The Unicorn is Dead: Dreams of Labor-Management Partnership

On December 11, 2019, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Association of Pennsylvania State College Faculty (APSCUF), issued a joint press release heralding a new Spring in labor-management relations. The occasion was the Board of Governors’ unanimous approval of the new faculty contract, which was a product of “interest-based bargaining.” Yes, the unicorn of labor relations. Interest-based bargaining, that centrist dream of putting aside all the rancor and conflict embedded in class relations. Can’t we all get along?

The view from 5,000 feet

You would be excused if you thought that the unicorn was, indeed, alive. I mean all sides seemed to be basking in the warm sunlight of that post-class, post-conflict higher education pasture in that press release. 

 Chancellor Daniel Greenstein beamed, 

Our universities and students are poised for success during the next four years because of these new contractsI want to thank APSCUF and SCUPA’s leadership teams for their parts in what proved to ultimately be successful teamwork, and I look forward to what we all achieve together during the next four years.

APSCUF President Ken Mash shared Greenstein’s enthusiasm, 

I appreciate the involvement of the board chair and the chancellor, and we hope that this cooperative relationship inspires the Commonwealth’s policymakers to adequately fund the State System.

And, the Chair of the PASSHE Board of Governors, Cynthia Shapira couldn’t have been prouder to see PASSHE administrators and APSCUF leadership holding hands in friendship, 

We set out to establish a renewed relationship with our faculty and staff based on trust and honesty. I’m proud to be a part of this chapter in the State System’s history when so many are coming together meaningfully and for the sake of student success.

When APSCUF and PASSHE first reached an “agreement in principle” at the end of September, all parties also seemed to be overflowing with glee in their joint press release

APSCUF President Mash said, 

I believe that the agreement in principle represents an historic advance in the process of creating a shared vision of how our universities should operate to best serve our students. The principle components are fair, they address a number of faculty concerns, and they establish a solid foundation for the future of public higher education in Pennsylvania. I would like to thank my faculty colleague negotiators, Chairwoman Cynthia Shapira, Chancellor Daniel Greenstein, and all of the negotiators for maintaining a collaborative and respectful tone during these negotiations.

Chancellor Greenstein joined in, 

By engaging deeply with each other from the start, the negotiating teams achieved a result that puts students first, honors the important work of our dedicated faculty, and takes another important step toward overcoming our financial challenges. Along the way, we built lasting relationships that will serve us well as we collaborate to create a better future for our students, our 14 universities, and our Commonwealth. I want to thank Ken Mash and the faculty he represents for the thought partnership that brought about this milestone.

Board of Governors Chair Shapira waxed poetic, 

When the State System and APSCUF began this journey last summer, we all envisioned a process that put students at the center of our discussions. We’ve achieved that goal together. Reaching this milestone is another example of what System Redesign is all about—working together to solve complex problems with the shared understanding of our common interests and always putting students at the center of everything we do.

It seems like the seeds of interest-based bargaining had, indeed, borne fruit. As the trio explained in their press release, “the State System and APSCUF have engaged in interest-based bargaining, which focuses on collaboration instead of traditional exchanges of contract proposals.” They collaborated and the process did not lead to a rancorous strike as it did in 2016. No. This time around the process lead to, well, friendship. 

I have no reason to question that the interest-based bargaining process led to good feelings and positive partnerships among the leadership of PASSHE, APSCUF, and the Board of Governors. I am glad for them. However, by January, it seems that some of the bad old ways were threatening the newfound friendship. 

In his remarks to the Board of Governors on January 16, APSCUF President Mash warned, 

Cultural change is a very hard thing to pull off, and it takes time. You — the board and the chancellor — have undertaken a lot at one time. To be successful, all of us need to pull in the same direction. But I hope everyone understands that cultural change must cascade down to every campus, and it must be done with the same alacrity with which we confront our financial, enrollment, and retention issues. Those harboring resentments are, by human nature, waiting to pounce on failure [note: “alacrity” means, “cheerful readiness.” You’re welcome, happy readers). 

Mash may have meant “administrators” as those potentially “harboring resentments” that are waiting in the bushes waiting to “pounce on failure.” However, the warning seems to be equally directed to rank-and-file union members. Union members who are not as eager to jump on the bandwagon assembled in the interest-based bargaining process. People who tend to be too critical. People who just won’t let sleeping dogs lie.   

Closer to the ground 

While APSCUF’s president was issuing warnings that people harboring resentment could threaten the new labor-management amity, administrators at Kutztown University were preparing to drop the ax on adjunct faculty, increase class size, and roll out a plan to cut more than 60 faculty members. 

Precarity for Adjuncts

At the end of the fall semester, eight adjunct faculty members had their teaching schedules reduced from full-time to part-time. The administration ordered several department chairs to “zero out” the enrollment cap for several adjunct faculty members, which amounted to a “pre-cut” to their schedules. The administration said chairs could not open up those “pre-cut” sections until all other faculty members’ schedules were filled. The administration suggested that they didn’t think there was enough student demand to justify the additional sections. 

