No union contract yet for full-time faculty

Point Park University’s full-time faculty members begin the 2016-17 school year without a contract after making little progress with the university in about 10 negotiating sessions since March 17.

Full-time faculty members voted in June 2004 to unionize and join the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh/Communications Workers of America. The university initially refused to bargain with the faculty, saying they are viewed as managerial employees and therefore ineligible for unionization.

After more than 11 years of legal battles, the university announced in July 2015 it was dropping its legal appeals that went through the National Labor Relations Board and the U.S. Court of Appeals and would begin the collective bargaining process.

Michael A. Fuoco, president of the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, said contract negotiations with representatives from the university have moved slower than he expected.

“The progress has been glacial,” Fuoco said. “We are starting from a blank piece of paper, but our view is that it should not be taking this long and that they’re doing a disservice to the faculty, which has shown them extraordinary patience and good will during these 11 years.”

“We think that should be repaid in some way in faster and more on-point negotiations. We’re not looking for anything excessive. We’re looking for a fair contract that will be beneficial to both parties.”

The university’s stance that faculty members were considered managerial employees was consistent with the 1980 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) v. Yeshiva University that deemed faculty members with managerial duties ineligible for unionization.

Point Park dropped its appeals last December after an NLRB ruling rejected Pacific Lutheran University’s claims that its faculty were managerial. The NLRB does however consider department chairs, even those who teach classes, managerial employees and therefore do not qualify for the union.

“At Point Park University, we focus on student learning and student welfare,” said Lou Corsaro, managing director of marketing and public relations at Point Park. “As we work through the early stages of negotiation on a contract, University leadership will respect that process by confining talks to the bargaining table.”

Joseph J. Pass is a lawyer at Jubelirer, Pass & Intrieri P.C. and is representing the faculty during the negotiations. Pass has represented unions in 26 states and has been involved with labor movements for more than 35 years. While issues such as wages, pensions and healthcare benefits are on the negotiating table, he said such economic issues haven’t been discussed at length yet.

“I think they are dragging their feet,” Pass said. “Why are they dragging their feet? Of course the longer they don’t have a contract, the less money they have to pay…I think these people are just becoming really too slow. It’s not like we started this last month.”

Robert H. Morsilli, the lead negotiator for the university and a principal with Jackson Lewis P.C., is based in Boston, Mass. Morsilli declined to comment.

Pass and Fuoco said one of the most important issues for the faculty is ensuring the academic freedom of professors. Faculty, they said, want the freedom to teach without having restrictions on their ideas.

“The real problem is our people want to keep this university as an academic university, not as a business,” Pass said. “[The faculty] are more concerned with academic freedoms and how students are treated. The university is more concerned with controlling the faculty and not giving them the freedom they need as professors.”

History professor Edward Meena is one of the faculty members at the negotiating table.

“We’re looking to maintain the academic integrity of the tenured-track, full-time professors, the academic freedoms in the classroom so that I can teach what’s relevant and so I can present what I want to in class and to address certain inequities throughout the compensation system for faculty,” Meena said.

Fuoco said academic freedom is important to the faculty who are looking out for the welfare of the university.
“They shouldn’t have to be looking their shoulder worried that what they say in the classroom could get them in trouble,” Fuoco said. “What we’re looking for is a contract that treats them with the kind of compensation and benefits and protections that they deserve.”

Pass said he and the faculty representatives researched how Point Park compares to similar colleges in the Mid-Atlantic and eastern regions of the United States during the negotiating process.

Against similar institutions in the region that are private, urban universities like Point Park, faculty is “17-or-more percent behind the average, while administration is about that above the average,” with some full-time professors making “less than $50,000.”

“If you don’t pay people, you’re not going to get good people,” Pass said. “It’s pretty basic.”

Other key issues on the negotiating table include the length of contracts, number of classes professors should teach and the number of part time teachers allowed to teach at the university.

The Faculty Assembly needs to remain neutral on union matters, according to Faculty Assembly President Matt Pascal. Discussions at the assembly meetings often include academic standards, including new course and program proposals.

While Pascal supports the union and is encouraged by the positive attitude he experienced from the new provost, John Pearson, he said he hopes to keep the assembly neutral in discussions that are on the union negotiating table.

“We’re going to do everything we can as an assembly to keep things strictly business in the assembly and not take sides between the union and the administration,” Pascal said in a phone interview. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep the assembly neutral.”

Efforts to mobilize an effort to “get the university’s attention” are now being discussed among Fuoco and faculty members. He said their requests to negotiate at least twice a week were rejected.

“We’re not saying we want to rush this thing,” Fuoco said. “This is our first contract, this is their first contract and we understand that it will take some time and work. We’re willing to put in the time and work.”

Both Pass and Fuoco said full-time faculty would not rule out going on strike.

“It obviously would be our last resort, but it’s not something that we would take out of our realm of possibility,” Fuoco said.

“The way that we look at it, it’s in their hands what happens this school year. The last thing we want to do is disrupt the school year. But if this continues, that is a possibility.”

Pascal does hope striking is not an alternative for a long time. Meena also is optimistic that the two sides will work out a fair contract.

“It’s a lot of tug and pull,” Meena said. “I think we’ve made progress, maybe not as fast as we’d like. But we’re going to get a deal done.”