With Strike Started, YSU and Union Hopeful for Quick Agreement

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The first faculty union strike at Youngstown State University in 15 years began Monday morning with professors, lecturers, students and supporters lining Wick and Lincoln avenues along the campus’ main thoroughfares. 

The strike comes after three negotiation sessions – two prior to the vote to strike held Friday and Saturday – in the past week failed to produce a replacement contract for the YSU chapter of the Ohio Education Association. Negotiations have been ongoing since December.

On Sunday, the union reported “some progress” had been made in that day’s session.

“Yesterday, the administration brought some proposals that made some very, very small steps involving the protections for senior lecturers, one involving a slight move in terms of compensation and health care,” says YSU-OEA President Steve Reale. “They gave us a proposal yesterday, we’ll give them one today and we’ll see if we can’t make some more progress.”

Currently, a negotiation is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Monday, but no other sessions have been set as of yet.

“If we can’t reach an agreement at a session today, we’ll come back tomorrow. Hopefully there’s another session tomorrow. If we can’t reach an agreement tomorrow, then we come back Wednesday,” Reale says. “If that happens, then unfortunately courses are going to be impacted, which is something we hoped to avoid. If we can’t come to agreement by Wednesday, it’s really because the university is standing firm and refusing to budge.”

The four “must haves” for the 337-member faculty union are shared governance of the university, protections for the “most vulnerable” faculty – such as nontenure-track professors and foreign professors with visas – the right for professors to conduct scholarship and profit from their works, and salary and health insurance benefits.

“Shared governance is the idea that universities, ideally, are democratic institutions where all stakeholders have the opportunity to guide the leadership of it,” he explained, pointing to the university’s realignment over the summer that saw programs shifted to other colleges and the merging of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences with the Beeghly College of Education. The move also saw 18 department heads returned to the classroom with pay decreases.

The realignment of the the university, which YSU says is expected to save about $1 million, was not done with faculty input.

The university’s position remains that the YSU-OEA proposals, particularly those around pay and benefits, are not feasible because of a budget tightened by the coronavirus pandemic, a spokesman says. The 2% per year pay increases over the three-year term of the contract would amount to $4.2 million dollars. In a statement issued Sunday, vice president of finance and business operations Neal McNally says the university is facing a $3.7 million decrease in operating revenue due to decreased enrollment and lowered state funding.

“On top of that, the university could face additional revenue losses of more than $10 million if the COVID-19 pandemic forces another campus shutdown, as was the case last spring,” McNally wrote. “The union, instead, is accusing us of exploiting the pandemic, which is not the case. It would be irresponsible for the university to ignore the real world financial risks associated with the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the OEA has countered that the university has a surplus between $7 million and $9 million based on a “faculty expert analysis,” a conclusion the university steadfastly denies.

Nursing professor Laura Calcagni pickets along Lincoln Avenue.

“Declining enrollments and falling revenue are not usually indicative of a budget surplus. In fact, despite all of the cost reductions implemented so far, the university is still projecting an operating deficit of $2 million,” McNally wrote. 

Over the summer, YSU cut 22 nonfaculty positions to save $2 million and reached an agreement with the two nonfaculty unions, the Association for Classified Employees and Association of Professional/Administrative Staff, to have all members take 26 furlough days. The agreement also included the layoff of 45 ACE and 24 APAS employees from June 1 to July 31. The agreement with the unions saved $2.8 million.

McNally’s full rebuttal of the union’s claims about the budget can be read HERE.

“It seems to us,” YSU-OEA’s Reale responds, “to be a strange position to take because these are the exact same numbers put out in the fact-finding process. Mr. McNally was there when we put the numbers out and if he had a problem with our calculations or how we approached the budget, he had every opportunity to address those concerns in front of a judge.”

Negotiations began on the new union contract, which expired Aug. 17, in December before being halted by the university in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“In March, when it became clear the world was changing, the administration unilaterally put a halt on negotiations. We understood this. It’s time that wasn’t clear for any of us,” Reale says.

The union, Reale continues, offered twice to extend the current contract by a year to allow a clearer picture of YSU’s financial situation to emerge, but was rebuffed both times. Later in the summer, the university announced it would hold negotiations along the original timeline, resuming the process with testimony for a fact-finder’s report on the 20 articles that had yet to be agreed on.

The union approved the report Sept. 28, while the YSU Board of Trustees rejected the report at its Sept. 30 meeting. 

“While there remains significant work on both contracts, we remain optimistic that both can be resolved in a fair and equitable manner and without disruption to the semester,” said Dr. Anita Hackstedde at the Sept. 30 meeting. “While we may disagree with our faculty colleagues on the report, we do believe there is plenty of room for compromise and agreement.”

Currently, the strike is not affecting classes – the university is having its fall break Oct. 12 and 13 – but if a deal is not reached by Wednesday classes will be disrupted, though exactly how remains to be seen. In a video released Monday morning, YSU President Jim Tressel said a plan is in the works to have classes continue uninterrupted, but did not provide details. A FAQ page for students and employees has been set up at YSU.edu/strike-information.

“Our hope remains that over the next two days we can get this settled. If we can’t and the strike spills into Wednesday when the classes resume, we’re working on a plan we’ll have in place,” he said. “It’s certainly an unfortunate situation, one that we never thought we’d be in, but we’ll certainly get through it.”

YSU faculty picket along Wick Avenue.

Reale says it is the union’s understanding that YSU intends to hire replacement teachers to handle courses if the strike interferes with classes.

“We’re skeptical that’s going to be a feasible solution. The faculty of this university are specialists in their field and come from all over the world to bring education to our students,” Reale says. “The details of the courses are highly specialized and we’re skeptical that you can fill 300-plus courses on two days’ notice to properly teach these kinds of materials.”

He adds that it’s the union’s hope to not disrupt learning for students, but that “we’ve been pushed into this position.

“I think it’s fair to say that we wanted nothing other than to prevent what’s happening today,” he continues. “If we’re going to do right by our students, the administration has to do right by us.”

Pictured at top: YSU-OEA President and Dana School of Music professor Steve Reale, center, with Dana School of Music lecturer Sean Yancer (left) and Jacob Labendz, professor and director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at YSU.

Related Coverage

Oct. 11: ‘Some Progress’ Made in YSU-Union Negotiations
Oct. 7: Negotiations ‘Stalled’ on 1st Day, YSU Faculty Union Says
Oct. 5: YSU Trustees Reject Fact-Finder Report, Negotiations Begin Wednesday
Oct. 2: YSU-OEA Accepts Fact-Finder Report, Trustees Will Vote Monday
Sept. 30: YSU-OEA Seeks ‘Swift and Equitable Resolution’ to Negotiations
July 16: Tressel Calls YSU-OEA Strike Threat ‘Disappointing’
June 4: YSU Trustees OK $158M Budget, Projects 15% Drop in Enrollment

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.