APSCUF Tentative Contract Agreement: Victory? Turning Point?

This past Sunday morning (2/3/13), APSCUF – the union that represents more than 6,000 faculty and coaches in the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) – announced it had reached an agreement on a “framework” for a faculty contract after more than two years of negotiating and 19 months working without a contract. On Monday evening, the “framework” was sent to APSCUF’s Negotiations Committee for a vote on whether or not to approve the “framework,” turning it into a “tentative agreement.” The Negotiations Committee voted unanimously to do so. The union’s representative body – APSCUF’s Legislative Assembly – will discuss and vote this weekend  (2/7 – 2/9) on whether or not to send the agreement to the membership for ratification. Specific details of the agreement will be discussed among APSCUF members at membership meetings and union listservs.

An Agreement for Our Times?

If you look at this agreement at face value, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a mixed bag. Faculty take the biggest hit in terms of salary and health care. The four-year contract shows a 0% increase in the first year (2011-2012); 1% in spring 2013; 1% in fall 2013; and 2% in fall 2014. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the average increase in the Consumer Price Index (inflation) to be 2.4% over the past ten years, ranging from a low of 0.1% in 2008 to a high of 4.1% in 2007. At an average 1% increase per year (an effective increase of slightly higher than 1% each year over the life of the contract) is still below the depressingly meager 1.7% increase in wages and salaries. If you factor in “step increases” for years of service most faculty – not all – make out better than the national average. Increases in health care payments eat away at the increases, but correcting PASSHE’s practice of forcing faculty to overpay for health care and pocketing the savings, may prove to off-set increases. In the end, faculty salaries will not keep up with inflation.

On the non-economic front, APSCUF reports to have made some significant gains in work rules and governance. For example, for the first time class size will be included in the contract as an issue that is subject to curriculum committee recommendations. The inclusion of class size language in the contract is significant in that faculty have been attempting to prevent class sizes from exploding at PASSHE universities for years. Due to a Pennsylvania court case from years ago, APSCUF has been not been able to effectively negotiate over class size because the collective bargaining agreement did not contain any language referring to class size. The explicit inclusion of class size  in the contract effectively trumps that court case.  There were also improvements to the professional development fund and a simplifying of several contractual processes.

Unwritten Victory?

There is no doubt that when many faculty – and I include myself here – look at this agreement they will see it as another in a succession of contracts in which faculty salaries do not keep pace with inflation while being asked to do more with less each and every day we show up to work. Pennsylvania’s under-funding of PASSHE and Gov. Corbett’s deep cuts in PASSHE’s funding have strained faculty work, time, energy, and patience. There is no way getting around that truth and, frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to. It might not feel good to work in a state that approaches higher education more like a chain of big box stores than as an institution for advanced learning, professional training, and citizenship education. But, that IS Pennsylvania right now. And until that becomes etched into our heads and we are willing to organize and collectively push back on the level we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio in 2011, we will continue to lose ground and get the shaft. And I am not just talking about faculty members at PASSHE universities. All Pennsylvania working families and their children have been in the crosshairs for years now – and continue to be.  At face value, APSCUFs current tentative agreement does not begin to roll back the attacks. There is a bigger story here, however.



Context matters. When PASSHE first came to the table with their demands, they were after nothing short of a fundamental transformation of public higher education in Pennsylvania – of the PASSHE system. In April 2011, after playing the negotiations delay game for four months, Chancellor John Cavanaugh sent APSCUF four pages of PASSHE “bargaining objectives.” The most dramatic of these objections was to lift the caps on the number of temporary faculty PASSHE universities could hire. The previous collective bargaining agreement limited the total number of part-time and full-time temporary faculty to 25%, ensuring the remaining 75% of faculty would be tenured or tenure-track. Cavanaugh expressed his interest in flipping these numbers so that PASSHE could look more like the most exploitative colleges and universities across the country. Not only did he want to temp out faculty, he wanted to strip temporary faculty of any sense of parity – paying them on a per-class, market-driven basis instead. What does that mean? Well, instead of earning a living wage, these faculty would be earning between $1500 and $3000 per course. Even at a full schedule, temporary faculty could not earn a living wage. And forget about any hopes for health insurance or job security.

