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Striking Enstar employees to return to work

Sean Doogan
Striking employees of Enstar Natural Gas Co. picket at Enstar's headquarters on Spenard Road in Midtown Anchorage on Monday, Aug. 11. An attorney for the union says members have voted to return to work without a contract. Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News

Enstar operational employees, about 100 maintenance and plant workers, have voted to end their two-week strike without getting a new contract.

The employees, part of the United Association Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 367, are expected to return to work on Thursday, according to the union's attorney, Chuck Dunnagan. John Sims, Enstar's business development director, said in an email Wednesday evening that the utility has agreed to the arrangement.

"Enstar accepts the unconditional offer from the union for our employees to return to work," Sims wrote. "Enstar expects all operating employees will be returning tomorrow for their normal work shifts." He added that all Enstar offices will be open for walk-in customers on Thursday.

The strike began Aug. 11 after months of failed contract negotiations between Enstar and its Local 367 employees. According to union officials, the main sticking point was Enstar's requirement that all future employees receive a 401(k)-style, contribution retirement as opposed to the current defined benefits (pension) plan.

The strike has seen at least a half dozen unfair labor practice claims filed by the union, as well as claims that Enstar has mishandled emergency repairs to several Southcentral natural gas leaks. Enstar has said that all gas leak repairs have been done safely and within its operating regulations, and Sims would not comment on the contract negotiations or strike.

If employees return to work Thursday, they will be held to the terms of their original contract, which expired earlier this year, as current contract talks continue.

"When we make an offer to return to work without conditions, the employer is required to accept it," Dunnagan said. "Failure to do so could subject the employer to claims from back pay and so on."

Dunnagan said that the employees voted to end the strike even without a new contract because they thought Enstar was refusing to budge in contract negotiations.

Even if union employees return to work, Dunnagan said, the fight for a new contract is far from over, and the union will try a different avenue to get Enstar back to the negotiating table. Dunnagan said the union plans to testify before the Regulatory Commission of Alaska at Enstar's next rate hearing.

"Enstar's owners brag about all of the money that they are pulling out of Alaska," Dunnagan said. "We had not wanted to make that our business, we wanted to be employees, but with the way Enstar has treated the employees, we don’t have much choice. We think it will be constructive to peel back the rate system and see if all of the money that Enstar is pulling out of Alaska is, in fact, legitimate."

Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.

This story has been updated to add comment from Enstar.