Wednesday, October 19, 2016

PA: About the Professor Strike

As just about everyone has heard today, the professors at fourteen of Pennsylvania's state colleges and universities are on strike (due to a quirk in our system, Pitt, Penn State and Temple are in a different state university system). This is the first such strike in ever.

It is hard to know exactly what's going on in the first days of a strike. I was president of my own local union over a decade ago when we went on strike, and I still remember well how information management is a huge issue all by itself, struggling both with the issue of hundreds of people shooting off their mouths regardless of knowledge, and both sides trying hard to control the narrative.

Bottom line-- be a cautious information consumer these days.

But as some with friends, family and former students all over this dispute, I can note a couple of things.

The state's point man is Chancellor Frank Brogan. Brogan started out as an elementary classroom teacher in Florida and got out pretty quickly to enter administration. He eventually became Florida's youngest-ever Education Commissioner. He was going to run for that job again when he was tagged to be Jeb! Bush's Lt. Governor. He was Jeb's point man on education and was elected to second Lt. Gov. term, but left in 2003 to become president of Florida Atlantic University. Upon being appointed to second term at that job, he left that job to become chancellor of Florida's university system in 2009. In 2013, Pennsylvania hired him away, while PA was being run by a governor who wanted to roll the university system back. And he carried all that baggage into contract negotiations that have been dragging on since 2015.

The contract struggle has been a fine example of all the bad things happening in higher education. The state has proposed to hire more adjuncts, force them to teach more classes for the same money (or, more likely, take a pay cut for the same work), push more cyber classes, and just generally water down the whole product. The state has run some of that back at the last minute, which if nothing else has the PR effect of generating a lot of smoke about what is actually on the table.

But what I want to be sure to note is this-- the faculty members could have easily thrown the adjuncts and part-timers under the bus on this one. They could have said "I've got mine, Jack" and let the adjuncts and part-timers take it in the gut. They didn't do that.

Students, at least in my region, are doing some freaking out. The teacher pipeline is already in serious trouble and this strike, which makes the prospects for student teaching and other pre-service placements just kind of mysterious and uncertain.

Nobody ever wants to strike. But strikes are invariably the result of reaching that moment where you realize that you can either damage the institution some right now, or you can sit back, cover your own butt, and let the whole thing be slowly and more thoroughly wrecked over time. In our strike, I used to say that it was not a contest to be won by one side or the other, but a problem to be solved by both sides together. Hard to do if management doesn't want to fix anything. The most striking detail I've read today is the news that the state's team just quit last night around 8:00. When you reach this kind of impasse, you can either try to build something or break something. The next few days will tell whether Brogan and his team are trying to build a system or break a union.

Here's some additional reading if you want it, likely to change regularly over these days (though the state has been running behind)-

The union FAQ sheet

The state's FAQ sheet


  1. Thanks for this coverage, Peter. I serve as co-chair of the strike committee for the West Chester U chapter. You're right that it's hard to know exactly what's going on among the negotiations teams; we hear that there's backchannel exchanging of possible resolutions.

    As far as we're concerned, the most problematic proposals left on the table are these--

    1. While they've withdrawn (under pressure from us, by the way) the crassest proposals about how to exploit adjunct faculty even worse, there's still one that would lower the pay scale for part-timers. The idea is to split even the ranks of the non-tenure-track faculty into full-time and part-time. No.

    2. Their claims about the health care proposal (that we won't accept what everybody else has) is literal BS (not Big Standardized--the other kind). The state system *imposed the package* on their managers (who obviously don't collectively bargain because they're managers) and now are blaming us for not voluntarily accepting a package NOBODY HAS VOLUNTARILY ACCEPTED.

    3. The salary proposal has been obvious since AFSCME settled a year or more ago (the system engages in pattern bargaining, so once AFSCME settles we always know what's coming). But now, the system is trying to pretend like what was always obvious is somehow super-ultra-generous, and that we're jerks for not giving them everything else they want in return.

    There's no question whether Frank Brogan is trying to build a system or break a union. He doesn't give a flip about this system or the people in it. He wants a union-busting line on his resume.

    1. Thank you for that bit of info.

    2. Not sure if you've seen the news yet--we reached an agreement this afternoon. Strike is over. We won't have a ratification vote for probably about 2 weeks, but the terms as we understand them right now are fair enough that we can go back to work in good conscience.