The entrance of the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau as seen on May 25, 2022. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)
University of Alaska faculty union members will not get a raise in July. That’s despite the Board of Regents last week voting to unilaterally implement a three-year contract for the faculty with salary increases lower than recent inflation. University administration said the “unprecedented action” to implement a contract the faculty union didn’t agree with was an attempt to get it in the state budget before the Legislature adjourned. It didn’t work. By the time the Legislature received the university’s request, it was too late in the budget process to include it.
“The next opportunity is when the Legislature comes back in session in January, but they won’t pass an appropriation bill likely until this time next year,” university President Pat Pitney said during a phone interview Friday, May 20.
The faculty union maintains that the two sides could reach an agreement outside the legislative session, and that a strike is a possibility to contest the university implementing the contract.
United Academics – the faculty union – and the university administration first began negotiating a collective bargaining agreement in late August 2021. In April, the administration offered what it called its “best and final offer.” The two parties started federal mediation earlier this month and had a third session scheduled May 18.
The Board of Regents took the unprecedented action on May 16 to unilaterally implement a contract with raises of 3%, 2.5% and 2% over three years. The board did so largely due to timing; Pitney also claimed an impasse had been established in negotiations.
“Impasse exists when neither party is making significant concessions on major issues. We had been nine months in negotiations and mediations and so on [May 13], it was clear we were at impasse,” Pitney said.
Chief negotiator for the faculty union Tony Rickard said it’s strange for the university to declare impasse when the two sides were still talking. He says the administration is sending mixed messages. Rickard is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Both parties did show up and we worked through the federal mediator, so there was a mediation,” Rickard said of the scheduled mediation session on May 18. “United Academics does not believe we are at impasse with the University of Alaska, because mediation has not concluded.”
Describing the same mediation session, Pitney said, “The mediator had access to our negotiating team, and did contact our negotiating team.”
“We continue to make ourselves available for meaningful proposals, but there’s no obligation to negotiate at impasse,” Pitney said. “We do want to find a workable solution. It’s in all of our best interests.”
How impasse is established
According to Pitney, both sides don’t have to agree on whether there is an impasse.
But experts in labor law say there’s more to it.
“To be at a valid impasse the parties must either agree that they are at impasse or the Alaska Labor Relations Agency must make a determination that they are,” wrote Nicole Thibodeau, Alaska Labor Relations Agency Administrator/Hearing Examiner, in an email Tuesday. Thibodeau said a case between the university and United Academics has not come before the state agency.
Labor expert Arthur Wheaton also said the decision for impasse “is typically from both sides.” Wheaton is director of labor studies at Cornell University’s school focused on labor relations. He’s taught people in both union and management for 20 years.
“If you’re saying, ‘We’re not getting anywhere, nothing’s happening, we’re stuck, but we’re still willing to talk to you,’ well, then you’re still willing to negotiate, which by definition means you’re not at impasse,” Wheaton said. “Trying to declare impasse and trying to impose their last, best and final offer when you’re still in mediation – I don’t think they’ve been behaving in what we would call good faith bargaining.”
The situation that the university and United Academics find themselves in is happening more frequently across the country, Wheaton said, for two reasons. “One is you’re having this inflation rate at 40-year highs; everybody’s expecting to get a big raise. And people are feeling more willing to threaten or risk their employment or to voice their displeasure, because the unemployment rate is also at 40- or 50-year lows so you’re feeling like you could get another job someplace if you had to.”
Financial stability at the university
Pitney repeatedly said her priority is bringing financial stability to the university. The proposal from the faculty union doesn’t “fit within the financial stability that we’re seeking,” Pitney said.
The faculty union has proposed faculty increases of 5%, between 3% and 7%, and between 3% and 6% over the next three years, with the latter two years’ increases determined by the Consumer Price Index. The union said members have received a 1% raise in the past six years and wants the university to provide real cost of living adjustments that match inflation.
“If there are ways that the union can come in with stuff that gets us within spitting range, we’re going to evaluate it for sure.” Pitney said. As far as next steps, nothing concrete is planned.
Rickard said the faculty union has always been willing to compromise, and wants to continue with mediation and reach an agreement, “That is the off ramp here. And that’s what we want to do. We want to reach an agreement.”
“If the university sticks with this idea that they’re going to implement the ‘last best offer’ having improperly declared impasse, having improperly said that mediation has failed to reach an agreement when we don’t know that yet, because we believe mediation is ongoing – if they do these things, they’re going down a very, very unpleasant road for both the university and United Academics,” Rickard said. The union is exploring multiple options and scenarios, including striking.
“The union members could strike, but all I can do is the best I can do to bring financial stability for the first time in eight years, and every day I’m trying to take steps to do that,” Pitney said.
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