APSCUF Tentative Contract Agreement: Victory? Turning Point?

I am a member of APSCUF – the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties – the union that represents over 6,000 faculty and coaches in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE). I am sure that many readers of this blog are aware that we have been in a two-year long contract fight with PASSHE, working 19 months without a contract. After moving steadily toward what would have been the first strike in APSCUF’s history, there was an unexpected marathon bargaining session that led to an agreement. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I had a little breathing room to write. I posted a version of the following post to my media site, Raging Chicken Press and my union blog APSCUF-KU XChange. And, I thought it would serve well to post it here as well as a way of introducing myself and what I think has been a significant contract fight for higher education unions.

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This past Sunday morning (2/3/13), APSCUF - the union that represents more than 6,000 faculty and coaches in the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) – announced it had reached an agreement on a “framework” for a faculty contract after more than two years of negotiating and 19 months working without a contract. On Monday evening, the “framework” was sent to APSCUF’s Negotiations Committee for a vote on whether or not to approve the “framework,” turning it into a “tentative agreement.” The Negotiations Committee voted unanimously to do so. The union’s representative body – APSCUF’s Legislative Assembly – voted this past weekend to send the agreement to the membership for ratification. Specific details of the agreement will be discussed among APSCUF members at membership meetings and union listservs.

An Agreement for Our Times?

If you look at this agreement at face value, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a mixed bag. Faculty take the biggest hit in terms of salary and health care. The four-year contract shows a 0% increase in the first year (2011-2012); 1% in spring 2013; 1% in fall 2013; and 2% in fall 2014. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the average increase in the Consumer Price Index (inflation) to be 2.4% over the past ten years, ranging from a low of 0.1% in 2008 to a high of 4.1% in 2007. At an average 1% increase per year (an effective increase of slightly higher than 1% each year over the life of the contract) is still below the depressingly meager 1.7% increase in wages and salaries. If you factor in “step increases” for years of service most faculty – not all – make out better than the national average. Increases in health care payments eat away at the increases, but correcting PASSHE’s practice of forcing faculty to overpay for health care and pocketing the savings, may prove to off-set increases. In the end, faculty salaries will not keep up with inflation.

On the non-economic front, APSCUF reports to have made some significant gains in work rules and governance. For example, for the first time class size will be included in the contract as an issue that is subject to curriculum committee recommendations. The inclusion of class size language in the contract is significant in that faculty have been attempting to prevent class sizes from exploding at PASSHE universities for years. Due to a Pennsylvania court case from years ago, APSCUF has been not been able to effectively negotiate over class size because the collective bargaining agreement did not contain any language referring to class size. The explicit inclusion of class size  in the contract effectively trumps that court case.  There were also improvements to the professional development fund and a simplifying of several contractual processes.

Unwritten Victory?

There is no doubt that when many faculty – and I include myself here – look at this agreement they will see it as another in a succession of contracts in which faculty salaries do not keep pace with inflation while being asked to do more with less each and every day we show up to work. Pennsylvania’s under-funding of PASSHE and Gov. Tom Corbett’s deep cuts in PASSHE’s funding have strained faculty work, time, energy, and patience. There is no way getting around that truth and, frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to. It might not feel good to work in a state that approaches higher education more like a chain of big box stores than as an institution for advanced learning, professional training, and citizenship education. But, that IS Pennsylvania right now. And until that becomes etched into our heads and we are willing to organize and collectively push back on the level we saw in Wisconsin and Ohio in 2011, we will continue to lose ground and get the shaft. And I am not just talking about faculty members at PASSHE universities. All Pennsylvania working families and their children have been in the crosshairs for years now - and continue to be.  At face value, APSCUFs current tentative agreement does not begin to roll back the attacks. There is a bigger story here, however.

