Wright State looks to move on from longest faculty strike in Ohio’s history

After 20 days, Wright State University’s professors are back in the classroom upon reaching a deal with the administration to end what is thought to be the longest faculty union strike in Ohio’s history.

The strike ended late Sunday with a tentative agreement between negotiators for the administration and the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The school’s board of trustees unanimously voted to approve the deal Monday night while the AAUP-WSU will take a poll of members in the coming days.

The deal should save Wright State around $3 million to $4 million per year, president Cheryl Schrader said. No estimate about how much the strike cost the university was available as of Monday.

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The nearly five-year deal includes two contracts that will extend through June 30, 2023, according to the school. As part of the contract, the AAUP-WSU’s 560 or so members will join a university-wide health care plan.

Health care remained a sticking point in contract talks with union leaders saying they would be sacrificing their right to bargain over health benefits by agreeing to the terms originally imposed by the board of trustees Jan. 4. The tentative agreement makes it clear that health care will be included in future contract negotiations, said AAUP-WSU president Martin Kich.

“There’s very strong language in the contract now,” Kich said. “No fact-finder is going to be able to look at it and say: ‘they gave up their right to bargain over health care.’”

Board of trustees chairman Doug Fecher said the new agreement has “some guardrails” in place concerning costs and collective bargaining. With the strike over, Fecher called on each side to put aside their differences.

“We need to spend some time rebuilding and repairing this university,” Fecher said.

AAUP-WSU members will also receive up to a 2.5 percent raise in 2022 and a 2.5 percent raise in 2023. But, the raises will not necessarily make up for financial concessions accepted by the union in health care and other areas, Kich said.

Under the deal, faculty union members can be furloughed for one day per semester and workload and layoff language will remain the same. Summer teaching pay for union faculty will be reduced by 15 percent to 20 percent over the course of the two contracts.

“This agreement serves Wright State University and our students well,” Schrader said in a statement. “Both parties made substantial concessions to help move the university forward together.”

‘Return to normal’

Students will soon be able to pick back up courses they may have withdrawn from because of the recent strike.

Any students who dropped a class last week will be able to re-register for it by the end of the week, according to an email sent to campus from provost Sue Edwards. Students will need permission of the department chairperson to re-register and there will be no late fees applied if they do so this week, Edwards said.

“I am sure all our members are glad to be going back to the classroom where we hope things will return to normal for our students as soon as possible,” Kich said.

Since the first day of the spring semester, 405 students have withdrawn from Wright State while 494 new students have enrolled, according to the school.

Prior to the 20-day strike that started Jan. 22, Schrader had said that classes would continue but that some would be combined, moved online temporarily or taught by a substitute. Other courses were given alternative assignments, such as a tour of the of the archives at the library.

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But, as the strike began, some classes went unstaffed and last week the school began canceling some “specialized” courses for the semester.

Students were encouraged to pick replacement classes by Friday, which was the deadline they could withdraw and still receive a full refund. The university also planned to offer some of its canceled classes during a condensed “B-Term” later this semester.

Edwards said that department chairs have been instructed to make scheduling decisions based on what will “work best for their departments.” Those changes will be communicated directly to students, Edwards said.

There will be no impact to graduation, which is scheduled for May 4, according to WSU.

“I want to thank our students,” Edward said in her email. “I know they have sacrificed these last three weeks and showed great patience in the face of uncertainty.”

The state stayed out of it

State leaders and lawmakers largely took a hands-off approach to the strike.

A group of local Republican legislators issued a joint statement in January calling for an end to the strike then on Friday a group of Democratic state lawmakers sent a letter to the board of trustees expressing their support for the AAUP-WSU. But, for the most part state leaders avoided picking sides in the labor dispute.

With the strike over, it’s time for the WSU campus to “come together,” said Ohio Higher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner.

The chancellor had been in regular communication with the WSU administration over the last three weeks and the governor’s office had also been getting regular updates on the situation.

Gov. Mike DeWine last week said he hadn’t planned to intervene in the strike and that if he decided to that it wouldn’t be “helpful” for him to disclose his plans.

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Gardner visited campus last week to talk to students impacted by the strike and he addressed dozens of AAUP-WSU members at the Statehouse on Friday during a gathering hosted by the group.

"The first people I thought about last night when I heard the news of the agreement were the students I met with Friday at the Statehouse," Gardner said. "I'm hopeful that their plans and goals for the future – and those of thousands of others as well – are restored."

‘Last big hurdle’

The strike went on longer than expected, both Fecher and Kich said Monday.

Now, the university is faced with having to repair its brand to ensure the labor dispute and other issues that have troubled WSU in recent years don’t further impact the school, Fecher said.

In the last few years, Wright State has suffered from a financial crisis that forced it to reduce spending by $53 million in fiscal year 2018 and the school settled a federal investigation into visa misuse for $1 million.

Ending the strike was the “last big hurdle that existed from the past,” Fecher said. Schrader has also said she saw faculty union contract talks as the last major issue she inherited upon becoming Wright State’s president in 2017.

But, with some of the school’s larger issues now behind it, an enrollment crisis may be looming.

Wright State’s enrollment was projected to dip below 17,000 for the first time this fall since 2007 to around 16,224, nearly 3,550 below the school’s peak in 2010 when a transition from quarters to semesters started taking place, according to a fiscal year 2019 budget.

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History shows that faculty strikes could further damage enrollment at WSU and though the strike is over, “the enrollment issues won’t just go away,” Fecher said.

29-day strike at Philadelphia's Temple University in 1990 led to more than 3,500 students withdrawing during and immediately following the labor dispute. It took until the fall of 1999 for Temple's enrollment to bounce back and the strike itself cost the school around $12.5 million.

Following a brief 2011 faculty union strike at Youngstown State University, enrollment declined by around five percent the next fall, according to state records.

“I think everybody is relieved that the strike is over but we need to understand that we’ve got a lot of work to do now,” Fecher said. “This doesn’t mean we don’t have big issues in the future.”

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