HARRISBURG — The board chairman of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities and a union leader speaking for 6,000 faculty members on Thursday each accused the other side of being unreasonable in their stalled contract negotiations.
Hundreds of protesting educators, including many who rode buses from distant campuses, waved placards and chanted "Contract Now!" outside the State System of Higher Education headquarters while the system's board of governors held its quarterly meeting.
Dozens of faculty members left the picket line to attend the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting that was devoted to the contract talks.
Kenneth Mash, vice president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties and the head of its negotiating team, said the system is demanding concessions on health care coverage from APSCUF that state-employee unions did not have to make in approving contracts for tens of thousands state workers in 2011.
"The fact is that your negotiators have never been fair with us, and no number of op-ed pieces, press releases or public statements emanating from this building will change that fact," Mash told the board.
Board Chairman Guido Pichini said the system is trying to more closely align health benefits for university employees with those provided to state employees. The system pays about $15,000 a year for family coverage, compared to about $10,000 for similar coverage under the state plan, he said.
While unions representing some other university employee groups have agreed to that concept, he said, "APSCUF continues to oppose it without providing any response as to why this is not a reasonable request."
"I believe there is a limit to the amount of costs we can ask our students to absorb, especially in areas that are not directly related to the classroom," Pichini said.
Faculty union members have been working without a contract since June 2011. Both sides have agreed on wage increases based on the state-employee contracts, but issues such as health care, class sizes and distance learning have been sticking points.
The next negotiating session is slated for Feb. 1, four days after the spring semester starts. The rank and file has authorized union leaders to call a strike, but they haven't done so.
"Faculty members do not want to go on strike. Collectively, we love our jobs and we love our students," Mash told the board.
The universities enroll about 115,000 students. They are in Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.