DES MOINES — The Iowa Board of Regents must negotiate through a union representing professors at the University of Northern Iowa if it wants to offer buyouts as part of a cost-cutting plan, a district court judge has ruled.
The case involves controversial decisions made in March 2012 when the regents were cutting costs and UNI was forced to close the Malcolm Price Laboratory School, cancel academic programs and terminate professors. Some professors had to choose a buyout or phased retirement plan. They were confronted with that choice in a meeting that bypassed United Faculty, the labor union that represents professors.
To cut the work force at UNI the regents created a plan designed to offer buyouts called the Early Separation Incentive Program. The union complained that such a plan should be negotiated with the union and filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board, an executive branch state agency that oversees collective bargaining in Iowa.
The board ruled last May that the early separation plan should be subject to union negotiation. The regents appealed the case in Polk County District Court.
Judge Scott Rosenberg in a Sept. 29 order agreed with the PERB board that the buyouts should be negotiated.
The president of the union said he would rather have worked out the differences with the regents instead of in the courts.
“The way this was handled caused several dedicated professors to feel compelled to give up their jobs and leave UNI,” United Faculty President Joe Gorton said in a statement. “We never want this situation to repeat itself.”
Gorton said four professors lost their jobs. Another four were offered a phased retirement, but after the union challenged those cases and they were about to enter arbitration, the regents agreed in May to hire them back.
The court ruling could have broader implications on school districts and other government agencies with union represented employees, said United Faculty’s attorney Nate Willems.
“If this decision stands, in the future an Iowa public employer will have to sit down and bargain with the union about offering inducements to individuals to quit their jobs,” he said. “An employer will not be able to bypass the union and cherry-pick individuals it would like to see leave employment.”
The attorney for the regents, George Carroll, an assistant state attorney general, did not immediately respond to a message.
The regents could appeal Rosenberg’s decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.