the appropriate fraction of the stated salary. The contract also required that adjuncts who had “worked at a university for five full, consecutive academic years in the same department” would, with approval of that department, receive tenure-track status.
For months, State System leaders pushed a proposal to make adjuncts full-time only if they taught five sections a term, rather than four. Knowing such a load would significantly limit adjuncts’ ability to perform scholarship in their disciplines, or conference with and mentor students, the union refused to accept the change. Finally, fed up with the System’s refusal to abandon such proposals, the union set a strike date.
Intensive but ultimately fruitless bargaining ensued. On the eve of the strike, the State System said they would no longer negotiate, but instead made a “last best offer” that indicated a change in tactics. The increased teaching load for adjuncts was withdrawn and instead, the System proposed a different salary scale for such faculty, one in which they would receive one-fifth of the raises awarded to tenured and tenure-track faculty 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 mode of compensation.
When APSCUF struck the system’s faculty and students did not respond as System leaders had hoped. Less than 10% of System faculty, and on some campuses far less, crossed picket lines to teach classes. The preponderance of students enthusiastically supported APSCUF, especially during tense meetings with campus administrators. The governor and state legislative leaders pressured the State System to resume negotiating with APSCUF, and the tentative contract agreement was quickly reached that abandoned provisions creating two different kinds of faculty members.
“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.”
The Pennsylvania faculty strike suggests a path forward that could halt unions’ decline in membership and generate future growth. APSCUF avoided business as usual—that is, only bargaining for the benefit of that 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 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 the four-year and graduate-level institutions with Pennsylvania’s lowest tuition charges out of necessity as well as choice. In short, APSCUF put itself on the picket lines for the upward mobility of their students, not to win somewhat higher salaries for its most privileged members. Why should those students, and non-unionized workers generally, think favorably of unions in future if they have not already witnessed unions standing up for them, and for broad social justice?
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center Board. He is also a Slipper Rock faculty member.