Two lawsuits in two weeks: P-Fac files federal complaints against college



Two lawsuits in two weeks: P-Fac files federal complaints against college

By Campus Editor

P-Fac, Columbia’s part-time faculty union, filed a federal lawsuit against the college Oct. 21—the union’s second filing within a two week period.                  

The union’s latest suit, filed by P-Fac’s attorneys at Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan, Ltd., alleges the college “offered and gave valuable assistance” to Columbia Adjuncts United, an opposition adjunct group that has openly criticized the union. 

Employers offering financial assistance or items of value to an employee or group of employees “for the purpose of causing such employee or group or committee directly or indirectly to influence any other employees in the exercise of the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing” is unlawful, according to Section 302 of the Labor Management Relations Act.

The complaint alleges that  Columbia provided CAU with access to work mailboxes of union members, enabling them to place “promotional materials” inside them; attempted to fill a part-time teaching position through CAU—a position that would normally be brought to P-Fac exclusively; gave CAU access to P-Fac email addresses; provided “valuable” media coverage of CAU in The Chronicle; “unilaterally” recognized this group as P-Fac members despite objection from the union; and assigned them work under the union’s “jurisdiction.” 

Jim Nagle, an adjunct professor in the English Department, member of P-Fac and member of CAU, said not only is the Oct. 21 lawsuit “frivolous,” but his group does not have any involvement with the hiring of part-time positions, and the college did not encourage or facilitate the use of faculty mailboxes and emails.

“We have no relationships or connections at all with Columbia management,” Nagle said. “We haven’t talked to them, they haven’t talked to us.”

Nagle said college emails are all public record, and mailboxes are also used for other promotional material, like advertisements for local restaurants.

According to the complaint, the alleged support CAU received from the college has created influence that could possibly undermine P-Fac’s status as the only recognized adjunct union at the college. 

“This influence included: creating support for a possible political campaign to decertify P-Fac in the future, promoting a slate of candidates in P-Fac officer elections and influencing the political will and agenda of P-Fac and its members, as well as that of other employees,” the lawsuit states.

Nagle said CAU is a caucus within the union, not a separate union. Because of this, he said this is not a labor dispute, and it is untrue the group is trying to represent part-time faculty. 

“CAU does not seek to represent Columbia adjuncts,” Nagle said. “That’s a falsehood. It’s a falsehood P-Fac is circulating in an effort to discredit us. We just disagree with the current leadership of P-Fac, not P-Fac itself.”

According to the allegations, CAU’s points of influence over other employees include a promise to restore relations with IEA-NEA, P-Fac’s former parent union from which it officially disaffiliated in early 2015, as reported Jan. 26 by The Chronicle. The complaint also says CAU influences employees by saying it wants to resist “demoniz[ing] all administrative actions.”

Nagle said the caucus wants to promote healthy relations with the administration and board of trustees, something he said P-Fac holds against the caucus.

“[P-Fac leadership] makes it seem as if somehow we are in collusion with the board of trustees when all we’re saying is, ‘Let’s just get along and stop these frivolous lawsuits and stupid complaints,’” he said.

Because the CAU allegedly brought IEA-NEA members into P-Fac, the filing states Columbia has provided part-time positions for IEA-NEA members and recognized them as P-Fac members. The positions given to those members, according to the complaint, have a value of $10,000. 

Nagle said he does not know how P-Fac attorneys reached this figure, adding anyone can hold an IEA-NEA membership and still be in P-Fac.

As reported Oct. 26 by The Chronicle, P-Fac’s Oct. 9 filing against the college alleges Columbia breached its contractual obligation by ‘abruptly’ refusing to arbitrate with the union grievances brought on behalf of former adjunct professor Mary Seyfarth and current adjunct professor Iymen Chehade. 

According to the current P-Fac bargaining agreement, union members can work through grievances through informal and formal resolutions, in which arbitration is the final step. The issue can only be brought to that stage by the union if all formal steps have been attempted and failed. A similar provision was part of P-Fac’s former contract, which extended from 2002–2012. 

The grievances were filed on behalf of Chehade, who teaches in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, regarding the loss of a class and academic freedom and for former adjunct professor Seyfarth, who was allegedly terminated abruptly, according to the complaint. 

Labor organizations have the right to sue their employer over contractual violations, according to Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act. 

Arbitration is “binding,” according to the bargaining agreement, but the Oct. 9 filing alleges that the college—which had participated in discussions regarding Chehade and Seyfarth throughout 2015—notified P-Fac Sept. 29 that it refused to arbitrate and affirmed that position Oct. 7, allegedly citing the grievances were not timely. 

According to P-Fac’s complaint, the challenge of deciding whether a grievance is timely or not must be determined by an arbitrator.

“[The college] is acting in bad faith and without legal basis in refusing to arbitrate these grievances,” the complaint states.

The filing said the alleged refusal comes after the college violated the National Labor Relations Act with actions such as “unilateral” changes and “refusing to timely respond to information requests.” These alleged violations were cited in the union’s Vote of No Confidence, as reported Oct. 5 by The Chronicle. 

“Refusal to arbitrate is part of a concerted plan to undermine P-Fac as the exclusive representative of part-time faculty at [Columbia],” the filing stated.

According to both suits, P-Fac wants the college to comply with arbitration and permanently cease providing any support to CAU, as well as to “grant any other relief that is warranted by law or equity.” The Oct. 9 suit specifically requests Columbia compensate the union for any legal fees and pay the union  punitive damages. 

Cara Birch, a spokeswoman for the college, declined to comment on the college’s behalf regarding pending litigation.

P-Fac’s attorney Mike Persoon did not respond to several requests for comment on this story, as of press time. Adjunct professor in the Photography Department and P-Fac President Diana Vallera could not be reached for comment, as well as Nancy Traver, adjunct professor in the Communication and Media Innovation Department and P-Fac publicity chair.