14 Pa. schools, faculties close to agreement

Both sides said talks late last night removed the threat of a strike today.

Posted: July 03, 2007

The 14 Pennsylvania-owned universities and their faculty appear to be close to a tentative agreement on a four-year contract.

Neither union officials nor state officials late last night would confirm details from the 12-hour bargaining session yesterday, but both said classes for about 25,000 summer school students, including those at West Chester and Cheyney, would convene today.

Kenn Marshall, the spokesman for the State System of Higher Education, declined to confirm a deal had been reached, but said, "There will be no strike . . . ." West Chester union president Cliff Johnston would neither "confirm nor deny" that an agreement had been reached, but confirmed that classes will meet today.

A news conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. today in Gov. Rendell's reception room.

The sides have negotiated for five days, anchored by a 12-hour bargaining session yesterday.

The contract between the union representing 5,500 faculty members and the state expired Saturday.

The state had advanced a new salary proposal yesterday that was more attractive than a previous offer, Marshall said, but he declined to discuss specifics.

"We have made some movement on the proposal," Marshall said. "We are not releasing any details until talks break down."

After negotiating through the weekend in Harrisburg, on Sunday night a state mediator asked the union to hold off calling a strike for 24 hours. Talks resumed at 10 a.m. yesterday.

The outstanding issues are wages and benefits, said Cheryl Wanko, a spokeswoman for the West Chester University chapter of the Association of State College and University Faculties.

Until yesterday, Wanko said, the state was offering a four-year contract consisting of a cash payment of $1,250 the first year, increases of 2 percent for the next two years, and 3 percent in the final year.

But Marshall said that in the final year of the four-year contract that just expired, faculty members received wage increases of 5.5 percent, 9 percent or 13 percent, depending on where they fell in the salary schedule.

Those increases were to make up for the first year of the contract when all state employees were subject to a wage freeze, he said.

"We feel we did the best we could to make up for that year," Marshall said.

Johnston said the final year boost still did not keep pace with inflation when measured over the life of the contract.

Health-care insurance premiums are another sore spot. Faculty members pay 10 percent of their insurance premium. The state is proposing to increase that to 30 percent by the new contract's fourth year, according to Marshall.

However, that increase could be kept to 15 percent for faculty who participate in a wellness program that has yet to be developed, said Marshall.

Since there is no premium increase called for in the first year of the contract, the state has time to hammer out the details of the program, he said. "The entire country is struggling with this," Johnston said. "We understand that is an issue that has to be bargained."

However, he added, the union has already saved the state money on premiums, and members shouldn't be penalized in a new contract.

The union represents 5,500 faculty members. According to the Associated Press, the average nine-month salary for full-time faculty was $70,000 in the 2006-07 academic year, and maximum salaries currently range from $60,000 for instructors to roughly $98,000 for full professors.

The state system schools are Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester Universities.

At West Chester University yesterday, a new summer session had begun, but an air of uncertainty pervaded the nearly deserted campus.

Students in the Academic Development Program - for those with college potential but who don't meet admission standards - worried about their five-week course being cut short. "If they go on strike, we won't have class," said Chris Faix, 18, of Ivyland in Bucks County. "The whole program would be canceled."

For negotiation updates and information for enrolled students, go to

Contact staff writer Nancy Petersen at 610-701-7602 or npetersen@phillynews.com.

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