A state board could decide today if a strike by Wright State University faculty is unauthorized as complaints and political pressure begin to mount for the school’s administration and faculty union.
The State Employment Relations Board has scheduled an emergency hearing for noon today in Columbus to decide whether a faculty union strike started Tuesday at Wright State is legitimate.
The university’s administration and the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors will each have one hour to present their case to the state board, according to the meeting notice. SERB will then make a ruling, said Seth Bauguess, spokesman for Wright State.
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The hearing comes after the administration on Thursday filed its second unfair labor practice complaint with the state, asking it to declare the strike unauthorized.
“Our attorney is very positive about our chances,” said Martin Kich, AAUP-WSU president. “There’s no telling what SERB is going to do…But, I don’t think there’s anything in there that’s going to invalidate the strike.”
The administration declined to comment directly on the Sunday meeting, but Bauguess said “the filing speaks for itself.”
Ohio Revised Code requires SERB to make a decision within 72 hours of when a complaint claiming a strike is unauthorized is filed. A SERB ruling in favor of the university would require the union to cease all strike activity immediately, according to WSU.
In its filing with SERB, the administration asked the board to declare the strike unauthorized in part because of workload. Workload, the administration claims, is prohibited from being part of collective bargaining.
In its complaint, the administration said another reason the strike should be considered unauthorized is because union leaders “intentionally sabotaged” plans to keep classes and operations going during the labor dispute. The union did this by asking members to tell the university they did not intend to strike when they actually did, according to the complaint.
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The complaint accuses unionized faculty of removing course information from an electronic WSU system to make it more difficult for the university to offer courses during the strike.
“I think it’s highly unlikely to have any merit,” said Noeleen McIlvenna, a WSU history professor and contract administration officer for the union. “It’s probably just another thing to make people nervous and we’re not terribly nervous. It’s probably a sign that they think we’re winning. The heat on them is pretty heavy now.”
‘Going to waste’
One out of four of Wright State senior Emma Mills’s classes have continued this week with faculty on strike. Mills, a senior studying French at WSU, said she feels like she’s being ripped off because she’s paying the university money for classes that are not being taught.
“I feel like that everyday that I am not in class the money that I’m paying to this university is going to waste,” Mills said.
Between 80 and 86 percent of Wright State classes went on without disruption on the first two days of the strike, the school reported.
Mills said she and her classmates were surprised because before the strike began, the administration had said it would be able to cover all classes left unattended by professors who were picketing. WSU planned to cover classes by consolidating them, moving some online temporarily or having them taught by a substitute.
“While many classes went on as normal, some also experienced disruptions. In those circumstances, our students exercised great patience and respect as we knew they would,” said WSU president Cheryl Schrader.
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The university also assigned “alternative assignments” which included activities like tours of the archives at the library.
Wright State parent Andrea Ledford said her daughter’s classes are not “continuing without impact.” Just one of her daughter’s six classes have continued, Ledford said.
“For her history class an administrator came in to show a video. Like a sub would in 6th grade,” Ledford said.
The strike is the AAUP’s response to the WSU board of trustees decision on Jan. 4 to implement the final terms of employment for the union.
The terms included moving faculty union members into a “uniform” health care plan, maintaining current rules of retrenchment, including no pay raises and allowing faculty to be furloughed as part of “cost savings days.” The union has taken issue with the furlough policy, changes to health care, new provisions for promotions and tenure appointment, workload and a merit pay system.
State and national legislators are putting pressure on Wright State University’s administration and faculty union to find a way to end the ongoing strike at the school.
On Friday, a slew of Dayton area lawmakers released a joint statement calling for a resolution to be reached that would end the strike. State senators Bob Hackett, R-London, Steve Huffman R-Tipp City, and Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering along with state representatives Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, Jim Butler, R-Oakwood, Susan Manchester, R- Waynesfield, Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek and Phil Plummer, R-Dayton, all signed onto the joint statement released this morning.
“We are concerned about the students who have paid their tuition as they work toward achieving their degrees on time. The legislature is watching closely and encourages good faith negotiations toward an agreement for the good of the students, faculty and campus community,” the statement read.