Not only was PASSHE seeking to temp out the majority of faculty, but they also wanted to increase the teaching load. Cavanaugh’s initial proposal was to increase regular faculty work load from eight classes per year to nine. A short time after, he pulled away from that proposal opting to increase the full-time teaching load only for temporary faculty – from eight courses per year to ten.

Chancellor SheriffChancellor Cavanaugh and his advisors also sought to strip retirees of their health care in favor of a one time “voucher” to shop for insurance on the individual insurance market. The “voucher” would barely cover a basic health insurance plan in the individual market, let alone a policy approaching the health care pre-retirement faculty have. This amounts to giving people who gave their entire working lives to PASSHE and PASSHE students a kick in the ass on their way out the door.

And I could go on (and on and on) as the list of attacks seemed endless. In a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, the Chancellor was attempting to pit temporary faculty against tenured and tenure-track faculty, junior faculty against senior faculty and, of course, students against faculty. PASSHE consistently and publicly cried about being “broke,” that unless faculty accepted these terms the financial burden would be passed on to already-struggling students and their families. But then there were the facts. As APSCUF’s lead negotiator, Stuart Davidson, explained at an APSCUF Legislative Assembly meeting in September 2012, PASSHE is sitting on about a half a BILLION dollars in reserves. I don’t know many people who would look at an institution with a half a billion dollars in a rainy-day savings account as “broke.”

Cavanaugh’s agenda was never about real economic conditions anyway. What we have seen is a different version of the attack on working families, collective bargaining, and the public sector that has spread across the country like wild-fire, fueled by fringe, right-wing Republican legislative victories in 2010. As I wrote about in a previous article, “Smashing Apples: Shock Doctrine for Public Education – That’s What It’s All About,”  in that same September 2012 Legislative Assembly meeting:

Davidson [our Chief Negotiator] said that from his perspective, PASSHE Chancellor John Cavanaugh has sought to “virtually gut our collective bargaining agreement” from the beginning of negotiations. He is seeking to “eliminate faculty’s role in governance,” “shift $8 million in health care costs onto faculty,” and to go after the structure of the State System itself. While PASSHE has about half a billion dollars in reserves, the Chancellor continues to insist that PASSHE is broke and he refuses to allow a contract similar to the contract offered to other PASSHE unions. Davidson suggested that he is left with the conclusion that the Chancellor sees this negotiations as an opportunity to “break the union and gain the national spotlight for himself.” At one point, Davidson said, “We cannot allow ourselves to be led quietly to the slaughter at let him get himself on the national stage.” Both Davidson and APSCUF state leadership have come to view our contract negotiations in the same category as the recent Chicago teachers’ strike and Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s attempt to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights.

None of that happened. That’s significant. That’s a win.

Did We Just Really Do That?

As frustrating these past two years of negotiations have been, yes, we just did that. We won a victory – at least when it comes to APSCUF as an organization and union push-back against the assault on working families and the public sphere. Two years of slogging through a seemingly endless negotiations process calls to mind a good piece of advice Thomas Paine offered in Common Sense: 

A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

For a long time now we have been immersed in a public discourse framed in “economic crisis.” We are living in a Shock Doctrine world. When an employer or a government official waves the “we’re broke we can’t afford this” banner, people tend to jump on board, clamoring for cuts. In that moment, facts and reason are overwhelmed by the tumult. However, as Paine suggests, that tumult soon subsides. The key of the APSCUF victory has been to relentlessly plod forward, waiting for the tumult to subside so that reason could reign again. As has been the case in right-wing attack after right-wing attack, the “fact-based world” – to borrow a phrase from Rachel Maddow – runs in direct opposition to their claims. Their numbers don’t add up – at least in the way they do for the rest of us. Their logic is the logic of demagogues who have been locked in a dark room with each other for way too long, dreaming up an outside world from which they locked themselves away.

