Pa. university contract negotiations continue
Union strike threat looms over spring
January 16, 2013
HARRISBURG — Negotiations between the State System of Higher Education, which includes Slippery Rock University, and the union that represents its professors and coaches continue despite the looming threat of a strike. Kenn Marshall, a state system spokesman, said negotiators from the state system, which has 14 schools, and the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties met Friday and will meet again today and Thursday. “I think we made some progress last week on several items, so hopefully we’re getting closer,” Marshall said. The union represents more than 6,000 faculty, including about 475 at SRU. APSCUF’s contract expired June 30, 2011, along with the contracts for the other six unions in the state system. APSCUF is the only union that has not settled with the state system. APSCUF and the state system cannot agree on several issues. The union in September offered binding arbitration to settle the dispute, but the system rejected that. The union voted Nov. 16 to authorize a strike. Then in December the union said it would not strike until the spring semester. Both Marshall and APSCUF spokeswoman Lauren Gutshall said there are two big disputed issues: health care and distance education. In terms of health care, about two-thirds of state system employees, including all employees represented by APSCUF, have health insurance administered by the state system, and another one-third have a plan administered by the Pennsylvania Employees Benefit Trust Fund. Marshall said the state system would like to change the insurance plan used by APSCUF to be more in line with the benefit trust fund plan. He said the state system and employees will save money with the change. Although some co-pays might increase, he said the plan would ensure that all state system employees have the same levels of benefits. Gutshall said the proposed plan for current employees would increase out-of-pocket expenses. She also said the state system wants to switch retiree health care to a voucher system, which would reduce benefits. Marshall said the proposed change to retiree health care would change it to a defined contribution plan from a defined benefit plan, and would only apply to people who are hired after July 1. Current retiree’s plans would not change. Regarding distance education, Marshall said the state system in 1999 began offering incentive payments for professors to offer online classes. But now that online classes are extremely common, the state system wants to eliminate the incentives. Gutshall said APSCUF still favors distance education compensation. She also has heard that the state system wants to make offering online courses mandatory, which APSCUF is against. However, Marshall said the state system is not looking to make online courses mandatory. Gutshall said that Jan. 28, which is the first day of the spring semester, and Feb. 5, the day of the governor’s budget address, are being considered as possible strike dates. These dates have not been formally set, and Gutshall said that faculty members do not want to strike. “A strike is truly a last resort,” Gutshall said. Because of the possibility of a strike, the state system told all of its schools to prepare contingency plans. Rita Abent, an SRU spokeswoman, said the university has set up several plans based on different scenarios. “Anything could happen,” Abent said. She said the ultimate goal behind the plans is to keep SRU as operational as possible while keeping impact to students as minimal as possible. Patrick Burkhart, president of SRU’s APSCUF chapter, could not be reached for comment.