Faculty at Pennsylvania’s 14 state universities has voted overwhelmingly to allow their union to call a strike, if necessary, following two years of unsuccessful contract negotiations. But talks are continuing.

The Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education remain at odds over salary, health insurance costs and faculty workloads.

The union represents about 5,500 faculty and coaches at Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities. Members have been working under contracts that expired June 30, 2015.

The university system says a strike would halt classes for more than 100,000 students but the schools would remain open. The union says its goal is still to reach a contract.

A look at some of the issues:


THE BACKDROP: DECLINING ENROLLMENT, AND A DEFICIT

Enrollment peaked at about 120,000 students but has dropped more than 14,000 since 2010. Both sides attribute the declining enrollment, in part, to lower Pennsylvania high school enrollment.

Student tuition and fees pay for the majority of university operating costs. The university system says state funding is at the same level as in 1999 and it doesn’t want to raise tuition. The result, says system spokesman Kenn Marshall, is an expected shortfall of $10 million this fiscal year in a total operating budget of about $1.2 billion even before any contractual spending increases.

Marshall says these challenges are making negotiations more difficult than ever.

Says faculty union president Ken Mash: “We are trying to do everything we can be doing to be attractive to students, but it’s hard to do that when facing a budget crisis and not compensating faculty appropriately to offer a quality education.”

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SALARY, HEALTH CARE ISSUES

The university system says it offered faculty a one-time $600 cash payment this year and a 1 percent raise in January 2018 and January 2019 in exchange for health insurance changes and an increase in the teaching load for some faculty. It says the offer also included a step increase in 2019 of 2.5 percent or 5 percent, depending on seniority.

The university says other unions and non-union employees have already accepted the offer. Base pay for full-time faculty ranges from $46,609 to $112,238, depending on experience.

The union says the proposal is unacceptable. Mash says the raises would not make up for costly health care changes or address large disparities in the pay scale.

The university system wants employees to pay about $7 to $14 more every two-week pay period toward the cost of their health insurance premiums, depending on their levels of coverage.


WORKLOAD AND NON-TENURED FACULTY

The state system is asking non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty who work full time to teach an additional course each semester in exchange for reduced research and university service requirements.

Says system spokesman Marshall: “That’s where we need our temporary faculty the most. The classroom. And, that’s where students need it the most.”

Non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty who work part time would also no longer have a research or service requirement but see a pay cut.

The union says the proposal would only mean a higher workload for those affected because researchers would not likely drop their research.

A proposal is also on the table to allow students going for their master’s degrees to teach — something traditionally reserved for doctoral students — in very limited circumstances and with departmental approval. They would not teach full classes but would only assist faculty by teaching in labs.

The union says the students wouldn’t provide the same quality education as professors.


THE STRIKE VOTE, AND PROPSECTS FOR A WALKOUT

The union says 82 percent of its members cast ballots on the strike-authorization vote, with 93 percent supporting a strike. Authorization, however, does not mean a strike is automatic and dates have been set for future contract negotiations.

It has also authorized strikes in previous rounds of contract negotiations, but none has ever occurred.

“Our goal is to get a contract. This is a horrible situation and we should never have been here,” says union president Mash.

At the same time, he says given how long talks have been going on, the possibility of a strike should not have been unexpected.

Coaches voted separately but also authorized a strike. They can set a strike date that aligns with a faculty date, strike independent of faculty or not strike at all.


WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF A STRIKE OCCURS

Classes would stop without faculty. But the system spokesman says the universities have “strike response plans” and would remain open.

Says spokesman Marshall: “A strike could be devastating to our students.”