Strike means chaos

November 16, 2012

What might happen if professors at Pennsylvania state universities strike? No one really knows because it’s never happened before. No matter the result, however, tuition payers – students and their parents – are not going to be happy.

Faculty and coaches represented by the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, including those at California University, have been voting this week on whether to authorize a strike. The union has been working without a contract since June 2011. A decision is expected to be announced today after each chapter’s strike authorization votes are tallied in Harrisburg.

The State System of Higher Education, like every other business or institution, needs to find ways to cut costs at its 14 state-owned universities, and this labor contract is one way to do it, with changes in health and retirement benefits and by paying adjunct instructors less. Initially, the state system sought to cut pay for temporary faculty by 35 percent, but that measure is not included in the latest proposal.

Part-time faculty at state universites earn more that those at private colleges and universities. Typically, an adjunct instructor in a private college earns about $2,500 for teaching a 3-credit course – a fraction of what full-time faculty are paid.

Faced with mounting costs, many colleges and universities are relying more on adjuncts to teach courses. As demand for their services grows, adjuncts are demanding fairer compensation. Adjuncts, who teach 60 percent of classes at Duquesne University, have joined the United Steel Workers, and part-time professors at other Pittsburgh universities are following their lead.

The state system wants to raise health-care deductibles and co-pays in order to lower overall premiums, which the union is fighting, claiming that members could end up paying hundreds of dollars more per year. But members of the faculty union, and state employees generally, are paying much less for health benefits than almost anyone else in the private sector. If they rally around this issue to strike, they’ll have little sympathy from the public.

California University is facing a $4.2 million deficit for 2012-13, with a budget of $120 million. If it can’t find ways to cut costs, the university will have to make up the difference by asking students to pay more. So, it’s not likely that California or the other 13 institutions are going to give in easily to union demands.

The faculty union is bargainning from a position of power, however. A strike would be devastating – to the 120,000 students statewide and to the financial future of their universities.

It is not as if the state universities could hire replacement professors and carry on throughout a strike; the supply of people qualified to teach at the university level is limited. A strike would shut down classes and suspend sports programs.

Classes end Dec. 7 and exams begin Dec. 10. The next negotiating session is scheduled for Dec. 11. A strike, if authorized, probably would not occur this semester, but the next semester would be in limbo. The demands for reimbursement for tuition already paid and the transfer of students to other colleges and universites would lead to chaos.The economic damage suffered by some universites, even with a short work stoppage, might not be repaired for years.

This strike cannot happen. The faculty union knows that, and so does the state system. The union, already working under terms of the old contract for 17 months, must have a new one.

We wish it were otherwise, but in the end, students will have to pay more, and they will have to borrow more and extend their debt further into the future.



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