In the end, three things seemed to come together at the same time that led to a surprise, marathon bargaining session the weekend of February 1. Chancellor John Cavanaugh gave PASSHE and, as it turns out, APSCUF an early Christmas present by resigning his $357,500 position in December, effective February 28, 2013. The Chancellor’s surprise announcement cause the last-minute cancellation of a bargaining session and, apparently, threw PASSHE’s “cut, gut, and punish” strategy into flux.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASecond, on January 24th, over 500 APSCUF members converged on the PASSHE Board of Governors meeting in Harrisburg, PA to demand a contract. I have to say that in my 10+ years involvement in APSCUF I have never seen our members with such determination – a determination that comes from that visceral experience of having had enough. While there have been members who have sniped on social media about the fact that “only” 500+ members showed up, it was, as far as I can tell, the strongest showing of APSCUF members at a statewide, negotiations related protest in my memory. Despite freezing temperatures and an early morning start, APSCUF members were loud, determined, and pretty clear that either we get a quick resolution to this contract, or we strike.

Finally, the Board of Governors was going to be facing having to hire a Chancellor in the midst of the most contentious labor dispute in PASSHE’s history. Not exactly a welcome mat. It appears that no other PASSHE Vice-Chancellor had the stomach for the kind of “transformation” that Cavanaugh was pushing, despite their significant, six-figure salaries.

Call it a harmonic convergence.

So, in the first significant bargaining session after PASSHE officials’ heads stopped spinning from the news of the imminent departure of their Shock Doctrinaire leader, an agreement was reached in a two-day, bargaining sprint.

The question now is whether APSCUF and progressive organizations across the state will claim this as a win against the broader attack against workers and all things public that the right-wing seems determined to keep waging. From my perspective, we HAVE to recognize the significance of this victory. I know there will be those who will be more interested in bemoaning the continual erosion of faculty salaries and who will, therefore, dismiss APSCUF’s fight back efforts as insignificant. I for one will be angry at the erosion of my salary and the impact this will continue to have on my family, on my children and THEN will get back to organizing. And there’s a lot of reasons to organize right now. PA Governor Corbett is seeking to privatize more of the State’s assets, stripping away more middle-class jobs and handing over huge sums of tax-payer dollars to unregulated corporations. Republicans in the State House are unveiling their plans to bring anti-collective bargaining legislation to the floor and privatize our public schools. Not to mention that since our negotiations took two years and our new four-year contract will be retroactive to July 2011, APSCUF will be back at the negotiations table in no time.

So, yes, this can be a turning point if we are willing to put in the work to continue to organize and mobilize. And, we have to be willing to recognize the effectiveness of a fight-back strategy. When it comes time to cast my vote, I will vote to ratify this contract. But my “YES” vote will be no more an affirmation that it is an awesome contract than a vote for Barack Obama is a vote for a progressive, pro-labor president. Context matters. My “YES” vote will be an affirmation of what we, as a union, fought back and a commitment to fight even harder the day after I cast my ballot.

Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor of Raging Chicken Press. He is also an Associate Professor of English at Kutztown University and an active and proud member of APSCUF.


Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!

8 Comments on APSCUF Tentative Contract Agreement: Victory? Turning Point?

  1. Indeed, I agree that we have to count this as a win–all the while we have to work very hard to insure that we go into the next round–a mere four years from now–with a clearer vision of just what it is we are protecting and advancing in higher education, namely, excellence in the educations of our students–not merely their training for Dilbert-Box jobs or as frack-rig workers in corporate America. We also, I think, need to do more to make clear that beyond our lives as teachers, we are scholars, writers, artists, musicians, scientists who take as part of our mission to contribute to the body of knowledge, art, etc. I, for on, am heartily sick of the effort to Wal-martize my job, my college, my students, my colleagues. So while we absolutely must herald this as a win, we must also be vigilant and ready to defend an institution increasingly under fire in an America quickly becoming America, Inc. We are, after all, THE difference between the mere reproduction of labor and the education of citizens capable or the critical thinking necessary to a democracy.

