Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I learned on the APSCUF picket lines

The APSCUF strike against the Pennsylvania state system of higher education ended on Friday evening after just three short days. Both sides had compelling reasons for ending the strike as quickly as possible. Millions of dollars were at stake to be sure, but so was the very existence of our union. No one really knew what the end result of a strike would be.

The faculty were unemployed and without health benefits. Every time I got into my car to run a routine errand, I was acutely aware my overall health (not to mention my financial assets) was at risk if I got into an accident. The state system was facing the possibility of giving back close to $40 million in tuition to more than 110,000 students. Students would get the money back, but the course credits they were hoping to earn and all the time they’d spent on the first seven weeks of the semester would be irretrievably lost. Settling the strike quickly was a winning combination for everyone.

To the union, the collective sigh of relief was palpable.  Most of us love our jobs and we worried a prolonged strike would be both emotionally and financially difficult to sustain. We worried, too, about our students and how they would feel about us if the semester was cancelled. Most of us believed the strike would provide plenty of  “teaching moments” about the power of collective bargaining and the bonding of union brotherhood. Students would be witnessing democracy in action and a slice of PASSHE history. It was the first time the union had gone on strike and no one knew what might occur.

I don’t think many of my faculty colleagues would have predicted beforehand or believed afterwards just how well West Chester students embraced the lessons of the strike and how many lessons about democracy, generosity and brotherhood we learned from them.

For most West Chester professors, the highlight of our three days on the picket lines occurred in the early afternoon of Wednesday. Fifty of so of my colleagues were walking in a tight circle around a small tree on the corner of High Street and University Avenue, just outside what students call “the castle,” Philips Hall, where the university administration offices are located.

Picket lines were manned at seven or eight other places on the outskirts of campus (we were not allowed to physically walk onto the campus, that was considered crossing the picket line) but our central protest location was at Philips Hall.  We could vaguely sense something happening out in the academic Quad as the students approached. They were shouting something but we couldn’t hear it clearly.

Quite suddenly two lines of more than 100 students stormed through the arches of Philips shouting in unison: “Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty! Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty!” over and over, striding with purpose and far more energy than we possessed after hours of picketing. They joined our circle and it tripled in size immediately.  Chills ran up my spine at the moment and smiles broke out on every faculty face. We were wowed. When I mentioned to a colleague standing near me that it “felt like Aragorn riding to the rescue at the climax of Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King’ ", he agreed. I heard that same analogy three other times over the next few days.

I caught the eyes of at least half a dozen of my own students and shouted my thanks to them for taking up our cause. Some nodded. Some smiled. Some ignored me. Just like they do in class.  All of us felt exhilarated to be living a moment filled with such emotion and a strong sense of justice; of making the world right again.

I met colleagues from the English department on the picket line and actually had real-life, real-world conversations with them about what they were currently reading; what their kids were doing; what kind of research they were conducting; their perceptions of the final presidential debate. When I meet them in the hallways of Main Hall, I know them as colleagues whose commitment to education is always evident; who take pride in their work for the commonwealth and the university and who bring a sense of mission to the classroom.

We are "educating the 99 percent" is how more than one picket line poster put it. We serve the ideals of democracy by helping to educate lower and middle class students. We believe every person with the ambition to go to college can be served by an education, not just the wealthy. We see higher education not just as a path to financial security but as a means to give students the tools to become citizens with a common purpose: the strength of the nation.

Walking the picket line with my colleagues helped turn them into brothers and sisters, into lifelong friends. Additionally, I hobnobbed with many professors from other departments, some whom I had never met before and others whose faces I recognized over many years of teaching but whom I had never held a conversation with. It made me realize what a special community we are and how lucky I have been to hold this job and to use my life to such high purpose.

On Thursday two of my children joined me briefly on the picket line. Luke, a WCU alum and my oldest child, took time from his work day to join me in a circle of singers to robustly sing a union song and then spent his lunch hour walking the line with me, holding a placard. It was the first time in my life I had ever walked a picket line and I was sharing the moment with my son. We will both always remember and treasure that hour together.

