Eleven University of Akron faculty members set to be laid off later this month are suing their union and the university for the right to make their own case for keeping their jobs.
A lawsuit filed Aug. 5 with seven faculty members has grown to now include 11, lead attorney on the case David Worhatch said.
The board of trustees on July 15 approved layoffs of 178 employees, including 96 faculty members in the union. Many had been at UA for decades.
The union, the Akron chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has filed a grievance against the university for invoking a clause in the union contract to conduct those layoffs without regard to faculty members’ tenure status or rank.
Worhatch said the 11 faculty members he represents want to fight the same fight, but with a different argument. He said it was premature to share the argument he believes would make the difference.
“It’s a very strong argument in favor of my clients,” he said. “And yet (the union’s) not raising it.”
State law allows those faculty members to file their own grievances, he said, but the university and union have told argued they couldn’t take that case to arbitration. Worhatch said both entities also told his clients they could have legal representation, but that representation essentially had to be a fly on the wall in proceedings.
The lawsuit also alleges the union “threw them under the bus” and did not “head off” the cut list soon enough.
Both the university and the union filed motions to dismiss the case, arguing the court did not have jurisdiction.
“Under the law individual employees do not have the right to take their grievances to arbitration and that under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, only the Akron-AAUP can take a grievance to arbitration,” the university said in a statement.
Union President Pam Schulze said in a statement the case was “completely without merit.”
“This is harmful to the chapter and all the faculty we represent,” Schulze said. “Any issue that diverts our counsels’ attention from preparing for arbitration is detrimental to the faculty and students at the University of Akron.”
The case was filed in Summit County but will be overseen by Judge James Kimbler of Medina County after Summit County judges recused themselves due to connections to the university, Worhatch said.
The university administration had been negotiating with the union for months when the coronavirus pandemic hit mid-March.
The university’s finances suddenly went from concerning to dire, resulting in further negotiations.
The union contract says that if layoffs are to be done because of financial need, those lowest in ranking are to be affected first. Tenured faculty would be last to be impacted, and even within tenure, there are rankings and seniority that are considered.
To subvert that, the administration invoked “Force Majeure” a clause that says in catastrophic circumstances, layoffs can be made without consideration of rank or tenure.
President Gary Miller has said invoking that clause saved jobs, because lower-ranked faculty have smaller salaries, and laying them off saves the university less money.
As part of the agreement, the administration offered severance pay of $1,200 for each year of service up to $12,000 for those terminated.
But the union pushed back hard, filing grievances and ultimately recommending its members reject the contract. It did so, in a narrow 184-to-159 vote.
That moves the case to binding arbitration, a process expected to take at least a month.
Miller told the board on Wednesday during a budget presentation that if the arbitrator sides with the union and overturns the layoffs, the university would have to hire back everyone at a cost of $8 million.
The pandemic sped up a process of right-sizing the university’s budget, a process that should have taken a few years, Miller said. Instead, he said, they had months to find a way to cut nearly $55 million from the university’s budget.
If they didn’t, Miller said, they would spend down the entirety of the university’s reserve funds, which are required to maintain for accreditation and bond rating purposes.
The administration will cut $44 million this year following board’s approval of the budget Wednesday, and spend about $8 million from its reserve fund. That assumes the professors don’t have to be rehired. It also assumes an enrollment drop of 15% and a state funding cut of about $8.8 million.
Those on the cut list will be separated from the university Aug. 22.