  2. Well said. As almost always happens, you’re a step or two ahead of me on the clarity scale; you’ve articulated here what I’d like to have thought.

    • The point is how do you get there. Progressives have continuously organized around a one-and-done model. That is, we’ll get all geared up for an election, for example, and then we’ll go back to whatever we were doing the day after the election. Can’t think of a better example than our current president. The fact that APSCUF DOES NOT have a history of militancy, strikes, or mass mobilization is part of what the union has to develop now, from my perspective, or we will be broken. It’s fight back, or give up. But turning a union into a fight back organization is not like flipping a switch. People need actual experiences of fighting back and gaining victories.

      Frankly, I agree with your sentiment here (and the arguments you have been making in other venues about successively poor contract, especially when it comes to salaries and benefits). But from my perspective this contract is not the same animal as the past. This time APSCUF has pretty much the best Chief negotiator we could have – that was NOT the case for the previous few contract. You were one of the APSCUF members who (along with me and many others) argued for getting as professional negotiator on our side. Part of our argument was that the days of PASSHE having a Chancellor who was actually invested in the long-term success and history of the State System was long gone. Instead PASSHE is importing union-busting careerists from Florida. We argued that having negotiating process that relied upon a committee team of volunteers COULD NOT meet the attacks we were facing. So, what did we do. We got to work and successfully changed our whole negotiations process. WE did that. Members did that. We won that.

      So, here’s our first contract in the wake of the Wall Street created economic crisis, a coordinated right-wing attack against labor and the public sector, and a faculty that is only beginning to really get that the only way we are going to stop the gutting of public higher education is to fight back. I’m not going to argue with you on your financial analysis…as you can see in this piece, I agree with it. What I don’t agree with is your conclusion that APSCUF is worthless now. I get the frustration. I get the fact that you AND I are not keeping pace with inflation. But I also get the fact that APSCUF – WE – made it clear that any attempt to turn our faculty into a sea of piece workers – mass contingency – was unacceptable. We stopped that. Cold.

      Look, I am not an idealist. I don’t believe we can simply will things into being. That’s why I will continue to help mobilize, organize. And, I know one way to ensure that every future contract is worse than the previous one is for every strong union activist in APSCUF to give up. Then they will break us.

  3. So perhaps a better title might be “Not enough, but a possible starting point.” I agree with you that we cannot expect to turn the switch to being an activist union or going from a weak form of business unionism to being a militant/solidarity type of union overnight. I also am not sure that we ever effectively took the temperature or looked for the type of feedback we should have from our membership during the process. I still think there is a huge step that has to be taken to achieve being an activist union and that entails recognizing the democratic form of the union and utilizing the power that comes from this form.
    However, we can never be sure that we pushed our own current boundaries to where they could have gone – especially at the end of this process (that would be engaging in counterfactual thinking). I also agree we have to look at the context, but this includes the entire context of negotiations, not just those that would suggest we got the best possible contract that we could have. For instance, we should not ignore that part of the context such as a healthy surplus and the counter cyclical nature of higher education (i.e. students enroll in degree programs or continue on to masters programs when the economy is bad), or our still very competitive tuition with a great deal of demand-side inelasticity. We will never know the entire range of what PASSHE considered acceptable offers (especially from a purely economic standpoint)–perhaps we found the true narrow overlap between what they considered acceptable and what we considered acceptable. In fact, at this point we cannot be sure that the team identified the range of our membership’s acceptable CBAs. Then again perhaps we could have pushed PASSHE’s position a bit further by using the leverage we had built as an organization over these past two years.