Fifteen minutes after he left to return to work, my daughter Lili joined me. She’s a 20-year-old junior at West Chester and, to be honest, she had very little real interest in spending her new found free “strike” time hanging with faculty hippies and singing union songs. But when she caught sight of the carnival atmosphere in front of Philips and saw how many students were on the corner with us, she smiled at the scene and got into the slow rhythm of our sidewalk waltz.

I think…I hope…. she learned as much from the experience of democracy in action as the other students who showed their support. People who heard about our strike may assume we did it to save our faculty health benefits and to secure raises. I cannot deny those reasons were part of our motivation. But a more important reason for our strike was to maintain the quality of higher education within the state system. It is not lip-service to say this: we did it for our students.

Many of them joined us on the picket lines to thank and support us in our three day-long demonstrations. When students show that much love and appreciation, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and pride.

All of the faculty hope they realize how much appreciation we have for them, too. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Today I went on strike for the first time in my life

Within the next hour or so, I will be joining my colleagues at West Chester University on the picket lines in front of Philips Hall, the administration building at West Chester University.

I have been a member of APSCUF (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) since the fall of 1988 when I started at West Chester, one of 14 universities in the state system of higher education. Never, in my 29 years of service, have we gone out on strike. Today I am joined by more than 5,500 professors who serve in the state system of higher education. We stand in solidarity with our union.

I beseech current students, their parents, former students and concerned citizens who care about public education to join the fight to preserve quality public education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Please come stand in solidarity with us if you possibly can..... we are striking because we feel it is necessary to preserve the integrity and quality of public higher education in Pennsylvania.

This is our attempt to ensure the state provides universities where lower and middle class students can earn a college education at comparatively inexpensive rates. Despite deep cuts to public education by former Gov. Tom Corbett, tuition at West Chester is still less than $10,000 a year. Based on the "Best Colleges" 2016 issue of U.S. News, West Chester's annual tuition of $9,700 is a bargain compared to other local universities. For example: at the University of Pennsylvania tuition is $43,000; at Villanova  University it is $46K; at St. Joseph's University it is $43K; at Haverford College it is $51K and at Swarthmore College it is $51K.

Public education has become a political football in the last decade. Cuts to public education are not only a way for conservative politicians to shift taxpayer money from public education into private education (charter schools and religious-based private schools) it is also a way to damage teachers' unions, which remain some of the strongest labor unions in the work force. APSCUF's strike can be seen as one battle in the continuing political war on public education.

The union is pitted against a chancellor who has long-standing ties to the Jeb Bush administration in Florida and who's political allegiance is to conservative politicians. After serving as the chancellor of the Florida state system of higher education under Bush for four years, he was appointed by Pennsylvania Republican Governor Corbett three years ago to head PASSHE. Corbett became infamous for slashing the the state system's operating budget by nearly 20 percent in 2012, a total of $82.5 million. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, tried to restore some of these deep funding cuts to higher education since his election in November, 2014.

This is not a local stand-off. This is a fight for what is right for our commonwealth. Professors represented by APSCUF are taking a stand for lower and middle class students and their families. We believe in maintaining high standards of public higher education and we hope our strike sets an example for educators everywhere and for citizens in the commonwealth who believe public education is worth preserving.

We believe education is the best way to promote democratic values and raise the economic well-being of all Pennsylvanians, no matter what their social status is at birth. Everyone should have a chance to receive an education to achieve their life's goals. Our union members believe this is the ultimate goal of education.

APSCUF's goal is to make the educational dreams of lower and middle class students become reality. We believe higher education should not be limited to wealthy families. The class size and course load teaching schedule we carry tends to be heavier than what professors at other area universities are required to perform. This is a sacrifice we make and we believe in because it helps make tuition at PASSHE universities more affordable than more prestigious colleges.

Stand in solidarity with us. Please.