Universities, faculty make progress on contract

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 3:46 p.m.

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education officials and faculty union representatives returned to the table Friday for a marathon bargaining session in hopes of avoiding a strike.

The state system oversees 14 state-owned universities, including Edinboro, California and Slippery Rock universities.

Michael Bucell, psychology professor and vice president of the Edinboro chapter of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, said representatives in Harrisburg seemed to think negotiations were productive after the six-hour meeting.

“We're told they made some progress, which is very different from what happened to this point,” Bucell said.

“We made progress on several issues and agreed to additional sessions on Jan. 16 and 17,” State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said Friday evening. “We also will meet next Friday as scheduled.”

Students are set to return to classes the 14 universities in the state system on Jan. 28.

Friday's negotiations session was the first since Dec. 11. The two sides had planned to meet on Dec. 19 but agreed to cancel that session.

Union officials said it wasn't worth sitting down at the time because the state system hadn't prepared a counter offer to the union's most recent proposal.

The two sides have seemingly reached an accord on the basic structure of pay for most of the union's 6,000 members.

Under the existing proposals, union members would have a pay freeze for the first year of the four-year deal, 1 percent increases in the second and third years and a 2 percent increase in the fourth. The deal would be retroactive to June 2011, when the previous contract expired.

The remaining sticking points between the two sides are based on health-care and retirement contributions, pay for temporary faculty and whether to keep incentive payments for online classes.

The cost of the existing health-care and retirement benefits for faculty was a point of contention as the two sides went into negotiations Friday. Gary Dent, vice chancellor for human resources and labor relations for the state system, said health-care and pension costs “are placing unsustainable financial pressure on the universities.”

“We have no alternative,” Dent said. “We must agree to new approaches before these costs overwhelm the system.”

But Union officials responded on their website, www.apscuf.com, by saying Dent has distorted how much the state system pays for health benefits and overlooked the fact that union members “already pay the highest percentage of premium of any union in the Commonwealth.”

Bucell said health benefits are the biggest issue remaining.

“Our negotiator is telling us that the hardest work is still left to do,” Bucell said.

Amid growing frustration with how long it is taking to reach a new deal, faculty at the 14 universities voted in November to authorize a strike.

Union leaders now have the power to call a faculty strike at any point, but promised in late November to wait until the spring semester.

In an letter to students and parents, Edinboro University President Julie Wollman has pledged to keep the school open even during a strike. Wollman noted that the university has a “contingency plan in place” to keep offering classes during a strike, without going into detail.

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