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Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 12:46 a.m.
 

HARRISBURG — The board chairman of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities and a union leader speaking for 6,000 faculty members on Thursday each accused the other side of being unreasonable in stalled contract negotiations.

Hundreds of protesting educators, including many who rode buses from distant campuses, waved placards and chanted “Contract Now!” outside the State System of Higher Education headquarters as the system's board of governors held its quarterly meeting.

Dozens of faculty members left the picket line to attend the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, which was devoted to the contract talks.

“Well, I wish it was going better,” Dr. Michael Slavin said. “We're very frustrated by the lack of progress. There is some strange PR out there that the system is sending out there trying to separate the union. ... Divide and conquer is what I guess they're going for.”

Slavin is the California University of Pennsylvania chapter president for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.

Slavin said the state system wants to separate new hires out of the existing benefit plan and give them a different plan.

“In all, they'd be giving approximately $1,800 per year for your health care, which isn't much,” Slavin said of the state offer. “It's an all-out attack on the union, and they're counting it as this great thing. It's absolutely scary, to be honest.”

Kenneth Mash, APSCUF vice president and the head of its negotiating team, said the system is demanding concessions on health care coverage from the union that state-employee unions did not have to make in approving contracts for tens of thousands state workers in 2011.

“The fact is that your negotiators have never been fair with us, and no number of op-ed pieces, press releases or public statements emanating from this building will change that fact,” Mash told the board.

Board Chairman Guido Pichini said the system is trying to more closely align health benefits for university employees with those provided to state employees.

The system pays about $15,000 a year for family coverage, compared to about $10,000 for similar coverage under the state plan, he said.

While unions representing some other university employee groups have agreed to that concept, he said, “APSCUF continues to oppose it without providing any response as to why this is not a reasonable request.”

“I believe there is a limit to the amount of costs we can ask our students to absorb, especially in areas that are not directly related to the classroom,” Pichini said.

Faculty union members have been working without a contract since June 2011.

Both sides have agreed on wage increases based on the state-employee contracts, but issues such as health care, class size and distance learning have been sticking points.

The next negotiating session is slated Feb. 1, four days after the spring semester starts.

The rank and file has authorized union leaders to call a strike, but the represhaven't done so.

“We're staying overnight (in Harrisburg) and will begin having meetings on strike preparation,” Slavin said.

“We've never done it before, and it's something we're doing with great sadness.”

Students at Cal U are scheduled to return to classes Monday.

“Faculty members do not want to go on strike. Collectively, we love our jobs, and we love our students,” Mash told the board.

The universities enroll about 115,000 students. They are in Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.

Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jsellew@tribweb.com or 724-684-2667. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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