Eastern Michigan University files lawsuit, asking court to force faculty back to class

Eastern Michigan University faculty walk the picket line in front of Welch Hall, the school's administration building on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022,  after they voted on Tuesday night to strike.
Eastern Michigan University faculty walk the picket line in front of Welch Hall, the school's administration building on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, after they voted on Tuesday night to strike.

Eastern Michigan University filed suit in Washtenaw County Circuit Court on Wednesday, asking a judge to force its faculty union back into the classroom. The faculty started striking Wednesday morning, after 91% of members voted Tuesday night in favor of the strike.

The university says the strike is illegal because faculty are public employees and state law bans public employees from striking.

It's an argument that Central Michigan University made in 2011 when its professors went on strike. A judge then sided with the university and sent the faculty back to work while negotiations continued. However, elected judges in heavily Democratic-leaning Washtenaw County might not be interested in ruling quickly against labor unions.

More:Eastern Michigan faculty picket as strike kicks off and students wonder about classes

In its filing, the administration said the strike will cause "irreparable injury" to Eastern, its students, non-faculty employees and the public if the union, which represents about 500 faculty, isn't ordered to cease its strike.

The outcomes, Eastern officials said in the filings, are "not trivial, inconsequential, or speculative, but are irreparable injuries which will prevent it from accomplishing its essential functions and will substantially adversely impact others, in particular EMU's students."

The filing then lists 21 ways the administration says the strike harms the institution as well as individuals affiliated with it. The strike consequences listed in the filing include: possibly making it so students can't take lab classes needed to graduate or take tests for professional certificates; increased anxiety among students; or layoffs of non-faculty union staff due to losses in tuition or room/board income. It attached affidavits from multiple administrators, including Athletic Director Scott Wetherbee and Provost Rhonda Longworth, each detailing how the stoppage was harming the school and its students.

"The failure of the EMU faculty represented by the AAUp to report to work on September 7, 2022, has halted the normal operations of EMU," the filing said.

Faculty union officials said that's not true and that the union would fight back in court.

“Our strike against the EMU Administration’s repeated illegal unfair labor practices will be settled at the bargaining table, not in a courtroom,” Mohamed El-Sayed, professor of engineering at EMU and president of EMU-AAUP, said in a statement. “Instead of filing lawsuits which have no merit, EMU administrators should focus their efforts on good faith bargaining so we can reach a fair agreement which supports our students.”

Hunter Allen, 18, of Howell, a freshman at Eastern Michigan University, sits on a rock watching faculty protest and strike in front of Welch Hall, the school's administration building on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. The 500 professors that are part of the EMU American Association of University Professors voted on Tuesday night to strike for more pay and to not have their health care raised.

The union said its legal filing in response will show the strike is legal because Eastern had repeated unfair labor practices and the college failed to "show ‘irreparable harm’ due to a strike that has lasted, so far, less than 24 hours." “It’s unfortunate that the EMU Administration’s failure to bargain in good faith has caused delay and disruption for our students,” said El-Sayed. “Filing an unsupported lawsuit that attempts to force our members back to work against their will does not move us forward 1 inch. Our negotiating team is meeting with EMU officials today; we are available today and every day to find common ground, settle this dispute and move our University forward.”

The two sides are split on salary increases and especially on how much faculty members should pay for health care. The contract ran out on Aug. 31. Union members worked without a contract for a week before striking.

The faculty should remain working while negotiations continue, Eastern spokesman Walter Kraft said.

"Our primary focus is getting faculty back in the classroom so that our students can continue their education,” he said in a statement Wednesday evening. “Even a one-day disruption is significant for our students and we are committed to providing them with a full and positive academic experience, particularly as negotiations continued today with the assistance of a state-appointed mediator.

“The unresolved economic and health care issues at the bargaining table that caused the faculty to walk out are best resolved by continued negotiations. Any assertion by the union of unfair labor practices is completely false. There have been no unfair labor practices associated with this negotiation process. The parties are simply having difficulty resolving the primary financial terms of their labor contract."

Early Wednesday, faculty set up their picket line on Cross Street in front of the administration building and right next to a traffic light, where stopped cars had plenty of time to read signs. The constant sound of honking horns in support was the soundtrack to the morning. The picketers were settled in with supplies to keep energy levels up — a giant case of water, a slightly smaller case of Gatorade and multiple boxes of Dom's doughnuts.

With union faculty members out on strike, classes were hit and miss. Administrators told students to show up for class and wait 15 minutes to see whether their instructor showed up.

Hunter Allen, a freshman from Howell, said his schedule was going to be a bit topsy-turvy. Several of his classes were introduction level classes and being taught by graduate assistants or part-time faculty, so he thought those would still meet. But his favorite class, an archaeology course taught by a member of the faculty union, was canceled. That professor had been regularly updating students on the status of talks and strike, Allen said.

Allen brought his breakfast over by the strike line and sat on a rock a short distance away, watching the professors march. He said he was supportive of them.

"It must be pretty serious if they are willing to do this," he said, adding that he hoped it got resolved quickly.

"I'm still paying for those classes."

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Eastern Michigan asks court to force faculty back to class