University of Alaska and faculty clash over labor negotiations

The University of Alaska system’s board of trustees has approved salary increases for faculty — but the faculty union says the move is premature, coming amid ongoing negotiations and federal meditation.

System leaders, however, argue that approving the increases last week was necessary, a decision now or never, given the tight deadline to submit the salary increases in a budget proposal to lawmakers in Alaska, the legislative session of the state ending last Wednesday. The university’s management says negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement were at an impasse, even as it continued to engage in a federal meditation process to resolve outstanding issues.

Now United Academics, the teachers’ union, says a stalemate was wrongly declared.

What happens next remains to be seen, as the university aims to advance a salary increase submitted just in time to be approved in Alaska’s fiscal year 2023 budget before the end of legislative sessions. The approved wage increases are well below what the union was asking for.

The breakdown

Although the university’s argument suggests that time ran out for negotiations, union representatives note that the process had been underway since late last summer. They accuse the university of sitting on the union’s initial proposals and dragging out negotiations.

The University of Alaska made its “best and final offer” to union negotiators in late April. Unable to reach agreement on a handful of issues, namely compensation and issues related to tenure and academic freedom, the union and the university mutually agreed to enter into meditation.

Sessions were scheduled throughout the month of May. But on May 16, two days before the next session with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the university declared a stalemate.

“In a unanimous vote this morning, the Board of Regents took unprecedented action to allow me to implement the administration’s ‘best and final offer’ to United Academics [UNAC]. The action follows deadlocked negotiations and an unsuccessful effort to reach an agreement through federal mediation, leading to an impasse,” AU Chairman Pat Pitney wrote in a statement. message to the university community. “With stalled negotiations, and with the legislative session ending quickly, there was no other way to get monetary terms before the legislature before the end of the session without this action. A university cannot grant raises in pay and benefits to a union member without the legislature including the monetary terms of the collective agreement in the budget, as required by law.

Despite declaring a stalemate, UA showed up for federal meditation two days later.

“We view this unilateral declaration of impasse as inappropriate,” said Tony Rickard, chief negotiator for United Academics and professor of mathematics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Because an impasse can only be declared when the mediation does not result in an agreement and the mediation is not over. They had mutually agreed to meet with us for another session which had not taken place.

Despite last-minute action by the AU, negotiations have been ongoing since August. A university spokesperson said by email that a stalemate had been declared as talks had broken down.

“Mediation only continues if the parties deem it useful. The mediation confirmed that a huge gap remained between UNAC’s proposals and the university’s final best offer,” a university spokesperson wrote to Inside Higher Ed. parties made meaningful concessions on important issues. This is the legal definition of work impasse.

Rickard stops short of accusing the university of running out of time for negotiations, but he said there were union proposals that took UA months to respond to. Ultimately, he believes the lack of time was avoidable and was the result of protracted negotiations by the administrators.

The University of Alaska is arguing that the union is responsible for the slow negotiations, with a spokesperson saying by email that UNAC “has submitted proposals containing hundreds of changes to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that worked well for both parties for more than 20 years Reviewing and responding to these proposals slowed down negotiations.

Considering the parties deadlocked, UA made its “best and final offer” on April 25. When that was refused by the union, mediation began which ‘did not result in meaningful movement on important issues’, leading the university to declare a stalemate, a doorman said. -word. .

Salary increases approved by the Board of Regent and later by the Alaska Legislature include salary increases of 3% for 2023, 2.5% for 2024 and 2% for 2025. and 3 percent wage increases for 2024 and 2025 plus additional cost-of-living and base salary increases.

‘Estimated total impact over 3 years, including staff benefits’ was $15 million under university’s proposal, documents show, compared to $79 million to fund union’s plan .

The University of Alaska notes that the offer “includes a number of terms and conditions that UNAC has requested of its members. It also contained the first significant increases as well as an increase in the pension base for the first time in many years. Unlike many contract implementations in labor disputes, it contains no backtracking on faculty terms of employment.

The university has also argued that the wage increases proposed by the union are unsustainable.

But Rickard argues that the raises are long overdue, that union members have only received one pay rise in the past six years, which was only a 1% raise, at that . This proposal will help keep Alaska competitive and faculty members secure in the face of soaring inflation.

Rickard said he hopes to continue negotiating with the university. He considers the current action not only inadequate, but inappropriate and even in violation of Alaska labor law. Although he did not threaten legal action, he notes that the union has been in contact with legal counsel about the matter.

“What the Board of Regents did inappropriately was they voted to authorize the chairman of the AU to proceed with the implementation of the latest best offer. In other words, they allowed to go ahead saying ‘that’s the deal.’ And they are doing it, in our view, in violation of Alaska labor laws, because it only happens once the mediation didn’t result in the contract,” Rickard said. “And it didn’t happen. Mediation is ongoing. It’s not done.

And after?

Legal experts suggest that it is not uncommon for collective agreements to end in meditation. Once the process has begun, meditators work with both parties to break the impasse.

“When the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service steps in, its role is to work with the parties and see if they can’t help negotiate an agreement between the two parties,” said Michael Bertoncini, director of the cabinet of attorneys Jackson Lewis, who works on labor relations issues. “They often get involved quite late in the game with the games when it’s a bit of an impasse. And they try to break that block, often, through shuttle diplomacy, sometimes making their own proposals and taking them to the parties to see if that will move the process forward.

The length of the process depends on the grievances and the distance between the parties on the issues, he adds. Each situation is variable, some are quickly resolved, others tend to drag on.

Meditation brings outside perspectives, but not dictated solutions, said William A. Herbert, distinguished lecturer and executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, City University of New York.

“The mediator is not there to impose any agreement. Sometimes mediators can make suggestions on ways to approach things for the parties to consider, and sometimes they will go even further by getting involved by making formal proposals to the parties,” explained Herbert. “But usually the reason mediators are primarily there is to work with the parties to try to bridge the gaps between their views on the issues that have not been resolved.”

Bertoncini notes that it’s unusual for a university to declare an impasse while it’s still engaged in active contract negotiations, but he suggests that doesn’t mean those talks are doomed.

“It is unusual in the sense that declaring an impasse suggests that the party no longer has room to manoeuvre, while participating in mediation implies a willingness to change its position in order to reach an agreement,” he said. he declares. “However, the university may be signaling that there is no more wiggle room on salaries in the first year of the contract, but there is a willingness to move to other terms and conditions of the proposal in order to reach an agreement on a one-year multi-contract.”

Herbert described the decision to declare a stalemate while negotiating as contradictory.

“An impasse means that a party has a good faith belief that future negotiations will not result in agreement in principle on all outstanding issues,” Herbert said. “Agreeing to continue negotiations through mediation to reach an agreement in principle contradicts the assertion that there is an impasse in the negotiations.”

As for Rickard, he just wants to get back to the negotiating table.

“We hope next week to work with the University of Alaska team mediator to reach a membership agreement. If they try to move forward with the implementation of their latest best offer, we are considering and planning other scenarios and other options, but they are all very unpleasant for both parties,” Rickard said. “As we analyze other scenarios and how we would react, our intention is to continue to work with the University of Alaska through the mediation process to reach a new contract.”

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