What Pennsylvania’s Faculty Strike Means for the Future of Labor

By Neil Cosgrove

The New People via Portside

Nov 1, 2016 – The faculty of the 14 Pennsylvania state-owned universities went on strike from October 19th to the 21st, 2016, somewhat less than three days.  Around mid-afternoon on the 21st, a tentative contract agreement was reached with the State System of Higher Education (SSHE), ending the strike.  As part of the agreement, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) "agreed to a salary package that was significantly lower than that of the other unions" that had recently bargained with the State System.

As labor battles are traditionally viewed, making concessions on salary and benefits would have to be considered a defeat.  But the faculty union regards the result of the strike as a clear-cut victory, a victory that preserved what many regard as one of the best university faculty contracts in the country.  For the 16 months since the system’s previous contract with the faculty had expired (June 30, 2015), the Pennsylvania State System had tried to destroy that contract, but was forced by the strike to withdraw most of the 249 changes the Chancellor and Board of Governors had sought.

The most significant of those withdrawn changes, the ones that ultimately forced the faculty to strike, were obvious attempts to break the union by driving a wedge between tenured and tenure-track faculty and the growing number of temporary and adjunct faculty.  What makes APSCUF a strong union is that adjuncts work under the same conditions, including teaching loads, benefit packages, and salary scale as so-called "regular" faculty.  Adjunct faculty at State System schools like IUP, California and Slippery Rock generally regard themselves as an integral part of the universities in which they work, not as an exploited proletariat paid a ridiculously low per-course stipend, without access to offices or benefits, and forced to teach each term at multiple institutions in order to make a low-income living.

Moreover, APSCUF’s 2011-15 contract limited the number of temporary faculty a university could employ to 25% or less "of the full-time equivalent of all faculty members employed at that university." Compare that to estimates of adjuncts constituting close to half of the faculty at colleges and universities across the country.  In 2015, median per-course pay for adjuncts was $2700.  At Pennsylvania State System universities, full-time temporary faculty at the bottom of the salary scale received a 2014-15 salary of $46,610.  If such a faculty member taught only a quarter, half, or three-quarters of the normal teaching load of four class sections per term, they would receive the appropriate fraction of the stated salary.  Moreover, the contract required that temporary faculty members who had "worked at a university for five full, consecutive academic years in the same department" would be given tenure-track status if approved by the department. 

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