The University of Alaska system’s board of trustees has approved salary increases for faculty, but the faculty union says the move is premature, amid ongoing negotiations and federal mediation.
System leaders argue that approving the increases last week was a decision needed now or never. They say negotiations for a collective agreement were at an impasse – even as they continued to engage in a federal mediation process to resolve outstanding issues – and rushed to submit a request for pay raise before Alaska lawmakers wrap up their legislative session last Wednesday.
Despite the system’s last-minute push, the Alaska legislature did not act on the request in time, meaning members of the University of Alaska faculty union, United Academics, will not will see no immediate salary increase. The request will likely remain pending until lawmakers meet again in January.
Among other things, United Academics argues that the administration wrongly declared an impasse over contract negotiations.
Although university administrators say time has run out for negotiations, union representatives note that the process had been underway since late last summer. They accuse university officials of sitting on the union’s initial proposals and dragging out negotiations.
University negotiators made a “best and final offer” to union negotiators in late April. Unable to reach agreement on a handful of issues, including pay and issues related to tenure and academic freedom, the union and the university mutually agreed to enter into mediation.
Sessions were scheduled throughout the month of May. But on May 16, two days before a session with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the university declared an impasse.
“In a unanimous vote this morning, the Board of Regents took unprecedented action to authorize me to implement the administration’s ‘best and final offer’ to United Academics (UNAC). The action does following deadlocked negotiations and an unsuccessful effort to reach an agreement through federal mediation, resulting in an impasse,” AU Chairman Pat Pitney wrote in a message to the community. “With negotiations deadlocked, 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. The university cannot award pay and benefit increases to a union member without the legislature including the monetary terms of the collective bargaining agreement in the budget, as required by law.
But even after declaring a stalemate, UA showed up at the federal mediation session 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.
A university spokesperson said by email that the administration had declared an impasse because the talks had failed.
“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 Education. “Most importantly, neither side was making 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 the union made proposals along the way that took months for the AU to respond to. Ultimately, he believes the lack of time was avoidable and was the result of protracted negotiations by the administrators.
University officials say the union is responsible for the slow pace of negotiations. The spokesperson said by email that UNAC “has submitted proposals containing hundreds of amendments to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that has worked well for both parties, for over 20 years. Consideration and response to these proposals slowed down negotiations.
Considering the parties deadlocked, UA made what it called its best and final offer on April 25. When the union declined that offer, mediation began, which “did not result in meaningful movement on significant issues,” leading the university to declare deadlock, the spokesperson said.
Wage increases approved by the Board of Regents include wage increases of 3% for 2023, 2.5% for 2024 and 2% for 2025. In contrast, academic documents show the union has asked for a wage increase of 5% for 2023 and 3% for 2023. increases for 2024 and 2025, plus additional cost of living and base salary increases.
Documents show the total estimated cost of the wage increases would be $15 million under the university’s proposal, compared to $79 million under the union’s plan.
University administrators note that the offer “includes a number of terms and conditions that UNAC has requested of its members. It also contains 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.
University officials also said the union’s proposed wage increases would be unsustainable.
But Rickard argues the increases are long overdue. Union members have only received one pay rise in the past six years – and it was just 1%, he said. The union’s proposal will help keep Alaska competitive and faculty members safe from soaring inflation, he noted.
Rickard said he hopes to continue negotiating with the university. He considers the current action not only inadequate but also inappropriate and even in violation of Alaska labor law, noting that the union has been in contact with legal counsel.
“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 contract. And they’re 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.
Legal experts suggest that it is not uncommon for collective agreements to end in mediation. Once the process begins, mediators work with both parties to break the impasse.
“When the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service intervenes, its role is to work with the parties and see if it cannot help broker 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 out of this impasse, often by shuttle diplomacy, sometimes by making their own proposals and submitting them to the parties to see if that will move the process forward.
Bertoncini noted that it’s unusual for a university to declare an impasse while it’s still engaged in active contract negotiations, but 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 multi-year contract.”
William A. Herbert, a distinguished lecturer and executive director of the Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College at the City University of New York, described the decision to declare an impasse 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.”