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Still no deal for state university system, faculty

| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:07 a.m.

A California University of Pennsylvania union official warned Thursday that faculty at the state's 14 public universities could prepare to strike come February.

Dr. Michael Slavin, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties chapter at Cal U, said there is a “95 percent chance” the union will announce a strike date if certain issues are not resolved Feb. 1, the date of the next bargaining session between the union and the State System of High Education.

Slavin said that without a significant change in the state's position, the faculty members will strike.

Spring classes begin Jan. 28 at the universities, which serve about 115,000 students.

Slavin said a bargaining session Wednesday with the State System in Harrisburg yielded no progress. He took part in a conference call with the union's negotiating team.

Slavin said the sticking point is a state proposal that would separate faculty benefits, including health care, between veteran and newer employees.

He called it “an attempt to break the union.”

“What they want to implement is a two-tier system where they say, ‘You older people keep what you have,' but the younger people coming in the door would not get the same,” said Slavin, a Cal U professor of theater.

“What's going to happen is, the guy coming in is not going to have the same benefits and health care coverage that I'm going to have.

“The very point of having a union is everyone gets the same health care. Everybody gets the same benefits. You cannot have a two-tier system. It undermines the union.”

Union members have been working without a contract since June 2011. Unions at each university authorized their leadership in November to call a strike.

System officials have said they're committed to a fair contract but must rein in spiraling costs.

This is the fifth contract negotiation in which Slavin has participated. There has never been a strike, and just once – in 2007 – has the union announced a strike date.

Slavin said that in that year, the contract agreement came at 2 a.m. the day faculty was preparing to walk off the job.

He anticipates a repeat next month.

“I'm just reading cards. I'm not the final voice here. But if (the state) continues to negotiate the way they have been, there's a 95 percent chance we'll walk. … And it's got to change fast. We're at the end of our rope,” Slavin said. “It's basically drawing a line in the sand.”

A supermajority – 10 of the 14 chapter presidents – would have to approve a strike for a work-stoppage to occur.

In a news release, Gary Dent, the system's vice chancellor for human resources and labor relations, said: “No one would be served by such action, particularly our 115,000 students and their families.”

Complicating matters is the fact Chancellor Dr. John Cavanaugh, the state system's boss, is leaving his position in February to move to Washington, D.C., Slavin said.

The union is urging members to express their frustration at the system's board of governors meeting Jan. 24. Slavin said thousands of union members will bus out to demonstrate.

In the meantime, Slavin suggested the state thinks the union is bluffing.

“This is the worst possible thing we can do, but what choice do we have? They've pushed us to a point,” Slavin said.

“It's a public relations tool, and really, a union's only weapon. We have to get people to understand we've been pushed to that brink, and I don't think the state system thinks we will do that.

“We're ready. I think we're going to be packing up and walking out the door sometime soon.”

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rbruni@tribweb.com or 724-684-2635.

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