Context matters. When PASSHE first came to the table with their demands, they were after nothing short of a fundamental transformation of public higher education in Pennsylvania - of the PASSHE system. In April 2011, after playing the negotiations delay game for four months, Chancellor John Cavanaugh sent APSCUF four pages of PASSHE “bargaining objectives.” The most dramatic of these objections was to lift the caps on the number of temporary faculty PASSHE universities could hire. APSCUF’s previous collective bargaining agreement limited the total number of part-time and full-time temporary faculty to 25%, ensuring the remaining 75% of faculty would be tenured or tenure-track. Cavanaugh expressed his interest in flipping these numbers so that PASSHE could look more like the most exploitative colleges and universities across the country. Not only did he want to temp out faculty, he wanted to strip temporary faculty of any sense of parity – paying them on a per-class, market-driven basis instead. What does that mean? Well, instead of earning a living wage, these faculty would be earning between $1500 and $3000 per course. Even at a full schedule, temporary faculty could not earn a living wage. And forget about any hopes for health insurance or job security. In short, APSCUF would have lost ground on a fight that is being waged by contingent faculty across the county.

Not only was PASSHE seeking to temp out the majority of faculty, but they also wanted to increase the teaching load. Cavanaugh’s initial proposal was to increase regular faculty work load from eight classes per year to nine. A short time after, he pulled away from that proposal opting to increase the full-time teaching load only for temporary faculty – from eight courses per year to ten.

Chancellor SheriffChancellor Cavanaugh and his advisors also sought to strip retirees of their health care in favor of a one time “voucher” to shop for insurance on the individual insurance market. The “voucher” would barely cover a basic health insurance plan in the individual market, let alone a policy approaching the health care pre-retirement faculty have. This amounts to giving people who gave their entire working lives to PASSHE and PASSHE students a kick in the back side on their way out the door.

And I could go on (and on and on) as the list of attacks seemed endless. In a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, the Chancellor was attempting to pit temporary faculty against tenured and tenure-track faculty, junior faculty against senior faculty and, of course, students against faculty. PASSHE consistently and publicly cried about being “broke,” that unless faculty accepted these terms the financial burden would be passed on to already-struggling students and their families. But then there were the facts. As APSCUF’s lead negotiator, Stuart Davidson, explained at an APSCUF Legislative Assembly meeting in September 2012, PASSHE is sitting on about a half a BILLION dollars in reserves. I don’t know many people who would look at an institution with a half a billion dollars in a rainy-day savings account as “broke.”

Cavanaugh’s agenda was never about real economic conditions anyway. What we have seen is a different version of the attack on working families, collective bargaining, and the public sector that has spread across the country like wild-fire, fueled by fringe, right-wing Republican legislative victories in 2010. As I wrote elsewhere in “Smashing Apples: Shock Doctrine for Public Education – That’s What It’s All About,”  in that same September 2012 Legislative Assembly meeting:

Davidson [our Chief Negotiator] said that from his perspective, PASSHE Chancellor John Cavanaugh has sought to “virtually gut our collective bargaining agreement” from the beginning of negotiations. He is seeking to “eliminate faculty’s role in governance,” “shift $8 million in health care costs onto faculty,” and to go after the structure of the State System itself. While PASSHE has about half a billion dollars in reserves, the Chancellor continues to insist that PASSHE is broke and he refuses to allow a contract similar to the contract offered to other PASSHE unions. Davidson suggested that he is left with the conclusion that the Chancellor sees this negotiations as an opportunity to “break the union and gain the national spotlight for himself.” At one point, Davidson said, “We cannot allow ourselves to be led quietly to the slaughter at let him get himself on the national stage.” Both Davidson and APSCUF state leadership have come to view our contract negotiations in the same category as the recent Chicago teachers’ strike and Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s attempt to strip public unions of their collective bargaining rights.

None of that happened. That’s significant. That’s a win.

Did We Just Really Do That?

