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Classes at the Community College of Philadelphia were suspended indefinitely Tuesday morning as picketers gathered at building entrances for the start of a faculty and staff strike.

“We’ve got people at every door; we’ve got 100 people that are picketing at the moment,” John Braxton, co-president of the Faculty and Staff Federation of Community College of Philadelphia, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said around lunchtime Tuesday. “People are very spirited -- we represent both the faculty and staff, so there’s a great sense of unity out here now.”

Administrators announced at 10 a.m. that classes would be suspended after indicating the day before that classes would be held as scheduled. Buildings remained open and administrators reported to work.

Braxton, an assistant professor of biology, said that to his knowledge, not a single faculty member or classified employee -- ranging from clerical worker to housekeeper to audiovisual technician -- had crossed the picket line. The union, which represents between 1,300 and 1,400 employees, has criticized the administration for citing financial straits as a reason to be stingy, while simultaneously withholding financial data, particularly in regard to administrative salaries, and allocating funds toward what some union members consider to be questionable uses (such as $1.5 million for a recent public relations campaign).

“We need a little bit more money," Braxton said of the salary negotiations.

Meanwhile, the two-year college's president, Stephen M. Curtis, dismissed any allegations of secrecy, and said that inconsistent government support has limited the college's discretionary spending as much of the financial burden has shifted to students. The annual $3,500 cost of attendance at the college is substantially above the average $2,272 cost of two-year college attendance nationally ( based on 2006 College Board numbers), he noted. Curtis said he was at a loss as to why the union rejected the administration’s “final and best offer” -- which calls for free health care and a 3.62-percent average annual raise for the duration of the five-year contract.

Braxton responded quite simply: They’d told the administration what their bottom line was “and they came back and gave us something less”.

A 2 p.m. meeting today between the lead negotiators and a state mediator offers the first glimmer of possibility that the strike may soon be resolved. But interviews illuminated an impasse Tuesday: Both sides said they’d be waiting for the other one to call. 

The union has been involved in increasingly contentious negotiations with the college’s administration regarding new contracts for all three of its bargaining units (full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and classified employees) since the former contracts expired in August. In December, union members demonstrated on campus, calling for greater financial transparency and protesting the administration’s desire to switch to an inferior health plan absent the full disclosure of financial data to support their argument that cutbacks were needed in light of tight financial times.

But while Braxton said that the administration did put a proposal back on the table (at the last minute) that would offer an acceptable health care plan without requiring any full-time employee to contribute to the cost of the premium (as is currently the case), they’re still stuck, he said, on the question of wages.

While the president said the final offer presented by the college would result in a salary increase averaging 3.62 percent annually for the five-year term of the contract, Braxton said the reality is that full-time faculty would see only a 3.3-percent average annual increase.

“That’s less than the rate of inflation and that’s not acceptable,” said Braxton. He referenced a 3.75-percent annual raise as the target for full-time faculty, with slightly more needed for classified employees and part-time faculty. “It’s a bit more, say $100,000 a year, or something like that; that’s not a lot for $100 million budget to come up with. They’ve got the money,” said Braxton. “We really just feel like it’s very important to bring up those bottom salaries, even if it’s just marginally more, and also get some inflation protection for those at the high end.”

But Curtis said he didn’t see the need for a strike. “I’m unclear what the problem is with the offer. My interest now is to serve students,” he said in a Tuesday afternoon interview.

“We want to provide a good investment in our employees; we want to do the right thing for them, but we also have to be cognizant of other needs,” Curtis said. As public support has dropped or otherwise been erratic, “the burden sometimes shifts to the students. We don’t want that to happen to the extent that it has in the past few years.” Four years ago, Curtis said, the average cost of tuition was at $2,500, $1,000 less than it is today.

Curtis also disputed the union’s accusation that the administration has withheld information on finances. The college, which is exempted from the state’s open record act under a 1996 court decision, has consistently provided the union with the same budget that it gives the board.

“We’re waiting. We hope they’ll knock any day now, any minute,” Curtis said.

Two hours earlier, Braxton had said much the same thing.

“We’re waiting for a call from them.”

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