As Historic Strike Deadline Grows Near, PASSHE and APSCUF Negotiators Go Media Silent

On Wednesday, October 19, about 5,000 faculty members teaching in the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) will either have a tentative contract agreement or they will be on strike. That has been the consistent message that Ken Mash, president of the faculty union (APSCUF), has made clear since the union first announced its strike date on September 23. Faculty have been working without a contract for 476 days. On Saturday afternoon, APSCUF and PASSHE issued a joint press release saying that both sides have agreed to a media embargo until further notice. That embargo remains in place as of this posting.

The two sides have been meeting in marathon sessions since Friday in what may amount to a last-ditch effort to stave of the first faculty strike in the history of PASSHE. The marathon sessions follow on the heels of  heated and tense rounds of negotiations at the end of September that led APSCUF to file unfair labor practice charges against PASSHE. Following a negotiating session on September 29th, APSCUF issued a press release that suggested the two sides were far apart and that union negotiators were growing increasingly frustrated.

The key area of conflict appears to be the treatment of adjunct faculty. “Their proposed treatment of our adjunct faculty continues to be extremely troubling,” Martin said in the September 29th press release. “At the bargaining table, they once said they wanted to turn our temporary faculty into ‘teaching machines’ by suggesting that their salaries be cut or their workload be increased by 20 percent. They actually said that. I was disgusted by their disdain. My colleagues are hardworking teachers and researchers who provide valuable service to our students and our universities. We are anything but ‘teaching machines.’”

The “teaching machines” comment seemed to reopen wounds from the budget hearings back in March. Those hearings saw right-wing Republicans attack public higher education, faculty, and specific academic disciplines while PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan refused to rise to the defense of PASSHE or faculty. In that hearing, PASSHE was compared to a “communist style system;” some academic disciplines were labeled “Wal-Mart majors;” the Chancellor openly advocated for a pay-per-credit model which amounts a hidden tuition increase of up to 25%; and, the idea of simply shutting down some universities was advocated for by one legislator with no objection from the Chancellor. Here’s the full monty if you are so inclined:

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The stakes in these negotiations are quite high and deserve significantly more attention than they are receiving, especially in regards to what’s at stake for non-tenure-track adjunct faculty. APSCUF’s contract stands out as one of the few academic labor models that has successfully fought off waves of adjunctification and deprofessionalization that has become the hallmark of many U.S. colleges and universities. Writing in The AtlanticCaroline Fredrickson, makes plain just what has happened to academic labor over the past 40 years.

Nowhere has the up-classing of contingency work gone farther, ironically, than in one of the most educated and (back in the day) secure sectors of the workforce: college teachers. In 1969, almost 80 percent of college faculty members were tenure or tenure track. Today, the numbers have essentially flipped, with two-thirds of faculty now non-tenure and half of those working only part-time, often with several different teaching jobs.

Why this should be so is not immediately obvious. Unlike the legal and the traditional news industries, higher education has been booming in recent years.

Higher education has expanded significantly over the past 4o years; but, during that same period of time, state legislatures have slow-walked away from adequately funding public higher education. Political elites were seduced by an ascending market fundamentalism that has since taken over much of what was once held in common in the United States. Public colleges and universities have turned to shifting the costs onto the backs of students and their families on the one hand, and deepening the exploitation of contingent academic labor on the other.  As Fredrickson aptly put it,

teaching students is—or at least is supposed to be—the core mission of higher education. That colleges and universities have turned more and more of their frontline employees into part-time contractors suggests how far they have drifted from what they say they are all about (teaching students) to what they are increasingly all about (conducting research, running sports franchises, or, among for-profits, delivering shareholder value).

APSCUF’s contract has bucked the national trend on this score. While PASSHE has made persistent attempts to erode contract provisions that prevent wholesale adjunctification in the 14 state-owned universities, APSCUF’s current contract caps the number of adjunct faculty at 25% of the total faculty. The vast majority of adjunct faculty teaching in PASSHE universities teaching full-time, qualify the same medical benefits as their tenure-line colleagues, and are paid on-scale with new tenure-line hires. In addition, the contract provides a path to conversion tenure-line status adjunct faculty who have worked at a university for four consecutive academic years. The contract is not perfect to be sure. For example, even though adjuncts are paid on scale with new tenure-line faculty, they do not, as a rule, qualify for “steps” – pay increases based upon years of service. Or, while the contract provides a path to conversion to tenure-line status, there are no guarantees.

By comparison to the national picture, however, APSCUF’s contract has been considered by some to be the “gold standard” when it comes to issues of fairness, parity, and job security for adjunct faculty. According to the New Faculty Majority, a national adjunct advocacy organization, “75.5% of college faculty are now off the tenure track, meaning they have NO access to tenure.” Of these faculty, “700,000 or just over 50% are so-called part-time, most often known as ‘adjunct’.” The trend is just the opposite at PASSHE universities. According to a 2010 Keystone Research Center report, “Reversing Course in Pennsylvania Higher Education,” “Pennsylvania relies on contingent faculty almost as much as the nation as a whole. Big gaps, albeit not as large as national gaps, also exist in the pay and benefits between Pennsylvania contingent faculty and those with tenure or on a tenure track.” However, when you compare the differences among Pennsylvania colleges and universities, PASSHE universities resist those national trends. Check out these comparisons:


It is precisely this “disparity” that PASSHE administrators have taken aim at. Ever since PASSHE dropped its bombshell proposals on the table back on June 10, APSCUF has made it clear that degrading the conditions of adjunct faculty is unacceptable. Before the news embargo during this week’s talks, PASSHE had been proposing to increase adjuncts teaching load from four to five classes per semester, without an increase in pay – that’s a 20% pay cut. Or, PASSHE would be just fine with keeping adjuncts at four classes per semester, if they could cut their pay by 20%. Oh, yeah, and they want to eliminate the possibility of conversion. Oh, and let’s not forget increasing the number or adjuncts from 20% t0 30%.

This direct assault on adjunct is also an assault on faculty as a whole. If PASSHE negotiators get what they want, it will mean a pretty dramatic reduction in the number of tenure-line faculty. Take Kutztown University as an example. With approximately 400 faculty members, an increase in the course load and percentage of adjunct faculty members, would enable the university president to reduce the number of tenure-line faculty members by 50. That is, we’re talking about turning upwards of 50 tenure-line faculty positions into contingent, adjunct positions.

It is not clear when the news embargo will be broken. But the clock is ticking down to APSCUF’s deadline of 5:00 am on Wednesday. As final strike preparations are made on all 14 campuses, we are just hours away from knowing if APSCUF will be successful in defending adjunct faculty protections in the contract. Put another way, we are just hours away from knowing if APSCUF will be on strike.

We will continue to follow this story.

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