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Union leaders authorize strike votes at state-owned universities

| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012, 3:50 p.m.

Negotiations between the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the union representing 6,000 professors and coaches will resume on Monday, two days after union leaders unanimously authorized a strike vote among members.

“I've never seen a group so united in my life,” California University professor Michael Slavin said of the unanimous vote among 106 delegates for the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties. “We have to make a statement for the nation, that higher education is under attack, and we cannot accept it.”

The union, which represents faculty and coaches at the 14 state-owned universities, hasn't had a contract since June 30, 2011.

A strike vote is scheduled among members for the week of Nov. 12.

State system spokesman Kenn Marshall said on Saturday the strike authorization vote wasn't unexpected.

“The faculty union has done this in past negotiations,” he said. “Again, our focus is still at the bargaining table and coming to a settlement whether they had done this or not. We are committed and want to get this done.”

The two sides are strongly divided over retirement health care benefits and compensation for temporary or adjunct faculty members, which is based on each class taught. Negotiators are close on a wage package agreement, which call for 10.75 percent raises over the four-year contract, officials said.

The union leaders decided to consider a strike authorization vote after state system Chancellor John Cavanaugh rejected the union's September request to send the contract dispute to binding arbitration.

“We will continue to work toward an agreement,” Marshall said.

In addition to Monday's negotiating session, meetings are scheduled for Nov. 2 and Nov. 9.

Cavanaugh told the union on Monday that the state system must start charging new employees for retiree health benefits, estimated at $1.4 billion, to help pay for them.

The state system raised tuition 3 percent for the 2012-13 school year, after the state kept funding flat from the previous year, at nearly $420 million. Union officials have said they fear that salaries would be drastically cut for temporary faculty.

The union had authorized strikes in 1999, 2003 and 2007, but did not walk out.

Slavin, head of the union at the California campus, noted that in 2007, union members “bought doughnuts and coffee” in preparation to hit the picket lines, but a last-minute deal averted a strike.

“Do I expect us to get to that point? I don't know,” Slavin said.

“I don't know how this administration is going to respond to such a strong reaction,” he said, referring to the unanimous vote.

Union spokeswoman Lauren Gutshall said on Saturday it was not the goal of the union to go on strike.

Faculty does not want to disrupt classes and student life,” she said. “Our goal is a fair contract. If we do strike, it's because it's a last resort, and we've exhausted all other options for a fair contract.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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