There once was a shepherd boy who was bored as he sat on the hillside watching the village sheep. To amuse himself, he took a great breath and sang out, “Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!”
The villagers came running up the hill to help the boy drive the wolf away. But when they arrived at the top of the hill, they found no wolf. The boy laughed at the sight of their angry faces. “Don’t cry ‘wolf,’ shepherd boy,” said the villagers, “when there’s no wolf!”
They went grumbling back down the hill.
As we all know, a wolf eventually came for the sheep. But, Aesop’s famous story holds two important warnings: It warns a shepherd not to lie and risk losing limb and life from a lack of trust, but it also warns villagers not to test the shepherds in their area of expertise.
Last October, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education tested the shepherds.
It started as one of those nights that turned into days. For some, restlessness was a constant companion which simply flourished in the anticipation of each passing hour. For others, sleep was an enemy that could only be combatted with adrenaline, coffee and, of course, fear of the unknown.
It was 5 a.m. Oct. 19 when more than 5,000 faculty members from across Pennsylvania halted their classes and work at each of the 14 state-funded colleges and universities.
“It’s hard to believe that we are coming up on the one year anniversary of such a momentous event,” said Nadene L’Amoreaux, the IUP Association of Pennsylvania State College and Faculties chapter president and IUP counseling professor. “As I think back to the weeks that led up to the strike, I recall the angst and uncertainty felt on every level of the campus – especially for faculty and students.
“This was not a decision that was made lightly, and it was not something that the faculty wanted to do.”
“I remember sitting at that table from 9 p.m. to 5 in the morning,” said Jamie Martin, statewide APSCUF vice president and IUP criminology professor, “and thinking about our students worrying about graduation. For me, and on our side of the table, I don’t want to see that ever again.”
As the day went on, a weary sea of royal blue and cherry red union shirts, scarves and signs stood under a clear sky that welcomed faculty members whose toes didn’t dare brush the condemned grass on the other side of the picket line as they chanted for their cause.
One day turned into two, and two days turned into three.
“It just seems like it happened yesterday,” said Ken Mash, statewide APSCUF president and East Stroudsburg University political science professor. “I haven’t even had much of a chance to put it all in some bigger perspective.
“I think the great thing about the strike – and the warm thing that sticks out – is the support from our students,” Mash said. “It made an impact on us all to see just how much students care about their faculty members.”
Faculty members smiled and chatted as people often do through hard times. Despite the pain of what needed to be done, there was also an overwhelming buzz of excited trepidation in the air as the 14 campuses trekked into the unknown. It was a test of resolve, patience and morale for the picketers, but they all leaned on one another and the community they built together.
“When I think back on those three days in October,” L’Amoreaux said, “what stands out most to me was the amazing support and dedication of our students. I could not have predicted the level of passion and commitment that students demonstrated in really creative and cohesive ways.
“From the sit-in in the Oak Grove, carolers who walked the perimeter of the campus, the abundant supply of refreshments delivered and funded by students – the student support and response is one of the first aspects of the strike that we discuss when we remember the strike.”
Many APSCUF faculty members from IUP who were particularly moved by both the frenzy of it all and the encouragement they received in their decision wrote and published a book, “Works & Days,” about their own experiences during the three-day job action.
Martin said student support was on her mind while she was looking at the strike pictures in the book.
“I’m glad we aren’t doing that again,” she said. “Having the strike took a lot out of everybody from across the 14 universities – so much effort in the build-up and enactment.”
While also appreciating the backing students offered to their professors, Martin had a slightly different outlook on those few days in October of 2016 in which faculty members clung to their picket signs and tenacity.
“I guess, at one level, it’s hard to fathom that it’s been a year,” Martin said. “So much has happened that it feels like it’s been even longer.”
As well as marking one year since APSCUF’s historic first strike, this year is its 80th anniversary as an organization.
“We had our celebration in conjunction with legislative assembly (Sept. 15),” Mash said.
