The longest faculty labor dispute in the history of Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities inched closer to a showdown Friday as union professors voted overwhelmingly to give their negotiators authority to call a strike.
Affirmative votes were cast by 95 percent of those taking part in the election, which included more than 86 percent of the roughly 5,000 faculty belonging to the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, union leaders said.
A total of 4,511 ballots were cast, of which 4,265 voted yes and 246 voted no.
The tally came from three days of balloting at schools belonging to the State System of Higher Education, among them California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania.
The faculty's previous contract expired June 30, 2011, and talks have stretched over two years.
There has never been a strike in the State System's three-decade history and the last authorization vote took place in 2007. After Friday's announcement, union president Steve Hicks reiterated in a statement that a walkout would be a last resort but also said the margin reflected the bargaining unit's resolve.
"The overwhelming support for our negotiations committee and our negotiations team sends a strong message to the State System," he said. "Our members are united for a fair contract that benefits all faculty and students by maintaining quality education."
The State System said following the vote that it continues to be interested in finding a resolution. "We remain committed to reaching a fair settlement and we will continue to work toward that on behalf of our students," system spokesman Kenn Marshall said.
The 14 universities have an enrollment of slightly fewer than 115,000 students.
For more than a year, the labor dispute wore on in relatively muted fashion, but last month, faculty protesters showed up at a State System Board of Governors meeting in Harrisburg, where they urged management to submit to binding arbitration.
The system rejected the proposal, saying it managed to reach contracts with other unions through collective bargaining.
State System chancellor John Cavanaugh also told the union it would be imprudent to involve a third party in deciding the contract who would not be duty-bound to consider interests of Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Earlier this month, the State System backed away from arguably the most controversial proposal -- a 35 percent pay cut for temporary faculty. Part-time temporary faculty members would see their salary freeze at current levels.
Other points of contention include a management proposal to phase out incentive payments offered since 1999 to faculty for distance education course development and savings sought in employee health care.
Salary increases are expected to track with other state union contract agreements and have been less of an issue.
Under the system's latest four-year proposal, retroactive to 2011-2012, pay would be frozen the first year, Mr. Marshall said.
After that, faculty at the top of the pay scale, which ranges from $107,870 for full professors to $66,222 for instructors, would see their base salary rise the remaining three years by 4 percent, plus yearly cash payments equivalent to 2.5 percent of their salary, Mr. Marshall said.
Base salaries would rise by a total of 4 percent plus annual service increments of 2.5 percent or 5 percent annually for members at all other scales, including the bottom scale that ranges from 44,795 for instructors to $72,967 for full professors, Mr. Marshall said.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 412-263-1977.