COACHES’ STRIKE A NEAR MISS

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.6, October/November 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1706/wustrike.htm

This summer, many coaches in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) expressed hope and optimism when talking to the media about their upcoming seasons. But unlike most years, they weren’t talking only about their team’s prospects—they were expressing hope that there would be a season at all. Until an eleventh-hour agreement was reached in late August between the coaches’ union and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, a strike had threatened to bring sports in the conference to a screeching halt.

Around 360 PSAC coaches—those who are not under faculty contracts at their schools—are members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), the only union in the country that represents college coaches. They had been working without a contract since their last one expired in 2004, and with several unresolved issues on the table, in June 2005 they authorized APSCUF to call a work stoppage. The official strike date was never made public, but newspaper reports speculated that if a deal were not in place by late August, teams at the 14 PSAC schools (all members of NCAA Division II) would likely find themselves without coaches.

Of the issues that needed to be hammered out, pay increases topped the list. Under the new contract, coaches will receive a three-percent salary increase for the 2005-06 school year and again for 2006-07, with the potential for additional performance-based raises of up to 2.5 percent per year. Full- and part-time coaches with at least 10 consecutive years of experience in the PSAC also received a one-time cash payment of $50 for each year they have coached.

Other points of contention involved health insurance co-payments and tying contract renewals to performance evaluations—something coaches wanted to protect job security. On the former score, the coaches agreed to contribute .5 percent of their salary to offset the cost of health insurance in 2006, and one percent in 2007. They did not secure a direct link between performance evaluations and contract renewals, but as part of the new agreement, the university president will have to provide written justification whenever an individual coach’s contract is not renewed.

Pat Heilman, President of APSCUF, says the new contract includes significant concessions from both sides, and she believes the looming strike helped the process along. “We said that we would give 48 hours’ notice before our strike date, and I think the state system began to feel some heat from other unions in the state that said they would be supporting us,” she says. “There was also pressure coming from the local communities where our schools are located—to lose a football game in some of those towns is the equivalent of a tornado blowing through.

“But the pressure was on us as well, because our coaches didn’t want to walk away from their athletes,” Heilman continues. “They care deeply about their teams, but they have families to care for and support, too.”

When the tentative agreement was announced on August 23, coaches and players alike were relieved to learn that their season would not be interrupted. However, even as the strike still loomed, many PSAC coaches were encouraged to find that their athletes not only understood their situation, but also supported them.

“The first thing my players said to me when we spoke about it was, ‘We’ve got your back,’” says Laurie Lokash, Head Volleyball Coach at Slippery Rock University. “They said, ‘We know that we’re only passing through here for four years, but this is your job. There are certain times when you’ve got to take care of yourself, because the rest of the time you’re taking care of us.’”

Before the coaches joined APSCUF (which also represents 5,500 faculty members at Pennsylvania state schools), many had very low salaries. The first contract they secured through the union, which took effect in 2002, set salary ranges for full-time head coaches ($30,000-$85,000) and assistant coaches ($25,000-$50,000), as well as minimum salaries for part-time coaches. Before unionizing, some coaches were eligible for public assistance programs while working full-time for their university.

Coaches also felt they had little job security before unionizing. ”There was nothing to protect our rights,” says Rocky Rees, Head Football Coach at Shippensburg University and chief negotiator for the coaches of APSCUF. “We had no sick days, so if we were to have a catastrophic illness we were at the mercy of our school’s president to keep us on. We were basically on year-to-year contracts even after we had been at the same school for 15 or 20 years.

“I personally look at the union as trying to improve the coaching profession,” he continues. “The kids in our system deserve quality programs and that means paying quality people quality salaries. We’re trying raise the level of respect for coaches everywhere.”