The problem with the administration’s claim was that department chairs and faculty advisors had heard quite a different story from students. For example, a growing number of students could not find a section of the required writing course, CMP 200 Research and Composition, to fit their schedules. When the concerns of students were brought to the attention of the Deans and the Provost, they dismissed it as “anecdotal.” So, students were not able to find sections of a required class and adjunct faculty members who were originally scheduled to teach that class had part of their schedules put on ice. For students that meant potentially screwing up their degree plan. For adjunct faculty members, it meant real-life challenges. 

In addition to a real reduction in salary, adjunct faculty members who are cut to part-time from full-time have to pay three times more in health insurance. So, we’re talking a double financial whammy right off the bat – less money coming in; more money going out. Just as significant is that cutting an adjunct faculty member from full-time to part-time breaks that faculty member’s full-time teaching record. That’s significant because the APSCUF contract, once seen as the gold-standard for protecting adjunct faculty, contains a provision for converting adjunct faculty to tenure-track faculty after eight (8) semesters of continuous full-time teaching. If you break the cycle, the clock starts over again. So, add increased precarity to financial strain. 

As the spring semester approached, two of the eight adjunct faculty members had their schedules reduced to part-time and one adjunct faculty member had their schedule reinstated. That left five adjunct faculty members in limbo. 

A week and a half before the semester began, those five faculty were notified that they were cut to part-time. At the same time university administrators issued the cuts, those same administrators increased the class size of other faculty members to accommodate those students who could not get the classes they needed. In other words, administrators increased the workload of some faculty so they could throw five adjunct faculty into financial insecurity and job precarity. To make matters worse, administrators made the decision to increase class sizes and formalize the cuts without consulting faculty. Faculty began asking questions when they suddenly saw their class rosters tick up. In the case of CMP 200, an increase in class size also meant the administration broke an agreement with faculty setting an enrollment cap for the required writing-intensive class. In one move, the Kutztown University administrators told faculty they don’t give a damn about the impact of their decisions on adjuncts and they don’t give a damn about shared governance. 

Bring Back Austerity: Cut, Gut, and Punish

Cutting adjunct and increasing class size was not the end of KU administrators’ plans for 2020. In a meeting with faculty union leaders about a week before the start of the spring semester, university administrators showed their hand: their desire to eliminate up to 63 faculty positions. To be fair, that’s five fewer than PASSHE wanted. According to APSCUF-KU Meet and Discuss notes, in a December 5 meeting, Provost Dr. Anne Zayaitz indicated that the Chancellor’s Office said that the university was overstaffed by 68 faculty members. If you’re following the timeline here, that December 5 meeting was less than a week before APSCUF and PASSHE would issue that joint press release championing a new day if labor-management collaboration. 

According to local union sources, Zayaitz shared a document showing the calculations the administration used to determine that they needed to cut 63 positions. 

Comparison of Student/Faculty FTE 2011/201/ vs Student/Faculty FTE 2018/2019 – Kutztown University by RCPress on Scribd


 

According to union sources, the Provost said the administration wished to avoid retrenchment, but they would have to find another way to downsize the faculty. The administration indicated that they would need APSCUF’s help. Ah. There’s that labor-management amity again. We need your help to get rid of some of your colleagues? You can almost hear “Solidarity Forever” playing in the background.

APSCUF-KU leaders at the meeting were not interested in that kind of collaboration. 

Union leaders shared the document with the rest of the faculty indicating that the administration was considering retrenchment if they could not get the reductions they needed by getting rid of adjunct faculty and pushing a bunch of other faculty into retirement. Apparently, that made KU President Kenneth Hawkinson a bit nervous. He managed to rope the local APSCUF-KU president and the Provost into signing a joint statement saying there had been a “miscommunication.” The statement read: 

There has been information shared with the faculty today that we believe is a result of a misunderstanding. We are not contemplating retrenchment.  As was explained during the Convocation speech in August, and to many faculty and staff leaders and groups throughout the year, we continue to have fiscal challenges and hope to avoid retrenchment by rightsizing our workforce through attrition, and by limiting hiring, unless it is essential.  We have been in continual communication on our challenges and have scheduled briefings with the University Senate, Strategic Planning Committee, and other groups.  Again, as we have continually explained, we do not plan to retrench.  Should conditions warrant a discussion of retrenchment at a later time, we will discuss with all constituencies affected.

In other words, the administration would feel really bad if they were forced to retrench faculty. They “hope” that they can “rightsize” the faculty by 63 through “attrition” and “limited hiring.” The adjunct faculty cuts issued earlier this semester gives us a sense of what is coming.

We have a choice, of course. We can collaborate in austerity, or we can fight it. We can put pressure on our state legislature to adequately fund public higher education. We can refuse to be willing collaborators in another round of shock doctrine. We could learn the lessons of APSCUF’s 2016 strike – direct, collective action is the source of faculty power. That when faculty, students, staff, and the community organize together, we are not limited to the options on offer from the bean-counters. 

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About Editor, Raging Chicken Press 481 Articles
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. When he's not rabble-rousing on Raging Chicken, he's teaching rhetoric and writing at Kutztown University.