    Yes we know the starting position of PASSHE and we know that we pushed well back from that and for that we should all recognize the importance of being in a union (i.e. if not for being unionized many of us would be teaching our classes on-line right now to hundreds or thousands of students, many of us would be out of work, and many of the rest of us would be adjunct faculty earning a couple of thousand dollars per course). At the same time we must also recognize the power we have as a result of being in a union. We should consider the power we have to protect ourselves (and not to be ashamed that we are standing up for our own rights) and the power we have to protect the integrity of higher education. I believe it is from here that we should begin our “starting point.” To take the steps that are necessary to build a truly activist, strong union that is willing to use the leverage and the power we have for the benefit of our members as well as our system of higher education. For this reason, I believe it is time that we take the next step and push for a stronger, more transparent and more democratic union that recognizes its position and power within the broader labor movement.

    In solidarity,

    Jerry Carbo

    • Jerry,

      I am with you most of the way here. The one thing that I would push on, however, is that I think it is also critical to recognize how far this union HAS come over the past, say, 10 years (that’s my reference point). Turning an organization like APSCUF is a sustained, long-terms project as you know. I can remember my first year as a delegate (2004) being told that it would be a “good idea to bring student papers to grade” during Assembly, because it was so “boring.” And, at my first Assembly, I saw a lot of members doing just that.

      I thank the stars that that when I started going to Assembly, there were a lot of new delegates – many of them like me, untenured faculty in our first couple of years – who rejected that vision of Assembly. We did some “radical” things like READ THE BYLAWS. The Bylaws clearly said Legislative Assembly was the policy-making body of the union – we were EMPOWERED by our bylaws to act on our charge. And after several years of organizing, we’ve been able to make some significant changes – transparent budget process, reforming negotiations process, delegate-initiated policy changes, union-funded benefits for same-sex domestic partners (just to name a few). We are far from what I, or you I think, think a democratic union should be.

      In my mind, one of the surest paths to defeatism and cynicism is to believe that we can flip a switch and turn on “activist union.” Just like you said above, this cannot happen overnight. I also think it is important that we commit to the long-haul and recognize that this work – the work of building a stronger, fight-back union culture – is not sexy. Our refusal to go back, our commitment to struggle to build such a culture needs to recognize that the work IS long. And we need to recognize what we achieve along the way. I don’t mean to say that we simply celebrate and brush aside the “bad.” Rather, if we can recognize our clear successes, the “bad” can be another opportunity to organize. Another chance to move toward the next success.

      That is one of the reasons I like the idea of “turning point” instead of “starting point.” A lot of work has been done to get us here…and we have the POTENTIAL to turn downhill and pick up steam on our way to a more fight-back spirit. I’m already looking forward to the next protest in Harrisburg. I still look forward to the day I’ll get to camp out in the state Capitol.

      Anyway, thanks for the response, brother!

  4. The foregoing discussion to which I respond gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. The curent generation of members (or at least those who bother to engage) seem miles ahead of us old (and retired) guys and gals.

    I do not know who edits/monitors thos site. I would like to submit some things I wrote “in the old days”. I subscribe to the warnings about thse who forget history…

    If anyone is listening, please let me know whether (and how) to submit things (that are longer than most of these posrs.)

    Martin Morand
    martin.morand @gmail.com

5 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Our APSCUF-KU brother Kevin Mahoney on the tentative agreement | APSCUF-WCU
  2. APSCUF Tentative Contract Agreement: Victory? Turning Point? | Academe Blog
  3. PASSHE Chancellor Cavanaugh Hits the Road, Attacks on Public Higher Ed Likely to Continue | Raging Chicken Press
  4. PASSHE Chancellor Hits the Road, Attacks on Public Higher Ed in PA Likely to Continue | Academe Blog
  5. “No More Games”: APSCUF Faculty Move Closer to Strike


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.