“We had dinner and invited all of our past presidents and people who have won our distinguished awards to attend.
“We don’t want to celebrate the strike,” he added. “I think we made enough of a statement when we did it that we don’t want to rub it in now.”
“I think both events are worthy of commemoration,” L’Amoreaux said. “APSCUF’s history is rich, and as a faculty union, we are well-respected throughout the country for the issues and concerns that we have taken on over the decades. In terms of numbers, we are relatively small compared to other unions. But, on those three days in October, we gained the attention of the country by our willingness to stand in solidarity.
“When we commemorate events, whether the start of a new union or a labor strike – or other historical events, such as 9/11, D-Day or Constitution Day – we are remembering the people, places and events that shaped us, our lives, our families [and] our communities. I believe that it is good to pause and reflect on our roots, and to lay our course for those who will follow us.”
The end of the strike, however, was short-lived for those who were and are involved in the negotiations.
“In order to get a contract – and get it done and get off strike – we had to go for a shorter-term deal,” Mash said. “It’s exhausting.”
The current contract will expire June 30, 2018, which means that negotiations began again in the summer of 2017.
“We tried to get back to normal,” Martin said, “but it hit us pretty quickly, the ‘Oh, good Lord, we have to do this again.’”
In addition to considering a new round of contract negotiations, the aftermath of funding and closure threats in the spring is still affecting one university in the State System.
After four of the five retrenchment letters that were submitted to different universities – including California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University, Edinboro University and Mansfield University – last spring have been removed from the table for most universities, Cheyney University, near Philadelphia, is still battling its last letter.
Mash said it’s vital to a university’s survival “to avoid something that’s so adversarial and so harmful to individual faculty.”
“We’re heavily involved at the state level and in those talks,” Mash said, “both me individually and as an organization. As far as looking for mechanisms to avoid retrenchment, it’s our hope that universities will find other means to turn things around.”
Letters aren’t required to be given to faculty members until Oct. 30.
A busy year for APSCUF will also be influenced by former Chancellor Frank Brogan’s retirement from his position in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in July as Clarion University President Karen Whitney was instated as the interim chancellor.
Mash and Martin both said they have high hopes that the negotiations process will look different now and the interim chancellor will be receptive.
“I know we wanted to look at how we deal with the process,” Mash said. “It’s hard to say what the difference will be, though. We’ve only had one meeting so far.”
Martin said she hopes it’s a different process now and referred to her concluding section of the “Works & Days” book on page 32 for her overall feelings about the strike:
“The APSCUF negotiation team learned many things from the process of working to secure a new collective bargaining agreement,” she wrote. “We learned that negotiations are exhausting. We learned that negotiations and mobilization go hand-in-hand. We were reminded that faculty members are willing to stand up for one another, and that they were willing to say ‘enough is enough.’
“Perhaps most importantly, we learned a lot about our students. They understood the issues we were fighting for and knew that many of the changes sought by the State System would be detrimental to their education. Finally, our understanding that we are educating future leaders was reinforced by the students’ behavior. While the thought of again sitting across the table from negotiators from the State System is not a pleasant one, we do believe that the tone and tenor of these negotiations will be different because of the strike.
“The State System can never again claim, ‘APSCUF always threatens to go on strike, but they never do.’ They now know that we have and that we will again if necessary.”
The next negotiations meeting will be in November, but Mash said he isn’t sure what – if anything – will be a contentious matter.
“It’s difficult to discern until the issues get on the table,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting it done in a way that’s fair to students and faculty and even the universities.
“We have confidence that if we ever need to do anything – a job action – we can do it. Because we did do it.”
“The solidarity occurred not just on our campus,” L’Amoreaux said, “but on each of the 14 campuses. I think the State System and the chancellor underestimated faculty and students. My major takeaway is that solidarity matters. We are stronger together.”
“As difficult as the strike was,” Martin said, “it should have positive impact moving forward. There will be no ‘crying wolf’ mentality anymore.”