Having gone nearly a year without a new contract, union faculty members at Pennsylvania's state universities are considering a possible strike this fall, a move that would be a first in the 107,000-student system's history.
Ken Mash, president of the 14-university faculty union, said that if no progress was made over the summer, the union would seek a strike authorization vote in August or September. Such votes are typical during negotiations, and give union leadership authority to call a strike if necessary.
What's different this time, Mash said, is that the union would set a strike date shortly after the vote.
Faculty at universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have been working without a new contract since the previous pact expired in June last year.
"Our goal is not to go on strike. It's to get a fair contract," said Mash, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University, who has led the union for two years. But "if things do not progress and we ultimately take a strike authorization vote . . . not too much time will elapse before we set a strike date."
He said members would not strike at the start of the semester but would before its conclusion.
The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty represents more than 6,000 faculty and coaches at West Chester, Cheyney, Bloomsburg, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Mansfield, Edinboro, Indiana, California, Clarion, Millersville, and Lock Haven Universities.
Negotiation sessions are set for Friday and June 24.
"If we don't get any real motion, we may actually have to pull the rip cord this time," said Mark Rimple, president of the faculty union at West Chester, the largest school in the system. "It's a shame if we have to go that way."
Kenn Marshall, a spokesman for the system, said a strike could prove fatal for some of the state universities that are already struggling with enrollment loss. He pointed out that Temple lost some enrollment after its faculty went on strike in 1990.
"Some universities already in severe financial difficulty may not be able to recover if they were to experience additional enrollment drops as a result," he said.
If a strike were to occur, Marshall said, the system would try to keep the universities open, but can't decide that until officials see how many faculty walk off the job.
"Until it happens," he said, "there are a lot of things that we just can't answer."
The administration, Marshall said, will work to get a deal but not at the expense of students.
"It has to be something that our universities and our students can afford," he said. "We're the public university system in Pennsylvania and we need to remain affordable."
The average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at state system universities in 2015-16 was $19,838. The system has not set tuition for next year.
Two local legislators, State Reps. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat serving parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, and Nick Miccarelli, a Republican serving Delaware County, have introduced a bill to freeze tuition for five years and then allow no more than a 2 percent increase in subsequent years.
Boyle said that the effort is not related to contract negotiations and that he supports more state funding for the system.
But "ultimately, at the end of the day, what can't happen is tuition increases on the backs of the students," he said.
The system has seen overall enrollment drop by more than 12,000 students since 2010 and anticipates another small dip for the fall. Even without salary or health-care cost increases for employees, the system faces about a $30 million deficit in its $1.5 billion budget next year.
If Gov. Wolf's proposed 5 percent funding increase for the system isn't approved, the gap will grow.
"The reality is that we are in a much more difficult situation than we've ever been in," Marshall said. "That's obviously going to have some impact."
During budget hearings this spring, some legislators were critical of the teaching schedule of faculty, which inflamed union members, Mash said. Faculty members are required to teach 12 hours a week and provide five office hours. That doesn't count time for class prep, grading, research, and participating in activities and meetings, Mash said.
When the union and administration were unable to agree on a one-year extension in the last year, health-care cost was the major sticking point.
The administration sought changes that Mash said would have cost members several hundred to several thousand dollars a year, depending on health needs. The administration offered salary increases equivalent to 5 percent for the newest members, and 21/2 percent for faculty with more than five years of experience but not yet at top of scale. Those at top of scale would have received a lump-sum payment equivalent to 21/2 percent.
The starting salary for a full-time instructor is $46,609, with top of scale at $112,238 for an experienced full professor. Marshall said that the system's salaries rank at or near the 90th percentile nationally among similar state universities in the country, citing a salary survey published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Both sides are preparing proposals for multiyear agreements, which will likely be presented at this week's meeting.
Faculty went 18 months without a pact before the previous deal was inked. The union had set a strike date, but members did not walk off the job when it came. A deal was reached days later. Whether talks will go to the brink this time is uncertain.
"If we need to make a stand," Mash said, "we're going to make that stand."