UPDATED: Thousands of public college professors strike across Pennsylvania

Listen

Professors across Pennsylvania traded PowerPoints for picket signs, and education for more than 100,000 college students came to a sudden halt Wednesday morning.

After last-ditch negotiations failed, the union representing faculty at 14 public universities across Pennsylvania has gone on strike.

This is the first faculty strike in the three-decade history of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, a coalition of state schools educating a combined 107,000 students. Depending on the duration of the work stoppage, students at Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock, and West Chester could lose chunks of class time, see graduation dates delayed, or even have to endure a canceled fall semester.

Penn State, Temple, Pitt, and Lincoln are not part of PASSHE and are therefore not involved in the strike.

When students trickled onto campus Wednesday morning at West Chester University, located about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, many found eerily empty classrooms. An early-morning scan of Main Hall, a five-story academic building near the front entrance of the campus, turned up a few dozen waiting students, but no faculty.

Junior Sydney Treiman flipped on the lights in Room 303, the usual site of her 8 a.m. business writing class, sat by herself for about 10 minutes, and then left. The class usually has 25 to 30 students, she said.

“I just hope they get a contract in the next few days because there’s been rumors about refunding the semester, and, so far, this has been my best semester,” she said. “I don’t want to lose my grades.”

Campuses still open

The affected universities haven’t shut down entirely. Campuses remain open, and West Chester officials have asked students to show up at classes and wait at least 10 minutes, until they know for sure their professor is coming.

Wednesday morning at Main Hall, university officials audited classrooms to see which ones didn’t have teachers, dismissing students when it became clear the professor would not show.

A couple hundred yards away, faculty members held signs and chanted in unison. There were few, if any, outward signs of dissension among their ranks. Union organizers said they planned to have striking staff posted at every entrance to the large suburban campus.

The path to this work stoppage is littered with acrimony, discord, and the occasional scrap of false hope.

PASSHE and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties negotiated over the weekend and through Tuesday evening. About 9:30 p.m., management made a final offer and cut off further talks.

PASSHE said in a statement its last proposal included pay raises for all regular and temporary faculty. The health care package, meanwhile, would have been “identical” to the one available to other system employees. Significantly, PASSHE walked back several changes it had proposed that would have increased the workload of adjunct and temporary faculty while also cutting into adjunct pay.  The rescinded proposal also would have allowed for more temporary professors.

Union officials accused PASSHE and Chancellor Frank Brogan of abandoning negotiations and, by extension, the system’s students. They argued the package still amounted to a pay cut for many union members after taking into account increased health care costs.

In what seemed a largely symbolic gesture, union reps tweeted throughout the night that they were still at the physical negotiating table. At the predetermined deadline of 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, APSCUF officially called a strike and faculty almost immediately formed picket lines.

Both sides said there are no active negotiations.

Chiding from the governor

Gov. Tom Wolf urged the parties to continue talking and scolded them for their failure to reach an accord.

“The shortsightedness on both sides is counter to my efforts on behalf of the system and hurts the dedicated professors and university staff, and students and their families who are paying tuition to these universities,” said Wolf in a statement.

“Everyone’s top priority should be the students and their families who are counting on an agreement to ensure Pennsylvania continues to deliver on its promise to provide a world-class college education. I urge both sides to return to the table immediately and continue negotiations until an agreement is reached.”

Wolf also touted the fact that he has increased state aid to education after what he termed “harmful cuts made under the previous administration.”

It is “very rare” for faculty unions as large as APSCUF to strike, said Richard Boris, who until recently ran the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education. Though actual stoppages may be unusual, many state university systems face bleak financial outlooks caused by rising costs and shrinking government revenue. And that can, in turn, cause labor friction.

In the last year alone, public university unions in California and New York have authorized strikes, though neither ended up picketing.

“There’s lava that is spewed from a very deep source,” said Boris. “And the deep source is the 35 years of reduced spending on public universities and colleges.”

Decreases in state money leave public universities with few options. They can raise tuition or they can drive hard bargains with their staff. Both come with major risks.

It’s difficult to say how the 14 affected schools will deal with the ongoing strike given that it is unprecedented. At West Chester University, school officials are attempting to carry on as normal.

The homecoming football game is slated for Saturday and a university representative said the game will go on as scheduled, though it’s possible the school will have to subcontract athletic trainers. Trainers are part of the bargaining unit that is now on strike. Athletic coaches have their own unit.

West Chester will not, however, hire contractors to teach classes during the strike. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.