Education

After nearly a year of contract negotiations, University of Alaska and faculty union remain at odds

Alaska Beacon - UA faculty march contract negotiations

University of Alaska administration and the faculty union have still not come to an agreement for a new contract, after almost a year of negotiations. The parties had three sessions of federal mediation in late June and July. Another is scheduled this week, but there’s a chance the process could be further extended if the Alaska Labor Relations Agency is asked to weigh in.

At the most recent session on July 11, the administration offered slightly larger increases to faculty wages. Its original offer of 3%, 2.5% and 2% increases over three years is now at 3%, 2.75% and 2.5%. The faculty union plans to offer a counter at its next session July 28. Both parties acknowledge they remain far apart on non-monetary issues as well.

Until a new agreement is reached, though, it’s unclear which contract faculty members will be working under when they begin work mid-August. The university administration says one thing and the union, United Academics, says another.

According to the administration, what’s currently in place is a contract that was unilaterally implemented May 16. Administration calls it its “best and final offer.” The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted to implement it May 16 and the Department of Administration approved it.

“Since May 16, we have been and will continue to operate under the implemented terms of the (best and final offer),” Pat Pitney, university president, wrote in an update to the university community July 12. “This will continue until we reach a comprehensive agreement with (United Academics).”

Prior to implementing the contract, the administration claimed the parties had reached an impasse.

“The university implemented the new contract when the parties were at impasse in an effort to secure compensation increases during the legislative session,” said Robbie Graham, associate vice president of public affairs at the University of Alaska, speaking on behalf of the administration.

Despite its last-minute effort, the Legislature did not approve funding the unilaterally implemented contract.

The union continues to disagree that an impasse was ever reached.

Ground rules

According to the faculty union, when the academic year begins in mid-August, faculty will be working under the contract that’s been in place for the past almost six years. That’s because of agreed-upon ground rules, said Tony Rickard. Rickard is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and chief negotiator for United Academics.

“One of the aspects of the ground rules says that the current contract remains in effect until a new agreement is ratified,” he said.

Prior to negotiations starting, both parties signed a set of ground rules in August 2021. One of the rules states that the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement between the University of Alaska and United Academics “shall remain in full force and effect to the extent required by Alaska law.”

Another rule states the rules “remain in full force and effect until a successor agreement is ratified and approved by the parties.”

Rickard said both of the administration’s assertions — that an impasse was reached and that a new contract is currently in place — are invalid.

“The university has illegitimately declared impasse. They have illegitimately decided that their (best and last offer) is the contract in effect. Neither of those things are legally valid,” he said. “It violates Alaska labor statute.”

Division of Personnel and Labor Relations Director Kate Sheehan approved the unilaterally implemented contract for the Department of Administration, which involves “reviewing it for outliers and making sure it’s consistent with the administration’s objective.”

Sheehan said the department is not involved in the negotiation process, but supports the notion that it’s the contract in place. The dispute may be resolved by the state agency that enforces collective-bargaining agreements, the Alaska Labor Relations Agency.

“You have to be an impasse to implement your last best offer. And the university felt that they were there. I understand the union didn’t. And so ultimately, I think the decision is up to (Alaska Labor Relations Agency) ALRA should either party take it to ALRA. I don’t know if they will or not,” Sheehan said.

Alaska Labor Relations Agency

The union plans to continue to negotiate in good faith through the mediation process, Rickard said, but if the administration decides to walk away from that process, the union is considering other routes to an agreement.

One option “is to go to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency with unfair labor practice filings and go before the Alaska Labor Relations board and see if they can help. Maybe they can tell the university to shape up,” Rickard said.

If the union were to pursue that option, the first step is filing a complaint with the agency. A hearing officer would conduct an investigation and issue findings.

If the hearing officer finds that there is no probable cause to believe that an unfair labor practice occurred, then the officer would issue findings saying that and the case would be dismissed. A party has the option to appeal that decision to the board.

If the hearing officer finds there is probable cause to believe that an unfair labor practice occurred, then it would get referred to the board.

“And that’s when it would go to a hearing. So, the board then would conduct the full hearing, like a little mini trial, and the board would make a decision and issue a decision in order that would determine whether an unfair labor practice had occurred and what the remedy is,” said Nicole Thibodeau, Alaska Labor Relations Agency administrator and hearing examiner.

Thibodeau was speaking about the process in general and not specifically about the university’s situation.

Thibodeau said even if a complaint is filed, the parties could continue to work together in the background before it gets to the hearing stage.

“It’s a long-term relationship that they have and so they’re working to resolve the issues on their own because once the board gets the case, then you’re looking at a decision that the board would implement as opposed to one the parties would craft on their own,” Thibodeau said.

Striking

Another option the union could pursue is striking.

“We don’t want to go this route because it would harm our students, as well as being difficult for our members and for the university, but that’s what Alaska labor law says we can do. That’s one of our options,” Rickard said.

Rickard had hoped that federal mediation — which he described as “continuing negotiation but with adult supervision” — would get to an agreement.

“So far, that’s not the case. That doesn’t mean it can’t. We’ll continue working with them through the mediation process. But, you know, traditional negotiation wasn’t successful. The mediation so far has not been successful. Our members deserve for us to be prepared for pursuing all options to get to an agreement, and we will.”

Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.

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