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Both Gov. Mike DeWine’s office and the Ohio Department of Higher Education have said they are monitoring the labor dispute at Wright State. WSU is sharing all strike communications given to campus with Randy Gardner, chancellor of the state department of higher education, who has been providing regular updates to DeWine’s office.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, released a statement Friday praising the faculty union and students for taking action and going on strike. Brown previously wrote a letter to Schrader, urging her and the administration to restart contract talks.
“Wright State University is a pillar in the southwest Ohio community and I’m proud of the faculty and students demanding better benefits for those who’ve helped make it the premier institution it is today,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “I support the rights of all workers to join together and fight for better working conditions.”
The longer the strike goes on, the more damage it could inflict on Wright State, said Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, who is also the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“Any agreement that the union is able to derive better come quick,” Vedder said. “I think a long term strike at Wright State could be almost fatal because it could lead to a precipitous decline in enrollment.”
The deadline for students to withdraw with a full refund from WSU was originally Friday. On Thursday the university pushed the deadline back one week to Feb. 1.
As of Wednesday, 16 students had withdrawn from WSU since the start of the semester on Jan. 14. By Friday, that number had risen to 43, Bauguess said.
But, history shows Vedder’s warning may be correct and that it may take longer to know the full impact of the strike on enrollment.
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A 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. Cincinnati State Technical and Community College’s enrollment remained steady after a 2011 faculty strike.
Wright State’s enrollment has already reached historic lows in recent years. Tuition is the biggest single revenue source for most colleges so another enrollment decline could cause financial problems that WSU is already familiar with.
Wright State reduced its spending by around $53 million during fiscal year 2018 in an attempt to begin correcting years of overspending.
“There’s only so many revenues in a university and a union might be able to move the needle one percent but its not likely to move it a lot,” Vedder said. “I would think that at the end of the strike in the next week or so would in the interest of everyone. No one is talking seriously about closing Wright State but that kind of talk could happen if Wright State doesn’t resolve its current issues soon.”
Back in the classroom
President Schrader on Thursday paced back and forth at the head of an engineering classroom, the first one she has regularly taught in for more than 10 years.
Though the administration has reported around 44 percent of union members are continuing to teach during the strike, Schrader, an electrical engineer, returned to the classroom this week to help out. She passed around candy to a 90-minute class on control systems and tried to mix in some history with her technical teachings.
Schrader has called the fact that she gets to return to the classroom as something of a “silver lining” to the strike, though she wishes the labor dispute had been avoided altogether. Schrader said returning to the classroom is “so familiar” to her that “it’s like riding a bike.”
“It’s energizing, it’s a lot of fun,” Schrader said. “I kind of forgot that real rush you get and just the joy of having that opportunity to connect with students.”
Schrader is teaching two classes this week, one scheduled in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and another scheduled in the afternoon on Tuesday and Thursday. In preparation to teach again, Schrader said last weekend she dug out from her garage old notes and a book she co-authored.
As Schrader taught a class of 13 Thursday afternoon, a group of students gathered outside her office for a sit-in to protest the administration’s stance on contract negotiations and the strike. Participating in the sit-in were 17 students meant to represent a union talking point that faculty only make up 17 percent of the university’s budget.
In Schrader’s classroom though, it was as if nothing was out of the ordinary on the third day of the strike. Students asked and answered questions as Schrader followed the syllabys left by the class’s original professor.
Jonnathan Bonifaz, a WSU senior, was surprised when he walked into his class to find the university president leading it. Though Bonifaz said Schrader’s teaching style is different from his original professor, he said Schrader clearly knew what she was talking about and that he was enjoying her lessons.
“I wasn’t expecting it…It was kind of intimidating,” Bonifaz said. “But, she knows a lot about what she’s teaching.”
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By the numbers
560: Number of WSU faculty in union.
44: Percent of union faculty crossing the picket line.
43: WSU students who have withdrawn this semester.
3,500: Temple University students who withdrew in 1990 strike.
8: Number of local Ohio lawmakers who called for end to strike.
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