The October Surprise Could Come On The 19th In Pennsylvania

The fate of the 2016 election may boil down to the intractable disagreement between two groups in Pennsylvania whose names most people have never heard. One, known as PASSHE – the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education – is the bureaucratic administrative body of the 14 state universities in Pennsylvania.  The other, known as APSCUF is the union that represents the 5500 faculty and coaches that work at the state-owned universities.

Driven by the interests they represent and the divergent beliefs they have about higher education these two groups, and the teams they have behind them, have been at loggerheads over the future landscape of public higher education in Pennsylvania for at least the previous year and a half. This battle has largely taken place in the forum for the quadrennial contract negotiations for public higher education faculty. Over the thirty-plus-year history of the negotiations between PASSHE and APSCUF have always led to reasonable agreements without either calling a strike or locking out faculty.

This time it seems to be quite different. The two are worlds apart on the typical bargaining issues of salary and benefits. On top of that the contract demands made by PASSHE are intended to reshape the core structure and process for public higher education in Pennsylvania as defined by the long-standing agreement with APSCUF. Faculty and coaches are not on board with the degree and types of changes demanded and, as of September 16th, have voted to authorize Dr. Mash to call a strike if needed. 

The date has been set for a strike to occur on October 19th if a tentative agreement is not reached.

The ripple effect of a strike will impact all corners of the state, and include disruption to the 100,000 students who may have to pack up and go home or go elsewhere for their education, the families who provide financial support that could be left with a bursars bill for an incomplete semester, the university communities that may be impacted by the  interruption in regular economic flow from the university, the contractors and university employees whose lives and livelihoods that may also be disrupted, and the faculty themselves who will not collect pay, benefits, or do the work they love while on strike. When it is all said-and-done, the lives of millions in Pennsylvania could be directly and indirectly impacted, inconvenienced, disrupted, and derailed from this action.

Nobody will be happy if a strike or lockout occurs. Then it will be time to vote in the general election.

This scenario, in a state, at a time, in a year that is not Pennsylvania in October 2016 may not become of much political importance. But it is shaping up to be that Pennsylvania will be the swing-state that gets to decide the Presidential (and Senate) election. Pennsylvania, in other words, is going to be the electoral tipping-point for the Presidency and Senate. So it is more likely that a faculty strike under these conditions will be amplified, magnified, and toxified.

The cynical-politico type will be interested in which candidate a strike will benefit – Trump or Clinton. The truth is that this is unclear.

If the strike has the effect of dispersing students throughout the state, and back to their family homes, it could benefit the Trump campaign. This is because students, and millennials in general, are an important target of the Clinton campaign which have been difficult to reach. There is no better place than a college campus, to find, reach, communicate to, register and turn-out young eligible voters. Doing so is a must for Clinton this year in Pennsylvania and this disruption could place many young folks out of the campaign’s reach which would benefit Trump.

Rather than dispersing students throughout the state, back to their family homes, a faculty strike might be a unifying and mobilizing force on this demographic, which could benefit the Clinton campaign. Pennsylvania current ranks near the bottom of states in college affordability and much of that can be attributed to the gradual withdraw of state funding over the past 20 years. As it currently stands, Pennsylvania funding for the state system is at the same dollar amount as it was in 1999 – a time when the State House Majority Leader Dave Reed was a student at one of the PASSHE schools. The students may hear this message, find the expectation to shoulder more of the burden of their education than previous generations to be unfair, and mobilize politically which would likely benefit Clinton.

It has been a tactic of the PASSHE team to perpetuate a caricature of APSCUF faculty to the public as under-worked and overpaid government employees. If this becomes the dominant framing used in the public conversation about the strike, it could also benefit Trump. The countless families, university town business owners, contractors and university employees that may be influenced by this framing, could potentially turn their anger and resentment at the status quo government in general which would likely benefit the Trump campaign.

Likewise, it has been a tactic of APSCUF to perpetuate a caricature of PASSHE administrators as either feckless or disinterested in protecting state funding to higher education in Pennsylvania. It has been noted that Frank Brogan was appointed Chancellor to PASSHE by the previous Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett, at a time when he was proposing devastating cuts in state funding for PASSHE – at times over 50%. The state-owned universities in Pennsylvania have not recovered from the Corbett cuts and APSCUF argues that the burden has been transferred by PASSHE administrators to the backs of students and faculty in the form of program cuts, layoffs and higher tuition and fees. The countless students, parents, business owners, contractors, and employees that benefit from PASSHE schools may realize that universities provide common good for Pennsylvania and politically mobilize to support candidates that believe in funding public higher education as a common good which would likely benefit the Clinton campaign.

What is known, is that the faculty at these universities desire to avoid a strike and the influence on the election that may result from it. They are not the type to gleefully run into the ugliness at the center of political battles. The past history of the APSCUF and PASSHE negotiations never leading to a strike or lockout serves as ample proof. Faculty really only want to be able to be able to conduct their research and teach the knowledge they have to the next generation in an environment that best suits their teaching and to make an honest salary reflective of their skills and education. Even the slogan of the 5500 faculty is one of reluctance “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Although no one can say for sure what the effects would be if a strike or lock out occurs, the evidence given clearly above that the decisions of these two groups who most have not heard of before, could have an enormous impact in shaping the political future of our nation should be enough to come to a reasonable agreement – and for others to want to help broker that resolution.

Shaping the future is an important goal in higher education, just not in this way.

* Journalistic Disclosure: Christian Vaccaro is employed by PASSHE and is a member of APSCUF.

This post originally appeared on Christian Vaccaro’s blog.

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