As frustrating these past two years of negotiations have been, yes, we just did that. We won a victory – at least when it comes to APSCUF as an organization and union push-back against the assault on working families and the public sphere. Two years of slogging through a seemingly endless negotiations process calls to mind a good piece of advice Thomas Paine offered in Common Sense: 

A long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

For a long time now we have been immersed in a public discourse framed in “economic crisis.” We are living in a Shock Doctrine world. When an employer or a government official waves the “we’re broke we can’t afford this” banner, people tend to jump on board, clamoring for cuts. In that moment, facts and reason are overwhelmed by the tumult. However, as Paine suggests, that tumult soon subsides. The key to APSCUF’s victory was to relentlessly plod forward, waiting for the tumult to subside so that reason could reign again. As has been the case in right-wing attack after right-wing attack, the “fact-based world” – to borrow a phrase from Rachel Maddow – runs in direct opposition to their claims. Their numbers don’t add up – at least in the way they do for the rest of us. Their logic is the logic of demagogues who have been locked in a dark room with each other for way too long, dreaming up an outside world from which they locked themselves away.

In the end, three things seemed to come together at the same time that led to a surprise, marathon bargaining session the weekend of February 1. Chancellor John Cavanaugh gave PASSHE and, as it turns out, APSCUF an early Christmas present by resigning his $357,500 position in December, effective February 28, 2013. The Chancellor’s surprise announcement cause the last-minute cancellation of a bargaining session and, apparently, threw PASSHE’s “cut, gut, and punish” strategy into flux.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASecond, on January 24th, over 500 APSCUF members converged on the PASSHE Board of Governors meeting in Harrisburg, PA to demand a contract. I have to say that in my 10+ years involvement in APSCUF I have never seen our members with such determination – a determination that comes from that visceral experience of having had enough. While there have been members who have sniped on social media about the fact that “only” 500+ members showed up, it was, as far as I can tell, the strongest showing of APSCUF members at a statewide, negotiations related protest in my memory. Despite freezing temperatures and an early morning start, APSCUF members were loud, determined, and pretty clear that either we get a quick resolution to this contract, or we strike.

Finally, the Board of Governors was going to be facing having to hire a Chancellor in the midst of the most contentious labor dispute in PASSHE’s history. Not exactly a welcome mat. It appears that no other PASSHE Vice-Chancellor had the stomach for the kind of “transformation” that Cavanaugh was pushing, despite their significant, six-figure salaries.

Call it a harmonic convergence.

So, in the first significant bargaining session after PASSHE officials’ heads stopped spinning from the news of the imminent departure of their Shock Doctrinaire leader, an agreement was reached in a two-day, bargaining sprint.

The question now is whether APSCUF and progressive organizations across the state will claim this as a win against the broader attack against workers and all things public that the right-wing seems determined to keep waging. From my perspective, we HAVE to recognize the significance of this victory. I know there will be those who will be more interested in bemoaning the continual erosion of faculty salaries and who will, therefore, dismiss APSCUF’s fight back efforts as insignificant. I for one will be angry at the erosion of my salary and the impact this will continue to have on my family, on my children and THEN will get back to organizing. And there’s a lot of reasons to organize right now. PA Governor Corbett is seeking to privatize more of the State’s assets, stripping away more middle-class jobs and handing over huge sums of tax-payer dollars to unregulated corporations. Republicans in the State House are unveiling their plans to bring anti-collective bargaining legislation to the floor and privatize our public schools. Not to mention that since our negotiations took two years and our new four-year contract will be retroactive to July 2011, APSCUF will be back at the negotiations table in no time.

So, yes, this can be a turning point if we are willing to put in the work to continue to organize and mobilize. And, we have to be willing to recognize the effectiveness of a fight-back strategy. When it comes time to cast my vote, I will vote to ratify this contract. But my “YES” vote will be no more an affirmation that it is an awesome contract than a vote for Barack Obama is a vote for a progressive, pro-labor president. Context matters. My “YES” vote will be an affirmation of what we, as a union, fought back and a commitment to fight even harder the day after I cast my ballot.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Higher Education Faculty Strike Averted, Pending Final Contract Agreement | WatchdogWire - Pennsylvania

  2. Pingback: New Chancellor for PA State Universities Comes Complete with Right-Wing Baggage | Raging Chicken Press

  3. Pingback: New Chancellor for PA State Universities: Deep Roots in Right-Wing Attacks on Public Education | Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: New Chancellor for PA State Universities Comes Complete with Right-Wing Baggage | APSCUF-KU xchange

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